Guide Tour of Bois de Boulogne, Paris, France

The Bois de Boulogne is a wooded area, located in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. A former hunting ground for the Kings of France, the Bois de Boulogne has become the largest spot for relaxation in the west of Paris. Covering an area of 846 hectares in the west of the city, the Bois de Boulogne can be considered as one of the two “green lungs” of the French capital with the Bois de Vincennes to the east.

With a surface area of 850 hectares, Bois de Boulogne encompasses the Parc de Bagatelle, the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil, the Pré-Catelan and the Jardin d’Acclimatation. It offers numerous walkways, 28 km of bridleways and 15 km of touristic cycle routes. There are numerous facilities, which have been designed to suit everyone, such as playgrounds for children, the Musée en Herbe, picnic areas, bicycle hire and boat hire on the Lac Inférieur, the Auteuil and Longchamp racecourses, restaurants and the Théâtre de Verdure.

The Bois de Boulogne was originally the Rouvray forest, a vast woodland hundreds of years old, which was used as royal hunting grounds. During the thirteenth century, Isabelle de France founded an abbey in this greenspace. During the Hundred Years’ War many outlaws took refuge in the Rouvray forest until it was intentionally burnt to the ground in 1417. In mid-15th century, Louis XI replanted the forest, enclosing the area and giving it several entrances. This Park is credited to Napoleon III who was the reigning Emperor, in 1852 Napoleon III designed the park with large lawn areas, trees and plants.

Within the Park are an English landscape garden and several lakes graced with a waterfall. There are several other attractions like a zoo, an amusement park, a botanical garden, a tennis stadium just to name a few. The cedar-dominated park includes other varied vegetation with two big lakes, linked to each other by a waterfall.

The central part of the forest hosts the Bagatelle park, as well as the Pré-Catelan garden. Its northern part is occupied by the Jardin d’acclimatation, an amusement park once famous for its menagerie and today for housing the Louis-Vuitton Foundation. To the southeast is the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil and the Hippodrome d’Auteuil. To the south-west, between the Longchamp racecourse and the Parc de Bagatelle, are the Longchamp golf course and the Longchamp castle and estate, which since 2015 have housed the GoodPlanet foundation.

The Bois de Boulogne is a remnant of the ancient oak forest of Rouvray, which included the present-day forests of Montmorency, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Chaville, and Meudon. Dagobert I hunted bears, deer, and other game in the forest. His grandson, Childeric II, gave the forest to the monks of the Abbey of Saint-Denis, who founded several monastic communities there. Philip Augustus (1180–1223) bought back the main part of the forest from the monks to create a royal hunting reserve. In 1256, Isabelle de France, sister of Saint-Louis, founded the Abbey of Longchamp at the site of the present hippodrome.

The Bois received its present name from a chapel, Notre Dame de Boulogne la Petite, which was built in the forest at the command of Philip IV of France (1268–1314). In 1308, Philip made a pilgrimage to Boulogne-sur-Mer, on the French coast, to see a statue of the Virgin Mary which was reputed to inspire miracles. He decided to build a church with a copy of the statue in a village in the forest not far from Paris, in order to attract pilgrims. The chapel was built after Philip’s death between 1319 and 1330, in what is now Boulogne-Billancourt.

During the Hundred Years’ War, the forest became a sanctuary for robbers and sometimes a battleground. In 1358, Bertrand Duguesclin returning from Brittany was robbed there by ambushed Englishmen. In 1416–17, the soldiers of John the Fearless, the Duke of Burgundy, burned part of the forest in their successful campaign to capture Paris. Under Louis XI, the trees were replanted, and two roads were opened through the forest.

In 1526, King Francis I of France began a royal residence, the Château de Madrid, in the forest in what is now Neuilly and used it for hunting and festivities. It took its name from a similar palace in Madrid, where Francis had been held prisoner for several months. The Chateau was rarely used by later monarchs, fell into ruins in the 18th century, and was demolished after the French Revolution.

During the reigns of Henry II and Henry III, the forest was enclosed within a wall with eight gates. Henry IV planted 15,000 mulberry trees, with the hope of beginning a local silk industry. When Henry annulled his marriage to Marguerite de Valois, she went to live in the Château de la Muette, on the edge of the forest.

In the early 18th century, wealthy and important women often retired to the convent of the Abbey of Longchamp, located where the hippodrome now stands. A famous opera singer of the period, Madmoiselle Le Maure, retired there in 1727 but continued to give recitals inside the Abbey, even during Holy Week. These concerts drew large crowds and irritated the Archbishop of Paris, who closed the Abbey to the public.

