A Park Full of Old Everything

central garden & grande galerie
From the quai Saint-Bernard, it is about 500 metres to the Grande Galerie.

Hunting Bear in the Jardin des Plantes

Paris:- Wednesday, 18. March 1998:- Reading the eMail from Ron Roizen will explain why I'm bear hunting the Jardin des Plantes, out of season. I figured it would be easy; waltz in and shoot the bear, and continue my life somewhere else.

With the weather oscillating between winter and spring, doing a job like this requires 'good-enough' weather for traipsing around in a park, and it isn't on hand every day - so when opportunity strikes, one has to take it. Today has 'find-the-bear' weather.

Paris' Botanical Garden, located at the east side of the fifth arrondissement, is not my usual beat. I have visited it on purpose once before, and walked through it by accident one other time.

Known as the Jardin des Plantes, it is sandwiched between the ugly university buildings of Jussieu and the Gare d'Austerlitz.

The quai Saint-Bernard is on the northeast side of the jardin and there is so much traffic that having one of these dogs could be useful for getting across it to the Seine. Along its banks, there is the Musée de Sculpture en Plein Air - dubious air I would say - which is also known as the square Tino Rossi.

If you are coming from the Gare de Lyon for some reason, after crossing the pont d'Austerlitz, you can use the jardin as a clean-air shortcut to the rest of the fifth arrondissement.

Today though, I come out of the métro at Jussieu. After checking out the students and the fountain, I head for the jardin along the rue Jussieu, past the exceedingly boring-looking facultyentry rue cuvier of Sciences building. I go into the jardin by the entrance in the rue Cuvier, against a stream of students coming the other way.

The entrance to the gardens from the rue Cuvier looks more antique than promising.

The first buildings look as if they are going to fall down. In the children's play area, I look back and see one of the faculty buildings has the name of Marie Curie and it looks older than she was. The children have a fairly-new spiky dinosaur to climb on and a lady is telling one of them not to fall off it. The kid will be falling off things in about two years, but is being careful now.

I do not see the slab of a 2,000-year-old Sequoia from California - does Ron know about this? - mentioned in my old Michelin guide; and it may have been moved. However after looking at a map, I see a bird-cage on a hill, which is probably the 'butte Coupeau,' which was moved here sometime after the other hill called Coupeau was flattened in 1303. My antique Michelin guide says Buffon did it in the 17th century, and it is the tip of an old rubbish dump.

The 'bird-cage' is at the highest point in the centre of a maze. On account of a very large cedar, planted in 1734, I see no bear. Legend has it this tree was brought from Syria in a scientist's hat, but it is supposed to have really come from Kew Gardens, just across the channel. Everybody agrees about its age though.

Gardeners are hacking away at winter jungle as I go down to the iron and glass houses that are full of tropical plants. Across a very wide place, I see an open door and I head for it. Inside, they do not know about my bear. It is the Mineralogy Museum and taking photos in it is forbidden.

The big, clean building to the left is the Zoological Gallery - which was closed for renovations when my Michelin guide was printed - and is now open, according to a brochure in German, from 10:00 to 18:00, except on Tuesdays. Apparently some bombs hitting it in WWII caused it to be closed for a long time and Parisians were very unhappy about it. It is nowthe winter garden called the 'Grande Galerie de l'Evolution' because it has a lot of stuffed giraffes in it.

This is not the bear cage. It is the winter garden, where you can be tropical in Paris.

The Botanical Gallery is further down to the right and the Paleontology Gallery is beyond that. The brochure in German says there are a thousand skeletons in it; dinosaurs, the whole prehistoric works. The Bug Museum, at 45. rue Buffon, is in an annex, outside the main complex, across the street and I do not see it at all.

The zoo takes up the whole northwest corner of the gardens; probably about a third of the total area - the zoo is 5.5 hectares - and it is the oldest public zoo in the world; founded in 1794.. Within this zoo there is a 'microzoo' where you can see, through microscopes, really tiny bugs; that, as the brochure in German puts it, 'live in our forests and our homes.'

The whole thing was started around 1635, as a garden for royal drugs - medicinal, you understand - it was the 'Jardin du Roi.' Along the rue Cuvier there were residences; that of Chomel, doctor to Louis XIV and botanist, who wrote a history of plants.

In Louis XVI's time, Buffon asked for the house to be added to the gardens. The street is named after Cuvier who died in 1832 after doing remarkable studies of anatomy and mineralogy, plus bones, and something about studying the earth's revolutions in his spare time.

The names Lacépède, Daubenton and Fourcroy were professors at the museum while André Thouin was chief botanist of the garden. There was, is, the 'Maison de Chevreul,' where famous scientists lived to be 88 like Laurent de Jussieu or 103 like Chevreul, a chemist, who died in 1889.

Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, was a zoologist until he died in 1844, and lent his name to the street that borders the southwest side of the gardens. Most of the others lent their names to Paris' streets too. My notes say, 'Hôtel Debray, 1650 - built by Bullet - Chomel, lived in 1701' - and so on.

Many of the exhibits date to a long time ago and so do thekid's dinosaur buildings, and some of them are as antique as their exhibits. There are a great many 'firsts' of this and that in this garden and in its various museums.

The dinosaur is not an exhibit; it is for children to climb on and in.

Some day the managers of all this are going to get some money and fix the place up because it is truly unique. As it is, it is like a museum of a museum and as such it is a delight to see now - before it gets upgraded.

Even if you do not care for microscopic 'household' bugs and things like the world's oldest stuffed rhinoceros, halls full of very old bones, and piles of rock crystals, there are still the winter garden, the summer garden and the long allées, lined with trees, all of which have illegible labels on them. But in summer, they do have very real and really green, leaves.

Oh, I forgot. There are a lot of statues around, not just of bears about to eat a careless Indian, but of other people, like Buffon. There's a sundial, there's a... there's so much stuff in Paris' Jardin des Plantes, it's like a... zoo.

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