What do nazis, a bee school, the French Senate, a widower, and a serial killer have in common? They all are associated with Luxembourg Gardens.
Our widow is the famous Marie De Medici who was married to Henry IV. When he was assassinated in 1611, she no longer wanted to live in the Louvre and instead wanted to recreate her childhood home in Florence on land she acquired from the Duke of Luxembourg. By 1612, the project began when 2,000 elm trees were planted, two terraces were built and the Medici Fountain was constructed. In 1630 she bought more land and enlarged the garden. In 1630, due to her political intrigues, her son was forced to banish her to Cologne. It is rather ironic then that besides tourists, Parisians love to walk through these Gardens even if the actions of the creator of these gardens was “prejudicial to France.” That is at least what Honore de Balzac says when he writes that she “has escaped the shame which ought to cover her name.” Besides all her other political intrigues such as plotting one son against another son, Balac was outraged that “she never purged herself of the charge of having known of the king’s assassination.” Perhaps, that is why later kings weren’t interested in keeping these gardens maintained. It wasn’t until after the French revolution that not only were the gardens restored but were expanded. Presently the palace is the home of the French Senate.
Besides being associated with a rather scheming woman who was “famed for her ceaseless political intrigues at the court of France,” these gardens are also associated with the Nazis since this palace became the Luftwaffe headquarters. This fact isn’t something the French want to remember and I haven’t read this fact in any guidebook or travel web-site. Rather, I learned this fact from the book I am presently reading: The Most Beautiful Walk in the World by John Baxter. Once you know that the nazis walked in these gardens plotting further conquests, is its beauty lessened.? The author’s companion asked him, “You don’t feel something?” He responded, “Thinking of these paths strolled jackbooted men plotting conquest did cast a shadow.”
Baxter proceeds to tell another horrific story that could possibly send a chill down my spine even when I am enjoying the garden’s fountains, statues, playground, puppet theatre and yes – a bee farm. Apparently between 1914 and 1918 Henri Desire Landru met women in these gardens after they responded to his ad in the paper, “Widower with two children, aged 43, with comfortable income, serious and moving in good society, desires to meet widow with a view to matrimony.” When he met them, he would invite them to his country house, incinerate them, and then return to Paris. He proceeded to empty their bank account, remove their furniture from their houses and place a new advertisement in the paper!
It is so appropriate that in the midst of such stories of political intrigues, deception and later outright evil that Victor Hugo wrote his masterpiece about love and forgiveness! It was in these gardens that Marius Pontmercy and Cosette first meet and where their love story begins!
And it is surely love and joy and appreciation of beauty that causes so many Parisians and tourists to wander through the Luxembourg Gardens. It is not surprising then that I found one web-site that included these Gardens as 60 of the World’s Great Places. I really like the parameters they set to create this list: “These are the places we remember most vividly, the places where serendipitous things happen, the places we tell stories about. They are decidedly local, but can also absorb a fair amount of tourism with out losing the qualities that make them great. Though none of these places could be replicated anywhere else, there is an infinite amount we can learn from each one.”
Yes, I am confident that I will leave theses Gardens with fond memories and stories to tell. I anticipate seeing these Gardens through the eyes of my little 18 month old granddaughter where she might joyfully put her hand in the water where children sail their boats. Perhaps we will see a puppet show and enjoy her smiles and delight at what she sees. I hope that I will also have a few quiet moments to just sit on one of the benches provided, and as I watch my granddaughter who will be surrounded by the beauty of the gardens, I will know that I am sitting on hallowed ground. I will recall Francis Bacon’s line, “Beauty itself is but the sensible image of the Infinite” and for a brief moment, I will close my eyes and thank the God who left such “beautiful handwriting” as Emerson calls beauty.