A Palace Garden Minus the Palace: The Park of St. Cloud
No longer featuring its own castle since 1891 - when the leftovers of a fire incident in 1870 were razed for good - the huge park of Saint Cloud is less a tourist attraction and more a place for jogging, biking and weekend strolls. It also hosts classical open air concerts in summer and the annual festival “Rock sur Seine” (which I would leave prematurely later that year refusing to watch Amy Winehouse’s high-on-something performance – though compared to her future appearances it was really nothing at all).
To the eastern side of the park, facing the Seine, there are at least three things worth visiting for a sightseeing tour: the impressive, sculptured fountains of the “Grande Cascade”, the so-called Great Perspective evolving from the past castle’s location, and – for those tired of Le Notre’s stringent French garden geometrics – the “Jardins du Trocadéro” styled in English fashion.
The most unique fountain I’ve ever seen is definitely the Grand Cascade of Saint Cloud. I’m not sure that it could really be called a fountain, though. After all it is 70 meters long and a veritable building with massive stone walls and steps sporting sculptures of strange creatures and mythic incarnations of France’s largest rivers. On Sundays in June the cascades can be seen at their most impressive: three times a day it’s time for the “Grandes Eaux”. Grand Waters, that’s how it’s called when the ancient fountains of Saint Cloud and other historic sites (like Sceaux, Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte) are put into operation again. They still work the way they were originally build: supplied from rain water reservoirs on hills around with the pressure coming from gravity alone – no pumps, no electricity, just cleverly constructed leaden piping. It’s the reason the fountains cannot run all the time and even the “Grandes Eaux” might be cut down in number or duration when the summer is too dry and the reservoirs don’t refill sufficiently. In 2007 that was no problem at all: most of my vacation days literally drowned in all the rain.
Anyhow, it’s amazing to watch when the valves in the ground are opened by a squad of gardeners and volunteers armed with men-size screw wrenches - and walkie-talkies for timing. Some time later the fountains come to life, slowly, literally starting with single drops until the pressure builds and the water starts bouncing as good fountain water should. In Saint Cloud this also means that the neighbour of the Grand Cascade, the Grand Jet becomes something worth looking at. It’s nothing but a pond lined by some rather nondescript statues on normal days, now being transformed into an eye catcher. The huge fountain is rising up to 42 meters into the sky surmounting the trees around a good deal.
The only other fountain you can easily reach during one session of Grandes Eaux is the “Horseshoe Basin”, a.k.a. “Bassin du Fer à Cheval”, up above the Grand Cascade. The thing to see there will be water dripping from the stone faces on the far wall into the bowls beneath and finally into the basin itself – nice, nothing more. Likewise, missing to see the few remaining fountains off the terrace is no real loss. If you’ve got the time, or another session of water coming up, you could try for the other end of the terrace and the “Rond-Point des 24 Jets” - that’s a pond, not round by the way, but with are 24 fountains around…
After climbing the steep footpath on the left side of the Grand Jet you will reach a street that ends at a Gate to your right. It is the beginning of the “Allée du Fer à Cheval” with its respective basin. The double stairs behind the basin lead to the “Terrasse de l’Orangerie”. It still deserves this name as it’s decorated with Orange trees in summer, just like it was during the time of the kings. A table-like marble display in the middle shows the original layout of the place with the castle. You can enjoy a great view of the Seine and the Bois de Boulogne over to Paris from the balustrade on the eastern end. On the hill on the northern end of the terrace is the “Jardin du Trocadéro”, a beautiful English garden with a small lake and an aviary.
Inbound to the West the terrace concludes in the form of an alley with small hidden gardens to the left and right on a lower level. They are worth exploring with their mysterious dark ponds and beautiful marble statues - sometimes in really bizarre arrangements. The end of the terrace is marked by another big fountain, the “Rond Point des 24 Jets”, guarded by lion statues. This is the place to turn around and look back to see why they call it the “Grand Perspective”: the view towards Paris, overlooking the terrace, is truly impressive.
Beyond the gate begins the “Tapis Vert”, literally a green grass carpet between the streets, which are open for cars here. I saw some kind of snack bar or diner there, too, but I didn’t try it – it might belong to some of the sports clubs located in the park and therefore be members only. If you follow the “Tapis Vert” you will reach the “Grand Gerbe”, a nondescript circular pond from were all of the park’s alleys radiate. There’s really nothing to see besides grass and wood. Of course, if you turn around there is always the Grand Perspective view, which will go on for an overall length of more than two kilometres. I personally don’t think its worth going any farther then the 24 Jets - in case you really want to do more walking you can turn and keep slightly to the right, aiming for the Rond Point de la Balustrade, which offers another great view of Paris from farther south of the Allée du Fer a Cheval.
Finally a few words on how to get to the park: The easiest way is to take the Metro line 10 to its terminus at Boulogne - Pont de Saint Cloud and cross the Seine to St. Cloud on foot. There are signposts giving directions to the park for pedestrians. You will enter the park via an underpass, conveniently leading to the lower end (Parc Bas) were the Grande Cascade is located. Only in case you are very afraid of dogs you should rather head for the main gates, the Grille d’Honneur, because the parking lot behind the underpass is a popular starting point for people walking their dogs on the lawns.
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