Friday, 28 September 2012

Paris off the beaten track: A tropical garden lost in the past

Paris is full of major must see monuments, sights, and museums. However, hidden within the small side streets of Paris and down some of the less traveled boulevards there are some hidden gems; secret sights that are off the beaten track but are well worth visiting. Not only will they give you some photos of Paris that are different from your friends and family, but they will also give you an insight into the real Paris of today, and the Paris of yesterday.

This weekend's off the beaten track site is Le Jardin d'Agronomie Tropicale: The Garden of Tropical Agriculture. Credit for this off the beaten track post goes to to Kerouac2 whose awesome photo essay on the Any Port in a Storm website introduced me onto this garden. Kerouac2 called it the "Abandoned Garden of Desolation" which is a pretty good description.

The entrance to the Jardin

Visit this garden and the chances are you will be alone (or close to alone - when I went there was a small French tour group being guided around and maybe 3 other people) with the ghosts of France past.

Statues from the 1907 colonial exhibition
Memories of the Indochinese colony
Many of these statues have seen better days
The garden, at the North-east corner of the Bois de Vincennes has a fascinating history and makes for a unique outing from the busyness of the central Paris.

Dilapidated statues in the park
Originally, in 1899 the park was developed as a test garden for scientific exploration on tropical plants from French colonies. The aim was to improve production of products such as coffee, rubber and banana's.

Some of the old glasshouses

In 1907 the park became the site of the colonial exhibition. Six 'villages' were developed with the monuments representing the French colonies of the time. These were Indochina, Madagascar, Congo, Sudan, Tunisia and Morocco, Not only were monuments and buildings set up, but people from the colonies were bought to Paris to live in the villages, making them a live display, or what has been called a 'human zoo'. RFI France have an interesting article on the 1097 colonial exhibition in English.

Walking through the Jardin

After the exhibition was finished, the park was later used as a hospital for French colonial troops from the first world war, and was the site of the first mosque in Paris. This was removed when the new mosque was built in the 5th arrondisement. Also erected were memorials to the colonial troops who fought and died for France in the war.

Memorial for the troops colonial troops from Cambodia
and Laos who died fighting for France
Memorial for the colonial soldiers from Madagascar
Memorial for the Indochinese who died fighting for France
The park gradually fell into disrepair leaving a desolate, yet amazing collection of memorials and buildings. It is what French historian Pascal Blanchard referred to as "the junkyard of French colonial history....the memory of France's relations to its colonies over the last century is concentrated here".

One of the abandoned pavilions
Another deserted pavilion
However, it is the junkyard feel and overgrown nature of the park which gives it its charm and makes it so unique. Come around a bend in a path and you may come across a Chinese pagoda, or a unique disused building, or a Cambodian temple shaped monument which disappear quickly as you pass, and you are never quite sure what you will discover around the next overgrown corner.

The restored Indochina pavilion
Part of the remains of the Indochina village
Another view of the Indochina village
Recent years has seen money put into the redevelopment of the park. The paths have been cleared and delineated and the dilapidated buildings have been fenced off. The Indochina pavilion has been renovated and is home to the French Institute of Agricultural Research for countries of the South (CIRAD) and also houses an exhibition of photos which appear to be from former French colonial people (it wasn't open when I visited). Other buildings have suffered greatly. The Congo pavilion, for example, was destroyed by fire in 2004. The restoration appears to be ongoing, however running behind schedule. There is also an interesting collection of wooden sculpture which has been set up in the park designed by Johann le Guillerm.

The burnt out Congo Pavilion
One of Johann le Guillerm's sculptures
Another of Johann le Guillerm's sculptures
Johann le Guillerm's incorporated into one of the dilapidated pavilions
Today the park is great for a stroll. It is a surreal experience with the emptiness of the park and the memorials and buildings from different places and different times. Suitable for taking kids; the derelict buildings are fenced off - but there is also water around, so you will need to keep an eye on them. It will probably take you an hour or two to explore the park.

A view across the park 
One of the Indochinese bridges with its pond and waterfall
The garden is Nogent-sur-Marne. While you are there, you could also look at the Pavillon Baltard - Link to come.

How to get there: Take the RER A line to Nogent-sur-Marne. This is in the 3rd zone, so if you are travelling from Paris you will need to buy a specific ticket for this (ie the Paris Metro T+ ticket won't let you out). Take exit #1 from the Nogent-sue_Marne RER station and the direction to the park is well sign-posted from outside the door - follow the signs to Jardin Tropical. It is left from the station, take the first right, and follow this to the end. It is a 5 minute walk from the RER station to the garden.

Exit #1 from the RER
You can see the first sign to the Jardin through the door
For other activities that are off the beaten track and to get a taste of the real France, explore options for day trips from Paris using public transport on

Keep up to date with upcoming "off the beaten track" locations, and ideas for day trips from Paris on our Facebook page and our Twitter account.

A final view of the remains of the Indochinese village

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