Louis XVI and his family used the forest as a hunting ground and pleasure garden. In 1777, the Comte d’Artois, Louis XVI’s brother, built a charming miniature palace, the Château de Bagatelle, in the Bois in just 64 days, on a wager from his sister-in-law, Marie Antoinette. Louis XVI also opened the walled park to the public for the first time.

On 21 November 1783, Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes took off from the Chateau de la Muette in a hot air balloon made by the Montgolfier brothers. Previous flights had carried animals or had been tethered to the ground; this was the first manned free flight in history. The balloon rose to a height of 910 meters (3000 feet), was in the air for 25 minutes, and covered nine kilometers.

Following the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1814, 40,000 soldiers of the British and Russian armies camped in the forest. Thousands of trees were cut down to build shelters and for firewood. From 1815 until the French Second Republic, the Bois was largely empty, an assortment of bleak ruined meadows and tree stumps where the British and Russians had camped and dismal stagnant ponds.

Developments under Napoleon III
When Napoleon III became Emperor, Paris had only four public parks – the Tuileries Gardens, the Luxembourg Garden, the Palais-Royal, and the Jardin des Plantes – all in the center of the city. There were no public parks in the rapidly growing east and west of the city. During his exile in London, he had been particularly impressed by Hyde Park, by its lakes and streams and its popularity with Londoners of all social classes. Therefore, he decided to build two large public parks on the eastern and western edges of the city where both the rich and ordinary people could enjoy themselves.

In 1852, ownership of the Bois de Boulogne was ceded by Napoleon III to the city of Paris, which was then responsible for developing the green space in four years. Work began the following year. Initially, it was the architect Jacques Hittorff associated with the landscaper Louis-Sulpice Varé, who took charge of the work (creation of gardens, paths and artificial water bodies).

Napoleon III was personally involved in planning the new parks. He insisted that the Bois de Boulogne should have a stream and lakes. The first plan for the Bois de Boulogne was drawn up by the architect Jacques Hittorff, who, under King Louis Philippe, had designed the Place de la Concorde, and the landscape architect Louis-Sulpice Varé, who had designed French landscape gardens at several famous châteaux. Their plan called for long straight alleys in patterns crisscrossing the park, and, as the Emperor had asked, lakes and a long stream similar to the Serpentine in Hyde Park.

Varé bungled the assignment. He failed to take into account the difference in elevation between the beginning of the stream and the end; if his plan had been followed, the upper part of the stream would have been empty, and the lower portion flooded. When Haussmann saw the partially finished stream, he saw the problem immediately and had the elevations measured. He dismissed the unfortunate Varé and Hittorff, and designed the solution himself; an upper lake and a lower lake, divided by an elevated road, which serves as a dam, and a cascade which allows the water to flow between the lakes. This is the design still seen today.

In 1853, Haussmann hired an experienced engineer from the corps of Bridges and Highways, in charge of all the parks in Paris. Alphand was charged to make a new plan for the Bois de Boulogne. Alphand’s plan was radically different from the Hittorff-Varé plan. While it still had two long straight boulevards, the Allée Reine Marguerite and the Avenue Longchamp, all the other paths and alleys curved and meandered.

The flat Bois de Boulogne was to be turned into an undulating landscape of lakes, hills, islands, groves, lawns, and grassy slopes, not a reproduction of but an idealization of nature. It became the prototype for the other city parks of Paris and then for city parks around the world.

The soils and reliefs are remodeled, 200,000 trees are planted there following the layout and the advice for the plantations of Barillet-Deschamps. Only two straight alleys (those of Longchamp and Reine-Marguerite) were kept by the new team, which transformed the Varé river into two lakes, with water retention in Lake Superior, the overflow flowing into the Lower Lake via the Petite Cascade. A bridge connects the two islands.

A thoroughfare, separating the lakes and serving as a dyke, was also created on this occasion. Adolphe Alphand composes an English landscape with winding paths, ponds, small artificial rivers bringing water and sets of rockeries. The two islands are built on the Lower Lake on which an authentic Swiss chalet is installed (the restaurant Le Chalet des Îles, which serves as the setting for a scene from the film Camille redoubles (2012) by Noémie Lvovsky) built by Seiler around Bern and the Emperor’s little kiosk by Gabriel Davioud. The latter is also the author of the guard pavilions surrounding the wood at the time when it was fenced; most have been preserved. The Auteuil pond was enlarged and converted into a pond.

