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Parks and gardens: Parisian strolls of the Second Empire

 


 

"Of all the urban improvements made in Paris during the Second Empire, none deserves greater praise, more genuine admiration, than the work of the Promenades and Plantations Office in Paris... From the quarry it was at the time, Paris was turned into a bouquet of flowers." This assessment by César Daly, which appeared in the 1863 Revue de l'Architecture bears witness, despite its slight exaggeration, to the warm welcome reserved for the parks and gardens created upon the Emperor's request. Though the destruction of "old Paris" and the work that turned the city into one huge construction site prompted indignation and protest at first, the quick completion of several projects silenced the most hostile opponents. Within only a few months, for example, Parisians developed a true passion for the Bois de Boulogne. Visitors flocked to savour ice cream at the Chalet des Iles, to go rowing and explore flora and fauna along the banks, and to admire the small-scale model of an ocean-going boat, La Ville de Nantes, presented just a short while earlier at the 1855 World Fair and anchored from then on in the middle of the Lac Supérieur.

Walks which had once been a Sunday affair soon extended to the whole week. People came to see and be seen at the Bois, especially since this trend had been set in motion by the imperial couple. Visitors could often catch a glimpse of the Empress on horseback, surrounded by her lady companions as she galloped at full speed down the wide alleys of the Bois. On other days the Emperor would be seen driving his own phaeton, racing through the woods accompanied by two attendants seated behind him. The Bois de Boulogne quickly won acclaim and became the privileged setting for high society's afternoon strolls, theatre or opera, and fashionable dining into the evening. The Goncourts, always so "pleasant" with regards to their contemporaries, cynically summed up this new-found delight: "Just think! We could be rid of a great deal of chic foolishness and elegant stupidity were a bomb to kill, one fine day, all those Parisians having their four to six o'clock stroll around the lake in the Bois de Boulogne." Fascinated by the affluent visitors, Paris' lower classes soon made their way to the Bois to spy on the Sunday parade. Members of "polite society" gradually grew uneasy about keeping such "lowly company" and ceased their Sunday pilgrimages to the alleys of the Bois, reserving such walks for other days of the week.
 
One of the elite's most prized pastimes was ice skating. Napoleon III, who learned to skate as a child in Augsburg and Arenenberg, had Alphand design a shallow lake near the Jardin d'Acclimatation for this purpose. The Empress was also at ease on the ice and the imperial
couple often held sumptuous gatherings on the small frozen lake. A trend was born! During the winter Parisians tried the new sport and while the sight, still rare, of a graceful ice skater won bystanders' admiration, the rest of the crowd kept to their sleds and sleighs.
 
The Pré Catelan and the Jardin d'Acclimatation were noteworthy attractions in their own right in the Bois de Boulogne. By paying one entrance fee, the elegant visitor could wander among an Italian marionette theatre or a magic show, a reading room or a dairy, a concert hall, an open-air theatre and a photographer's studio. Once the novelty wore off, the Pré Catelan attracted fewer and fewer people and finally closed its doors in 1861. On the other hand, the Jardin d'Acclimatation with its zoological gardens was so successful that is still there today. A passion for horse-racing, nurtured mostly by the Duke of Morny, ultimately found its home at the Hippodrome de Longchamp racecourse, where all of Paris flocked to be part of the electric ambience of the Grand Prix, so memorably described by Zola in his novel Nana.
 
These forms of entertainment all catered to the wealthy. In northern and eastern Paris people began visiting parks and gardens more and more. Entire families took the train or the slower omnibus to spend the day in the Bois de Vincennes, eating lunch on the grass and taking Sunday boat rides on the lake. The great woods were deserted the rest of the week since the stylish crowds snubbed Vincennes for western Paris and the Bois de Boulogne. The Buttes-Chaumont faced the same dilemma: the working class could only go on their day off and what's more, despite the grandiose landscape, the park was located in a neighborhood far too disreputable for more bourgeois visitors. The squares and large gardens in the centre of Paris hosted a more mixed crowd. Groups of merchants and students, and the lower and middle class quickly grew fond of the squares built for them and came simply to relax, listen to concerts or let their children play. On the whole, not much has changed since then. 


 

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