Every day here in Paris, I miss my Wienerwald (Vienna woods). The Wienerwald are just 20 minutes away from the very centre of Vienna by bike and cover steep hills (not quite mountains).
In Paris there is absolutely no place to hide away from the traffic and the crowds. Almost every day I have been going out for a walk in the Jardin du Luxembourg which is a fabulously beautiful site but is both too structured and too busy to provide any real repose. It is a wonderful place to gather the day’s sunshine as if there is any sun, the sunlight gets to the ground at all times of the day somewhere in the Jardin.
The far less well-known Jardin des Plantes is much less visited as it has no tennis or children’s playground and is not on the same kind of major transportation axis as Boulevard St Michel and the RER.
On the other hand there are whole sections of the garden which are preserved in a natural state. Indeed about ten years ago they started to fence off the woods so that the natural vegetation would stand a chance of returning to the soil (under the amount of traffic that even the Jardin des Plantes gets in the summer, apparently nothing was growing on the ground and the trees were ailing). In the north-east corner of the Jardin, there is a delightful labyrinth which is in fact a winding circular upward path ending in a gazebo. From the gazebo one can see much of the surrounding Paris and sit and enjoy a winter chat.
There is some delightful solitude and tranquility there now, but that probably passes quickly in spring and is absent summer. Perhaps even more wonderful is at the bottom of the labyrinth, there is a real copse of woods. Enough so that one can see almost only trees on all sides. One can even hear the sound of the wind through the trees. For a moment Paris becomes alive.
A lot easier than a trip to Fontainbleu or Chantilly which are both an hour away from the centre of Paris.
Not to be missed while in the Jardin des Plantes is the Grande Galerie de L’Évolution au Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. The Grand Gallery of Evolution is part of a 19th century zoological exhibit hall with a glass ceiling, very similar architecturally to the Gare d’Orsay now the renown and magnificent Musée d’Orsay.
Inside, instead of finding expressionist paintings and sculpture, one finds five floors of beautifully created diaoramas and life-size preserved animals. All kinds of taxonomy and evolution and habitats and diverse natural trivia come to life in each of these exquisite displays. Most of the text is in French so sadly much of the information will be lost to the non-French speaker.
But for those who can read French, it is like a natural history textbook come to life in three dimensions. Larger than life. Stand next to the rhinocerous of Louis XIV. Walk beside a narwhal. See Polar Bears close up. Go back 500 centuries and 6 centuries in the life of Paris and see the natural environment of the time.
A living expression of why the internet can and should not be the end all of human knowledge. It would take weeks to gather and experience the knowledge concentrated in a few hours visit to this remarkable museum. The Grande Galerie de L’Évolution au Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle is the perfect expression of the French genius for explication and presentation.