Bois de Vincennes – The 2,500-Acre Eastern "Lung" Of Paris

Idyllic lakes, a world-class zoo, and a temple of love, Bois de Vincennes may be another legacy of Napoleon III, but it also boasts a 1,000-year history. Spanning 2,459 acres, it's the largest park in Paris and is considered the oxygen-giving left lung of the city. (The Bois de Boulogne being the "right lung".) You could pack the first six arrondissements into the Bois de Vincennes and still have room to spare. That's how big it is.

Bois de Vincennes, photo by Mark Craft

So, when you're tired of the city streets, catch Metro Line 1 to its eastern terminus and take a break in the Bois de Vincennes to revitalize yourself with what it has to offer — extensive trails, bicycles to hire, lakes & boat rentals, a castle to explore, a children's farm, a mini-golf and a historic garden. And that's not to mention one of Europe's major zoos. Let's look at just a few highlights of the magnificent Bois de Vincennes.

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The Four Lakes of Bois de Vincennes

Lac Daumesnil

Each of the park's four lakes was designed to reflect the era of Romanticism. The three artificial lakes, and one natural lake, were carefully designed to include islands, waterfalls, suspension bridges, grassy knolls, and faux ruins like the Temple of Love.

Lac Daumesnil resembles a Romantic landscape painting with its two islands and sloping green lawns. Lac des Minimes put the original ruins from a Medieval monastery to a new use, and also has a magical cascade (waterfall) tumbling into the lake.

Lac de Gravelle in the southwest corner, is the smallest lake in the park. And Lac de Saint-Mandé, the highest in elevation, supplies water from the River Marne to the other lakes through artificial streams.

Parc Floral de Paris

Bois de Vincennes, photo by Mark Craft

Parc Floral de Paris was created in 1969, drawing inspiration from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The 69-acre garden features hundreds of iris varietals, a sculpture garden, and a monumental fountain. There's a greenhouse dedicated to bonsai. It's also a popular venue for a number of free special events during the year, including the Paris Jazz Festival, the Peacock Festival, and Festival Classique au Vert. This is also where you'll find a parcours course and a 18-hole mini-golf course designed as a miniature version of Paris, replete with all the famous monuments.

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The Paris Zoo

The Paris Zoo

The Paris Zoological Park (Parc Zoologique de Paris) opened in 1934. The most popular and enduring feature is the 215-foot high artificial mountain. The zoo has recently undergone a multi-year, 200-million Euro transformation, reopening in 2014. Today, it's a state-of-the-art zoo with five realistic biozones where animals live as near to their natural habitats as possible.

A Brief 1,000-Year History of Bois de Vincennes

Chateau de Vincennes 1724

Mirroring the Bois de Boulogne, the large park on the west side of Paris, Bois de Vincennes was historically used as a hunting ground for royalty. Louis VII (1137 to 1180) built the first hunting lodge here, where the chateau now stands. In 1336, Philip VI began construction of the Chateau de Vincennes.

In 1654, Louis Le Vau (you know, the royal architect who designed Versailles) was commissioned to build a palace for the Sun King, Louis XIV. The new Chateau de Vincennes was popular for a time until Versailles captured Louis' heart. It was Louis XV who opened the park to the public and had hundreds of new trees planted. In 1794 much of Bois de Vincennes was transformed into a military site and would become the main training ground for Napoleon's Grande Armée.

In 1854, forty years after the fall of Napoleon, his great-nephew Emperor Napoleon III and the latter's sidekick, Baron Haussmann, began the transformation of Bois de Vincennes into a leisure escape for the large population in the east of Paris. Of course, Haussmann did more than just re-jig the bois — his master plan for Paris included improving traffic circulation, building a new water and sewage system, creating the broad boulevards we see today, and turning the city into an oasis with a network of parks and gardens. This was a crucial step in creating a place for the bourgeois class of the Belle Epoque to enjoy the good life.

But Haussmann didn't do all the work by himself…

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The French Engineer You've Never Hear Of

Lake at Bois de Vincennes

To execute his ideas, Haussmann enlisted top engineer Jean-Charles Alphand, who had proven his skills in his work at Bois de Boulogne. Think of Alphand when you visit the Paris parks built by him during the 19th century — Bois de Boulogne, Parc Monceau, Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, and Bois de Vincennes.

Alphand believed his job was to recreate nature, not copy it. In his arsenal were lawns, groves of trees, flower beds, streams, lakes, and winding paths. Not just an engineer, Alphand also was an entrepreneur who thought of ways to attract visitors to help pay for the park. A large horse-racing track was built at Vincennes to rival the Longchamps hippodrome at Bois de Boulogne, and cafes and amusements were opened at the each of the four lakes.

He had his work cut out for him given the core of the park was a military training field with forts, firing ranges, and an ammunition factory. Alphand solved the problem by annexing land to create satellite parks, each with its own lake and picturesque landscape.

All of these achievements were on display when the The 1900 Summer Olympics were held in Paris and the majority of events were held in the Bois de Vincennes. The cycling velodrome was built with seating for forty thousand spectators. It was in the bois that the first international cricket match between England and France was played.

In 1929, the Bois de Vincennes was brought into the Paris city limits as part of the 12th Arrondissement.

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