Real Autumn Tracked Down

photo: air house, parc belleville

The belvedere of the Maison de l'Air.

In the Parc de Belleville

Paris:- Wednesday, 3. November 1999:- At this time of year, when Paris produces fine, clear weather, it is for being outside and not inside, where Christmas decorations are going up before the Halloween ones come entirely down.

From inside my apartment my street is a blue canyon, but just outside my door I can see it is gold in the east and blue overhead. I have been chasing autumn leaves for six weeks now - and somehow the leaves have hung on and on; but now they are ready to change colors and carpet the ground.

Therefore, today is park day. With the clear air, it is a 'high' park day. But first, Nigel stopped in last night on his way back from Barcelona, and I walk with him over the RER station where he catches the train to go to the airport at Roissy.

After, I tour the place around Denfert-Rochereau, looking for this week's posters. If they are okay, theyphoto: view of parc de belleville are blotted out by sunlight. If they are so-so, I skip them, while making a note of the good ones to find again, later.

I have never been to the Parc de Belleville, which is a 'high' one, in the 20th arrondissement just below the métro station Pyrénées. Like the nearby Parc de Buttes-Chaumont in the 19th, it also shows what can be done with an old gypsum quarry.

The park's 'vertical' - more of the park lies to left and right.

A city park brochure mentions that this area was composed of farms, windmills and vineyards before the good Baron Haussmann demolished a lot of Paris' slums in the 1860's, forcing their inhabitants to seek lodging elsewhere.

There is not much space in this brochure to also mention that King Henri 1st ceded the area - which was a royal domain near the present métro station - to the monks of the Abbey of Saint-Martin-des-Champs in 1060.

Also not mentioned, before the name 'Belleville' began to be used at the end of the 18th century, the area had been called 'Savies' since the seventh century. Eleven or twelve centuries is a long time for a place to keep the same name, even in Paris.

In an earlier feature about the Rue de Belleville, it turned out to have a history as an out-of-town party zone; from which huge and extravagant carnival parades started their trek into town. Part of it included cabarets near the present park, which was only really opened as such in 1988.

Since walking downhill is easier, I come down the Rue de Belleville from the métro - with the Tourphoto: covered stairs Eiffel visible in the far distance - and turn left into the Rue Piat; which was about the upper limit of the Courtille 'party zone,' but below the village of Belleville proper.

To the left of the 'vertical,' this covered descent parallels it.

So then, before Haussemann chased poor people out of Paris to this area, it was already a thriving quarter - although somewhat rural. The monks expanded their part to 23 hectares before declining around 1705 and dissolving in 1767.

Because the park in partly in a former quarry - another source of gypsum for Pairs' plaster needs - I looked up all the surrounding streets by their names, which revealed no information about the quarry itself.

Who owns real estate is more important than what is done with it, unless it is a famous church property, some big-nobs' 'hôtel' or a historically-notorious cabaret or dance-hall.

The beginning of the Rue Piat could use some renovation but further on, in the area at the top end of the park, there are fairly modern public housing buildings.

The park's shape is hard to describe. In bits and pieces, it forms sort of a crescent on the flank of the rise. From a platform at the top, there is a central axis going downhill, while the park straggles out to the right and left of it.

On this platform, there is a gull-winged building, which is called the Maison de la Air - which is a great look-out for a panoramic view of western Paris.

On a lower level there is an 'Air' museum, which explains everything you might want to know about air - such as the pollution of it. The park is also has an air-measuring station, which providesphoto: autumn tree info about its quality, as well as having a hookup to a weather satellite. The museum part opens at 13:30.

Over to the left - the south - there still in a vineyard; the one originally used by Raponeaux, for his cabaret in the Rue d'Orillon. The park is confusing because of its crescent shape, and its 'transversals' intersected by its verticals.

Lower in the park some trees are changing colors.

The vertical, a series of stairs and fountains, draws me down like a magnet. But this 'vertical' has intersecting pools, and these have to be transversed to either right or left. What I don't realize, is that most of the rest of the the park is in these directions.

I keep descending because for the first time this year I see golden leaves. Up above there were a few kids on the sunlit terrace by the 'Maison de l'Air,' and lower down a few people are quietly sitting and reading on benches, arrayed around the pools that are placed on the vertical line.

While all this can be seen in general from above - in it, it is much more complex. There seems to be a lot of bamboo, there seems to be a lot of everything that composes the kingdom of plants. Yet to either side, there are large areas of grass.

The water tumbles down the middle in steps, 25 metres from top to bottom. Near the end the central axis is almost like a tunnel with overhanging leaves, and I see the final pool.

There appears to be someone in it. It is a bather, taking a refreshing dip on this not overly-warm day in November.

"Yes," he says, "I swim here every day. It is not deep enough to properly swim though." He has a kit in a sack, as if he were at a summer's beach.

"Every day?" I ask, "Even in winter?" I am thinking it is winter already - but of course, if the leaves are only changing this week and started to fall - it is merely autumn.

"Oh, no," he says, "Not in winter."

At a pool higher up there is a sign saying what it contains is not drinking or swimming water, but this final pool seems to be exempted. When I suggest he write to the mayor to mention the pool's lack of depth - the swimmer declines with a laugh.

I can understand. As it is - only 30 to 50 centimetres deep - he is still all alone in it; practically in his own private pool with a fountain in the middle of it, at the bottom of the Parc de Belleville, in east Paris.

At the bottom of the park, the sky is showing veryphoto: the shy swimmer little blue between the increasing clouds, so the swimmer is toweling off in a hurry and it is time for me to go.

The shy swimmer's pool has the most shade, near the park's bottom.

After the park, it is east Paris on the Boulevard de Belleville and the Moroccan part around Coronnes and Ménilmontant and further on towards the Père Lachaise cemetery, the Lycée Voltaire is being gutted from the inside and at the Rue de Roquette I turn west into the 11th.

The sky is now grey and high and all the views are close-up. All the parks I pass are tiny local affairs and if they have pools, they are no more than ankle-deep.

Just about as I always do, I read the information brochures and look up the area's history after making the visit. This means I have missed more than half - the 'wooden village' over on the Coronnes side, for example - of the attractions.

The grand view - I expected, because it has been used in movies and shown on television, but seeing it in person is better. Seeing some trees in their autumn colors is something that has been on my 'search list' for weeks.

Now that I've found them, winter can start. It feels like it is ready to do it. Even if some watersports fans are still active.

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