One feature of the park that you can’t help but notice as you stroll around is the Temple de la Sibylle. Inspired by the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli near Rome, a common fixture in Romantic landscape paintings from the 17th to the 19th century, it was designed by Gabriel Davioud, the city architect for Paris whose other notable works include the Fontaine Saint-Michel.
As picturesque and peaceful as it is now, the park has some pretty dark origins. The name derives from Chauve-mont, meaning bare hill, and it was called this because the chemical composition of the soil on the site could never support plant life. From the 13th century until 1760, it was also the home of the Gibbet of Montfaucon, where the bodies of hanged criminals were displayed.
After the 1789 Revolution, much of the site became a refuse heap and a place for dismembering dead horses. Other parts were put to more noble use, such as gypsum and limestone quarries. Their stone was used not only in Paris but in the major cities of the United States. The quarry also threw up mammalian fossils from the Eocene Epoch, including Palaeotherium, a kind of ancient tapir described for the first time by George Cuvier.
Despite the dodgy smells emanating from the butte, Napoleon III and his chief park planner, Jean-Charles Alphand, were determined to transform it into a spectacular garden in which 19th-century Parisians could spend their burgeoning leisure time. It was opened on April 1, 1987, to coincide with the start of that year’s Exposition Universelle.
As well as having three restaurant-bars – Le Pavillon du Lac, Pavillon Puebla, and Rosa Bonheur – two waffle stands, and two public halls, the park also has two Guignol theaters. These have been providing entertaining puppet shows for the park’s younger users since 1892.
In total, there are 5.5 kilometers (3.4 miles) of roads and 2.2 kilometers (1.4 miles) of paths within the park. Many of these offer a variety of gradients, not to mention fantastic views, and so are very popular with keen runners. For those who’d rather take it easy, there are also plenty of benches.
This is very much a Parisian park and so food is always high on people’s agenda. On a warm, dry day, locals come out in force to spread blankets on the grass and tuck into a delicious picnic of gourmet treats.
In many respects, the Parc des Buttes Chaumont can be viewed as Alphand’s masterpiece. He had already completed the Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes by the time he started work on the park in 1864, and had worked out all the kinks in his approach to design and execution.
Napoleon III envisioned the park as a kind of garden showcase and the chief gardener of Paris, horticulturist Jean-Pierre Barillet-Deschamps, was tasked with ensuring this was realized. Thousands of trees, shrubs, and flowers were planted in the drastically altered landscape, and sloping lawns were also sown. Today, the park boasts 47 species of flora, many of which were included in the original plant list.
The woodland areas contain some of the most interesting species. Exotic trees, especially those with Asian origins, were favored. The soothing scents of Lebanon and Himalayan cedars are carried across the park on the wind, and other varieties of note include the Ginkgo Biloba, Byzantine hazelnuts, and Siberian elms.
The remnants of the site’s gypsum and limestone quarry were transformed into a giant grotto, measuring 20 meters (65 feet) high and 14 meters (46 feet) wide. Sadly, the stalactites and stalagmites, some of which are eight meters (26 feet) long, are all artificial.
The waterfall, too, is only made possible by a series of pumps that lift water from the subterranean Ourcq River to the top of the cascade.
The dramatic cliffs of the lake’s central island were also created by human hands. Or, actually, by sticks of dynamite. You can reach the top of the 50-meter-high (164-foot) mountain by climbing the 173 steps of its internal grotto.
The island is connected to the rest of the park by two bridges, the most interesting of which, a 63-meter-long (200-foot) suspension bridge, was designed by Gustave Eiffel, the man who gave Paris its most famous landmark.
At 24.7 hectares (61 acres), the Parc des Buttes Chaumont is the fifth-largest park in Paris. However, the intelligent landscaping means that people are fairly well spread out and everyone has a clear view of the park’s best features.
The 1.5-hectare (3.7-acre) lake is home to numerous bird species, including moorhens, coots, and exotic ducks. While feeding them isn’t advised, watching them swim (or waddle) about is spirit-pleasing enough in itself.
Throughout most of the year, the park maintains standard opening times of 7AM to 9PM, but thanks to a special summer initiative of the town hall it will this year stay open 24 hours a day between July 1 and September 3. So, even if you have to work all day, you can head here for a midnight picnic and unwind under the stars.
While it is wonderful to look up and admire the Temple de la Sibylle, the view of Paris from the mountaintop is hard to match. Your eyes are immediately drawn west towards the white stone of the Sacré-Coeur atop Montmartre, a sight which is especially breathtaking at sunset.