Paris’ most popular park, the Jardin du Luxembourg, provides 55 acres of breathing space between Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the Latin Quarter. It’s where parents keep their children amused on the weekend, where students at the Sorbonne cram for their exams, and where weary travelers splay out on manicured lawns in the summer heat. It’s also where, no matter the weather, you’ll find the city’s chess fanatics.
A Little History
Amazingly, the park retains the name of the Duke of Luxembourg, who in 1612 sold the land to Marie de’ Medici, the widow of King Henry IV, who had been assassinated two years earlier. The queen was of Italian descent and had grown up at the Pitti Palace in Florence, surrounded by the magnificent Boboli Gardens. Her early memories of these, plus the surge in popularity of the Baroque style, inspired the design of the Palais du Luxembourg, built at the northern end of the gardens between 1615 and 1627, and the grounds.
During the French Revolution, the palace was used as a prison (the Second World War saw the building converted into the Luftwaffe’s headquarters in France and since 1958 it has housed the French Senate) and the Carthusian monastery that had stood to the south of the octagonal Grand Bassin was demolished and a significant portion of the gardens were redesigned in a more French style. Later, in the 19th century, Haussmann’s road building and renovations definitively set the boundaries of the park.
Chess in the Jardin
In the northwest corner of the park, between the tennis courts and the rose garden, is where Paris’ most committed chess enthusiasts meet every day to play, sometimes rapid-fire games of five or even three minutes and others which drift on for hours into the evening. On dry, sunny afternoons, these contests can seem like prize fights at a Las Vegas casino, attracting huge crowds that whoop and groan in unison as their player lands a crucial blow or takes a beating.
It was only around 30 years ago that the Jardin du Luxembourg became the Washington Square of Paris. Before then, the Jardin des Plantes, on the other side of the Latin Quarter, was the preferred venue for the city’s chess lovers, and no one’s quite sure what motivated the relocation. Nevertheless, the park guardians and the Senate are very happy to have them and the special charm they bring to the place.
After some concerns about the quality of the facilities at their disposal, the Senate invested in 12 new tables, five of which are fixed and the remainder of which can be moved around the gravel terrain, tracking the sun as it moves across the sky. Designed by the authority’s Architecture Department and produced by Nature Art Planète de Vitry, they are made from enameled lava, the stone for which was extracted from volcanoes in the region of Auvergne, and bistro-style green cast iron feet.
While some of the more serious players won’t appreciate a challenge from an excited amateur, the more relaxed among them will take you on if you ask politely (in French). Otherwise, arrive early if you want to secure yourself a table. For other places in Paris to go for a game of chess, check out our dedicated guide.
Spread around the gardens are four spectacular fountains, the most famous of which is the Fontaine Médicis in the northeast corner, and 106 sculptures, including 20 of former French queens and others honoring musicians like Chopin and Beethoven, writers like Stendhal and Baudelaire, as well as scientists, politicians, activists, and mythological characters.
Other interesting features of the gardens are the ancient orchard, the orchid collection in the greenhouses, the orangery, and the apiary, where you can learn all about bee-keeping.
Most of the lawns in the park are off limits to sunbathers except for a wedge on the southern boundary, which is packed on most sunny days, but there are plenty of green metal chairs, icons of design since their creation in 1923, which can be set up for a picnic in a quiet corner.
If you’re looking for a more active afternoon, you can also get involved with a game of pétanque, catch a performance at the music pavilion, or see a temporary exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg or on the outside of the park railings.
For children, the vintage wooden sailboats which you can rent by the Grand Bassin are always a huge hit, as are the puppet shows at the Théâtre du Luxembourg and the ponies and large playground which you’ll find just beside it.