I was first told about the iris garden in the Parc de Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne by the French librarian at the OECD, to whom I was giving English lessons at the time. It seems to be a local secret, visited mainly by residents of the exclusive 16th arrondissement in which the Bois is situated. Like the librarian, who made the excursion every year, I try to visit it between late May and June, when the different irises are all in flower together for a window of about three weeks. I’ve missed some years, although one year I successfully used the irises as bait to persuade friends to visit from London. They agreed I hadn’t exaggerated the effect.
This year I missed one self-appointed date and a friend cancelled at the last minute for the other. It was getting late on Friday 27 May when I decided to stick to my third plan, despite having been slowed down by chores, and plunged into the métro. I knew I couldn’t possibly get to Bagatelle before 7 pm and the park closes at 8, but I thought even an hour would be worth it. It was only when the bus which I had taken from the métro started crossing the Seine into Puteaux that I realised I had missed my stop and was being carried at a spanking pace into an unknown region beyond Paris.
With great presence of mind I hopped off at the next stop, crossed to the other side of the road and jumped onto a bus going in the other direction, horribly conscious of time ticking away. But the bus didn’t retrace the route I had taken. It turned off to the right along the Seine. With a sinking heart I got off and followed the river back in what I hoped was the right direction, only to see the footpath coming to an end and what looked like an endless motorway roaring along beside me into the distance. I asked the only pedestrian in sight, who knew as little as I did, although we both pored over our respective phones. Finally I took a tempting footbridge leading across the Seine to an island, mainly to get away from the traffic, turned right along the riverside footpath and after asking two more people for directions finally found myself at the edge of the Bois in familiar territory.
With aching feet I galloped up to the entrance to Bagatelle at 7.30 pm and got to the gate leading to the iris garden which was just being closed by a park attendant. He warned me it would only be open for another 15 minutes, as they start closing the park at 7.50 pm. I breathlessly thanked him, reached the garden and sank down on a bench within the sound of a little fountain splashing into the tiny canal that runs the length of the garden.
Right on cue, the sun came out and transfigured the irises. The garden was almost empty, something I have never experienced before, and the lengthening shadows and the unearthly cries of peacocks in the park outside completed the sense of having been suddenly transported to a different world. There were only two people there, both intently photographing the irises in different parts of the garden. They studiously ignored me, so I did the same. I sniffed at several irises to inhale their fragrance, which I have discovered varies with the colour. Some smell delicious, others less so. The pale blue ones still had the most delicate scent.
When the attendant came to ask me to leave I beamed at him and said it had been well worth it, and I meant it. It was only when I reached the bus stop that I discovered why I had missed my stop on the way there. The bus was on a deviation and I would have to walk back to the métro at Pont de Neuilly, something I had never done before. Feeling too devil-may-care by now to consult my phone I simply continued strolling along the quiet Rue de Longchamp, and made a useful new discovery. It is a more direct route to the métro than the one taken by the bus, less than 1½ km, and the street itself felt more and more soothingly provincial. Looking up just before no. 32, I was charmed to see an old sign forbidding people from letting their horses and oxen mount the pavement
followed by a plaque with the history of the house, which had belonged to the Victorian writer, Théophile Gautier.
The street ended in an unexpected little cluster of upmarket local food shops, restaurants and quiet cafés, outside which the well-heeled inhabitants of Neuilly sur Seine were sipping their aperitifs. It felt almost like a stage set for a French village. I turned right at the end of the street, using the phone to guide me this time, and there was the métro, in the busy main road which links the concrete square arch at La Défense to the Arc de Triomphe.
I felt as if I had been very far away from Paris in a very short time. With hindsight, every minute of that journey had been worthwhile.
You can consult the updated chapter on the Parc de Bagatelle in the new edition of Half An Hour From Paris, currently being prepared for publication.