Article first published in Bonjour Paris, 4 June 2021
Majestic and serene, the spacious perspectives of the 17th century Parc de Sceaux invariably have a calming effect on the nerves. Despite its vast appearance, the park is surprisingly small. Its château-museum, statues, fountains, canals and staircase waterfall, as well as the rich diversity of its walks and its wildlife, are all contained in less than two square kilometres. But it is always possible to find secluded corners, even at weekends when the park is at its busiest.
It is the most accessible of the classical parks surrounding Paris, just 10 km south of Notre Dame and 13 minutes by train from there on the RER B line, but little known to foreign visitors who are more likely to head to Versailles.
The park was originally created for Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683), the Sun King’s able and hard-working chief minister. As it is a quarter the size of Versailles, strolling around it is a relaxing and satisfying experience. Sceaux, owned by the Hauts de Seine département, is more user-friendly than many larger parks owned by the State and caters for local needs, including sports facilities, a restaurant and three buvettes. It leaves a lasting impression of sober elegance, laced with moments of quiet discovery and enjoyment, very much in the spirit of the Grand Siècle that Colbert did so much to bring into being.
Colbert bought the domain of Sceaux in 1670, enlarged the 16th century château and commissioned André Le Nôtre to design the park. Le Nôtre made clever use of the sloping terrain to create a play of perspectives, culminating in the Grandes Cascades, a staircase of nine waterfalls and fountains leading to an octagonal pond and later prolonged by another green vista, the Tapis Vert.
In July 1677 Colbert invited Louis XIV to Sceaux, having prudently first made sure of a warm welcome for him from the villagers by halving their taxes. The royal visitors were impressed by the ‘marvellous cleanliness’ of the apartments, unusual for the period, the banquet, the music and the fireworks, followed by a performance of Racine’s Phèdre in the Orangerie. As he emerged, the king was acclaimed by all the villagers dancing under the illuminated trees of the park. Enchanted, he remarked that he had never been more agreeably entertained.
The good taste and clever management which marked the king’s visit continued to be shown in Colbert’s expansion and embellishment of his favourite residence. His son added the Grand Canal and the present Orangerie, designed by Jules Hardouin Mansart in 1686.
In 1699 the château was sold to the Duc du Maine, the legitimised son of Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan. The Duchesse du Maine, who had inherited the stylish tastes of her grandfather, the ‘Grand Condé’, made Sceaux famous for its elegant parties at the beginning of the 18th century. They became known as the ‘Nuits de Sceaux’, at which Voltaire and other distinguished visitors were frequent guests.
After the Revolution, Sceaux was declared a bien national (national property) and sold off. The château was demolished and the park turned into farmland before reverting to semi-wilderness. Alain-Fournier (1886-1914) was a pupil at the nearby Lycée Lakanal from 1903 to 1906, at a time when the park was in a state of romantic neglect. It has been suggested that Sceaux was the inspiration for the mysterious domain described in his celebrated novel Le Grand Meaulnes, published in 1913.
The park was rescued from dismemberment in 1923 when it was acquired by the Département de la Seine and most of it, including the Grandes Cascades, restored in the 1930s. The present château, built in 1856 by the Duc de Trévise, now houses the Musée du Domaine de Sceaux. The Grandes Cascades and parts of the Grand Canal are currently undergoing maintenance work but care has been taken not to interfere with the park’s accessibility to the public.
Suggested 7 km walk around the Parc de Sceaux
From the station at Bourg la Reine take the ‘Sortie André Theuriet’, opposite a large Monoprix. Take the second street on the right rising slightly uphill, the little Rue André Theuriet which follows the railway tracks, with a statue of André Theuriet on the right. Turn right to continue across the railway line into the Avenue du Lycée Lakanal. You will see a strange tower ahead of you, surmounted by four gargoyle-like dragons, part of the Villa Hennebique. Follow the road slightly uphill and turn right into the main road, the Avenue Victor Hugo.
You will pass the Villa Hennebique, the family home of the successful pioneer of reinforced concrete, constructed in 1903 using the new fireproof material he had patented. It is now a listed building.
Continue along the main road opposite the Lycée Lakanal, past some pretty 19th century villas. At the roundabout turn left, past the Lycée on the corner, into the Avenue Claude Perrault and cross the road. Take the second entrance to the park on the right, which leads to the Pavillon de l’Aurore, an elegant little building crowned with a cupola.