Between 1855 and 1858, the Longchamp racecourse was built on the plain of the same name. At the same time, the tip of the wood located south of the Butte Mortemart, between rue des Princes in Boulogne (now rue Denfert-Rochereau and rue des Princes) and avenue du Parc-des-Princes in Auteuil was developed by the Duc de Morny as part of a vast luxury real estate operation overseen by Baron Haussmann.

Public Park
The Bois de Boulogne became a popular meeting place and promenade route for Parisians of all classes. The alleys were filled with carriages, coaches, and horseback riders, and later with men and women on bicycles, and then with automobiles. Families having picnics filled the woods and lawns, and Parisians rowed boats on the lake, while the upper classes were entertained in the cafes. The restaurant of the Pavillon de la Grand Cascade became a popular spot for Parisian weddings. During the winter, when the lakes were frozen, they were crowded with ice skaters.

The activities of Parisians in the Bois, particularly the long promenades in carriages around the lakes, were often portrayed in French literature and art in the second half of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. Scenes set in the park appeared in Nana by Émile Zola and in L’Éducation sentimentale by Gustave Flaubert. In the last pages of Du côté de chez Swann in À la recherche du temps perdu (1914), Marcel Proust minutely described a walk around the lakes taken as a child. The life in the park was also the subject of the paintings of many artists, including Édouard Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Vincent van Gogh, and Mary Cassatt.

In 1860, Napoleon opened the Jardin d’Acclimatation, a separate concession of 20 hectares at the north end of the park; it included a zoo and a botanical garden, as well as an amusement park. Between 1877 and 1912, it also served as the home of what was called an ethnological garden, a place where groups of the inhabitants of faraway countries were put on display for weeks. Twenty-two of these exhibits were held in the park in the last quarter of the 19th century. About ten more were held in the 20th century, with the last one taking place in 1931.

In 1905, a grand new restaurant in the classical style was built in the Pré-Catelan by architect Guillaume Tronchet. Like the cafe at the Grand Cascade, it became a popular promenade destination for the French upper classes. At the 1900 Summer Olympics, the land hosted the croquet and tug of war events. During the 1924 Summer Olympics, the equestrian events took place in the Auteuil Hippodrome.

From 1952 until 1986, the Duke of Windsor, the title granted to King Edward VIII after his abdication, and his wife, Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, lived in the Villa Windsor, a house in the Bois de Boulogne behind the garden of the Bagatelle. The house was owned by the City of Paris and was leased to the couple. The Duke died in this house in 1972, and the Duchess died there in 1986. The lease was purchased by Mohamed al-Fayed, the owner of the Ritz Hotel in Paris. The house was visited briefly by Diana, Princess of Wales and her companion, Dodi Fayed, on 31 August 1997, the day that they died in a traffic accident in the Alma tunnel.

Hydrological Network
The Bois de Boulogne contains two artificial lakes and eight artificial ponds, connected by three artificial streams. The wood has several lakes, all of which are artificial and fed by the waters of the Seine: Lac Supérieur (3 ha), Lac Inférieur (11 ha), Lac du Cercle du Bois de Boulogne (or for skating), the Jardin d’acclimatation lake, the Armenonville pond, the Saint-James pond or lake (2 ha), the Longchamp pond (2 ha), the Abbey pond, the pond of Suresnes (2 ha), the pond of Tribunes (1 ha), the pond of Boulogne and the Grande Cascade, equipped with a grotto (from which the water discharged comes from the pond of the Reservoir, which is 1 ha). It is possible to fish in certain places.

The lakes receive their water from a canal drawn from Ourq River and from artesian wells in Passy. The water arrives in the Lac Superieur (Upper Lake), built in 1852 and located near the Hippodrome de Auteil, then flows by gravity to the Grand Cascade and then to the Lac Inferieur, or Lower Lake.

The Lac Inferieur (1853) is the largest lake in the park, near the large lawns of Muette. The area is very popular with joggers, and boats can be rented on the lower lake from 15 February to the end of October. The lake is the home to many swans and ducks. An island in the lake, accessible by boat, contains the city’s only monument to the Park’s builder, Napoleon III; a small wooden kiosk at the end of the island, called the Kiosk of the Emperor.

