The sad story is well known: Marie de' Médici, after the assassination of her husband, Henri IV, felt lonely in the Louvre. She ordered her childhood home, Florence's Palazzo Pitti, recreated on land she had acquired from the Duke of Luxembourg. She hardly got to enjoy her splendid new digs when her son, the new king, banished her forever in 1630 to Cologne, where she died. Her palace is the present-day home of the French Senate, and the garden around it is the most beloved park in Paris.
To live close to the jardin is a dream few Parisians can afford. The 60-acre green oasis—the lungs of the capital—offers a daily breath of fresh air to fortunate near-by residents. If you count yourself among them, even for a short time, take a leisurely stroll and some deep breaths in these sumptuous gardens and you will understand the fuss.
The obvious grown-up pleasures are myriad: formal gravel paths, manicured lawns, allées of box-shaped trees, potted orange and palm trees, profusions of seasonal flowers cared for by 80 conscientious gardeners, noteworthy statues (about 80 of those, too, including a pint-sized Statue of Liberty), tennis courts, ping-pong tables, jogging paths, chess and card tables, boules courts, a bandstand, and an open-air café. Move a green metal chair just where you'd have it for a rest, a picnic, or a snooze in the sun.
The hidden treasures are icing on an already extravagant cake. An observant visitor will spot busy hives and a gazebo behind the rustic enclosure of the bee-keeping school. Stroll through the 190-year-old hand-tended orchard—le Verger du Luxembourg—where 1000 espaliered apple and pear trees, of 600 varieties, produce exquisite fruit for the senators who are the present-day beneficiaries. Elsewhere, the Fontaine de Médicis—goldfish grotto and seductive sculpture aside—is Paris's best spot for reading in the shade. You can also visit poor Marie's Palais du Luxembourg and the worthwhile temporary exhibits at the Musée du Luxembourg. And something new: stunning photography exhibitions presented by the Senate are, from time to time, displayed along the outside of the garden's gates. So, even when the park is closed, after dusk, you can stroll by and still reap rewards.
But this park really belongs to children. Here are pony rides, sandboxes, kiosks selling toys and sweets, a huge enclosed playground, a carousel, and bright wooden rental sailboats to nudge—with long poles—onto the octagonal pond, the splendid centerpiece of the garden. And the puppet shows! On Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, little ones—and some big ones, too—laugh and shout at the antics of Les Guignols, the well known Punch and Judy characters on the stage at the Théatre des Marionnettes. Little girls will also fall in love with the antique dolls in La Maison de Poupée, across from the garden on rue de Vaugirard. Just next door, you can give hungry kids lunch at Kiwi Corner, an unexpected and inexpensive Australian spot for "pies."
The Jardin du Luxembourg is the central feature of an elegant neighborhood brimming with interest quite apart from the garden itself. Two small and often overlooked museums are close-by. Musée Zadkine, one of the prettiest in Paris, displays—in his former studio and garden—the work of the 20th-century sculptor, Ossip Zadkine. If your kids carry on about modern doctor's instruments, take them to the Musée d'Histoire de la Médicine. Arrayed in a handsome, iron-galleried room is a rare and horrific collection of surgical instruments throughout the centuries. Included are a life-like 1799 anatomical mannequin and the kit of Dr. Gachet, Vincent Van Gogh's doctor and friend.
One of Paris's largest churches, Saint-Sulpice (don't miss the Delacroix Frescoes—first chapel to the right—or the enormous shell stoups just inside the entrance) stands guard over one of her classiest squares. Pink-flowering chestnut trees surround the impressive Fountain of the Four Bishops at its center. Designer shops including Lacroix, Yves Saint Laurent, Agnès B, and Annick Goutal for perfume, line the square, requiring a good deal of self-control to avoid a serious spending spree. Steady your resolution with a drink alongside the upscale Parisians who pack the tables at the outdoor Café de la Mairie. Or think about it over a cup of perfumed Chinese tea at the elegant La Maison de la Chine, a travel agency like no other, selling both trips to Beijing and two floors worth of silky temptations for the whole family.
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