The architect of Colbert’s château is not known but the Pavillon de l’Aurore (Temple of the Dawn), the only building commissioned by him to have survived, has a painted ceiling by Charles Le Brun. It shows the chariot of the dawn dispelling the clouds of night, probably a reference to the Sun King.
Go round the Pavillon to the left and continue left, past the 18th century brick Pavillon de l’Intendance, until you come to the entrée d’honneur, the imposing principal entrance to the château. Turn right past the château, passing the Orangerie on your left. The entrance to the château is to your right on the other side of the building, facing the Grand Canal (lead photo).
The museum inside tells the story of the château and its owners and the admission ticket includes the Pavillon de l’Aurore and the Orangerie. A useful free map of the park is available at the ticket desk if you ask and les toilettes are very elegant, although without mirrors. The buvettes also do not sell alcohol, my only complaints about the management of this park.
Go past the buvette to the left of the museum entrance and follow the stately tree-lined Allée de la Duchesse to the start of the Grandes Cascades to admire the spectacular view. As the Cascades are undergoing restoration you can no longer follow the path straight down to the Octogone. Instead, with your back to the Cascades, take the woodland footpath to the left of the Allée and follow it until you come to steps on the left leading to another woodland path, sloping downhill.
You will become aware of the sound of birdsong, particularly the cries coming from the flocks of parakeets which have made their home in the park. You might also glimpse a red squirrel, as I did, hear a woodpecker or spot some rare wild flowers.
Follow the woodland path downhill for a little way and then turn right to follow the poplar-lined path along the Grand Canal, bordered on the left by magnificent plane trees.
Follow the path right round the Octogone, past a new footbridge not yet in use, a very useful replacement for the original which disappeared after the Revolution.
You will pass some Canada geese and a few ducks.
The Octogone is ringed with classical statues. The Cascades face the Tapis Vert, flanked by two sculptures of groups of deer.
Follow the Octogone round to the other side and continue along the Grand Canal to the end, where there is another buvette. Follow the canal on the other side and take the first tree-lined path on the left which leads to the 18th century Pavillon de Hanovre, the western exit from the park.
From there I have shown a suggested route to the Petit Château on the map. But I have to admit that I have not taken it. I have been unable to resist detours to explore the Plaine de Châtenay, a sunny meadow full of wild flowers, and the Plaine de l’ex-Pépinière, which contains an unexpected and moving memorial to the deportation of the department’s Jews, in a small clearing in the woodland.
The north western part of the park is full of tempting woodland paths and includes two large enclosed ‘parcs canins’ where dogs are allowed to roam off the leash. I find the fact that it is possible to get lost in it one of the great attractions of this park. If you do lose your bearings, the spire of the 16th century Eglise St Jean Baptiste is a useful landmark.
The Petit Château near the Eglise St Jean Baptiste at the north end of the park was built in 1661 and acquired by Colbert in 1682. It is used for local exhibitions but is currently closed. It overlooks a sunken carp pond the size of a green-tinted Olympic swimming pool, overhung with roses, which still contains carp. It is a tranquil, mysterious place. Popular with ducks, herons and locals quietly sunning themselves on its benches, it is one of the most serene and beautiful places in the park.
From the end close to the Petit Château there is a vista of the Grand Canal visible through a gap in the trees.
The exit from the Petit Château is currently closed, so turn left from the carp pond to leave the park by the Entrée Eglise. Turn left, past the church which is also being restored. This part of Sceaux contains several cafés and has a very attractive, village-like atmosphere.
Opposite the Café de la Paix, next to the former Mairie, is the entrance to the Jardin de la Ménagerie, so called because the Duchesse du Maine buried her pets here. The two stately stone columns mark the graves of her canaries.
Cross this little park diagonally to the left, emerging at a crossroads with a fountain. Cross the main road, the Avenue de Camberwell, and take the quiet residential road straight ahead, the Rue de Penthièvre. Turn right at the end into the Rue du Lycée, then first left for the little RER station at Sceaux.
All southbound RER B trains from St Michel-Notre Dame to Robinson or St Rémy lès Chevreuse stop at Bourg la Reine about every 5 minutes and take 13 or 17 minutes. Trains from Sceaux run every 15 minutes, taking 19 minutes to St Michel-Notre Dame. Details
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