The Grand Cascade (1856) was built out of four thousand cubic meters of rocks from Fontainebleau, and two thousand cubic meters of cement. In addition to the picturesque waterfall, it has two artificial grottoes, one over the other, which can be visited. The waterfall is 7.50 meters. In 1857, a buffet (restaurant) was built next door; it was enlarged for the Universal Exhibition of 1900 with a Belle Époque decor, damaged by bombardments during the Second World War, demolished around 1950 and then replaced by a new building in the “retro-modern” style. Located on the Alley of Longchamps-Bois de Boulogne, the restaurant still exists today, and counts among its famous customers the actor Jean Paul Belmondo and the royal couple of Jordan.

Within the Bois de Boulogne, there are several separate botanical and floral gardens, and gardens of amusement.

Castle of Bagatelle – Following the French Revolution, the miniature chateau and English landscape garden of the Bagatelle was restored to the Bourbon family. They sold it in 1835 to an English nobleman, Francis Seymour-Conway, 3rd Marquess of Hertford. It remained separate and outside the Bois de Boulogne until 1905, when it was purchased by the City of Paris and attached to the park.

The garden was enlarged and redesigned by Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier, the new Superintendent of Parks of Paris, a pupil of Alphand. He preserved many elements of the old garden, and added sections of botanical garden, including an iris garden and a pond for Nymphaeaceae, or water lilies, popularized at the time by the paintings of Claude Monet.

He also built one of the most popular features of the Bagatelle today, the rose garden. The rose garden today has more than nine thousand plants, and is the site of the Concours international de roses nouvelles de Bagatelle, held each June, one of the major competitions of new roses in the world. Since 1983, the Festival of Chopin in Paris is held in the Orangerie, next to the rose garden. The garden also hosts regular exhibits of sculpture and art.

Garden of Acclimatization – The Jardin d’Acclimatation, opened in 1860 as a zoo and pleasure garden, still has many of the traditional features of a children’s amusement park, including an archery range, a miniature train ride, pony ride and Guignol puppet theater, but it underwent several changes in its theme in the last decade. A science museum for children, the Exploradome, opened in 1999. It also now includes a section with an Asian theme, with a teahouse, a lacquered bridge, and a Korean garden. In October 2014, a major new museum opened, the Louis Vuitton Foundation, in a building designed by architect Frank Gehry.

Garden of the Serres d’Auteuil – The Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil is a large complex of greenhouses in the southern part of the park. They stand on the site of a botanical garden founded in 1761 by King Louis XV. The present greenhouses were built in 1895–98, and now house about one hundred thousand plants. In 1998 the greenhouses officially became part of the Botanical Garden in Paris, which also includes the Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne and the Parc Floral de Paris and the Arboretum de l’Ecole de Breuil in the Bois de Vincennes.

Pré-Catelan – The Pré-Catelan still has a few vestiges of its early days; a majestic copper beech planted in 1782; a giant sequoia tree planted in 1872; the old buffet built by Gabriel Davioud; the grand restaurant built by Guillaume Tronchet in 1905; and the Shakespeare Garden, created in 1953 on the site of the old floral theater. Five different natural settings contain all of the trees, bushes and flowers mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays.

The Hippodrome de Longchamp, opened in 1857, is built on the site of the old Abbey of Longchamp. A restored windmill, the only building left of the Abbey, is located on the grounds of the track. The major annual racing event at the Hippodrome de Longchamp is the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, held every October.

The Auteuil Hippodrome, covering 33 hectares, opened in 1873. It is used exclusively for steeplechase racing.

The Stade Roland Garros is a tennis complex which hosts the annual French Open tournament in early June. It was opened in 1928 for the first defense of the Davis Cup tennis tournament, and is named for the French aviator Roland Garros, who was the first pilot to fly solo across the Mediterranean and a First World War ace. The 8.5 hectare complex has twenty courts. The famous red clay courts are actually made of white limestone, dusted with a few millimeters of powdered red brick dust.

The Bois de Boulogne is a place of relaxation and pleasure both for the elite (Lagardère Paris Racing, equestrian center of the Touring Club de France, etc.) and for the people of Paris. several 19th century French novelists and poets left texts on the promenade in the Bois de Boulogne.

On weekends, the Bois de Boulogne is full of activities such as biking, jogging, boat rowing, horseback and pony rides, and remote control speed boats. Picnics are permitted in most parts of the park, but barbecues are not allowed.

The Bois de Boulogne hosts several races, like the 10 km (6.2 mi) of Boulogne and the Boulogne half marathon. Since its creation, the last part of the Paris marathon ends by crossing the Bois de Boulogne from 35 km (22 mi). Boulogne Wood is an important place of running in Paris. The Bois holds a three-day weekend party in the month of July, with over 50 bands and singers, attended mostly by students who camp out overnight.