This article is part of a guide to Paris from FT Globetrotter
There’s almost nowhere to go and nothing to do in Paris this winter. Curfew starts at 6pm. Some nights I’m asleep before 11pm, because you might as well. But one refuge remains, a park that means more to me now than at any other point in all my years in this city: the Jardin des Tuileries. Strolling here with a takeout coffee in hand, a pretty companion by your side, the winter sky orange over the Place de la Concorde, is about as much sensual pleasure as can be had outdoors in Paris during the pandemic.
The Tuileries isn’t quite a kilometre end to end, but it’s fit for a king because it was made for kings. Catherine de Médicis, the widowed former queen of France, began creating the garden as the Tuileries palace was being built in 1564. A century later, under Louis XIV, André Le Nôtre, a landscape architect and grandson of one of Catherine’s gardeners, oversaw the redesign. Le Nôtre — who also created the gardens at Versailles — had the brainwave of creating a perspective through Paris by running a path through the middle of the Tuileries.
Today the Grande Allée links the pyramid and arch at the Louvre on the park’s eastern end with the obelisk at the western end. The Voie Triomphale (Triumphal Way) continues due westward to the Arc de Triomphe, and beyond it, to the Arche de La Défense. Le Nôtre also created fountains, and terraces overlooking the park itself. For all the classical statues and the Orangerie and Jeu de Paume art museums that were added later, today’s Tuileries is largely his creation.
It was opened to “honnêtes gens” (respectable people) as early as 1667, as Paris’s first public garden. After the French revolution, it officially became a public park, already equipped with the ancestors of today’s food stalls, chairs and public toilets. The Tuileries Palace housed France’s rulers (at least when they were in town) until the Communard revolutionaries set it on fire in 1871. It was torn down in 1883.
Today, with no tourists around, and few suburbanites venturing into town, the garden’s clientele divides broadly into two tribes: the chic bourgeois of western Paris and the hipsters of the eastern city. (There are very few working-class Parisians any more; gentrification has driven them into the suburbs.) The bourgeois can be recognised by their immaculate scarves and Louis Vuitton purses. Parisian hipsters look like Brooklyn hipsters, only neater.
Both tribes come to the Tuileries for the thing it does best: a stroll. The park is too small for ball games, the grass is off-limits and dogs are banned in most areas. (That said, the French devote as much energy to rule-breaking as rulemaking, and the odd canine sneaks through.)
During the pandemic, the park has become a hotspot for the Parisian dating game. You can’t meet a romantic interest in a café, and you’re not supposed to meet them at home, so lots of Parisian over-25s now kick off the process in the Tuileries. (The under-25s prefer the adjoining pedestrianised riverbank, ideally with a bottle.)
The park on weekends this winter is Les liaisons dangereuses meets Tinder, a kind of promenade masquée with young people in elegant masks (definitely not the light-blue throwaway surgical ones) wandering the sandy paths under the chestnut trees. Their presiding spirit is Rodin’s bronze “Le Baiser” (“The Kiss”), which stands opposite the currently closed Orangerie museum. Other couples come equipped with the outcomes of past dates: prams.
Older children are mostly absent from the park now, with the playgrounds closed. Only the trampolines remain open, watched by the familiar array of fatigued parents grabbing a moment to themselves. I paused there for a minute, honouring all those long mornings when my kids were small.
The Tuileries have become pleasingly quieter since the adjoining Rue de Rivoli and the riverbank were largely closed off to cars during the pandemic. Le tout Paris strolls here now. Even Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte tried on the evening of last Bastille Day, but other park users spotted them and launched into the traditional chant of “Macron, resign!” He protested, “It’s a holiday, I’m strolling with my wife,” but then, as is his wont, he got stuck into the argument.
It’s a rare conflict in the Tuileries. Generally, the ambience inspires civility. You rarely see people here littering, or shouting into smartphones set to speaker.
Eating and drinking here require ingenuity these days, with the park’s cafés and crêperie closed. Eating in the wild is traditionally considered only semi-civilised in Paris, but now, with nowhere else to go, couples share takeout meals on the chairs beside one of the park’s fountains. There are low-end food stalls outside the Place de la Concorde entrance. Upmarket types head for the Rue de Rivoli to queue for takeout at Angelina (famous for its hot chocolate), Café Kitsuné (Franco-Japanese high-end coffee) and Mado à Paris (a madeleine specialist). The arcaded street also boasts Paris’ largest English-language bookshop, WHSmith, going strong here since 1903 and open during the pandemic.
The denizens of the park who move me most are the ones who come alone. Just over half of Parisian households consist of one person, and it’s been a hard year for singletons. You see them on the green chairs, reading books, playing with phones or staring hungrily at passing couples. One day all this will be over, though given the pace of France’s vaccination effort, not any time soon.
The Tuileries is now undergoing renovations to make it more shadowy and bird-rich, and less dusty. Two monumental new entrances are being built on the Rue de Rivoli and the riverside. Post-pandemic, the garden might look even better, but it surely won’t be more essential to Parisian sanity than it is right now.
Photography by Alex Cretey Systermans
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