Peace­ful refuges in bustling Euro­pean ci­ties

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - TRAVEL - RICK STEVES

The grandeur of a big Euro­pean city can get drowned out quickly by the hub­bub of hu­man­ity and ca­coph­ony of cars. Hap­pily, you’ll find places to stroll, bike and peo­ple-watch in parks and gar­dens all over Europe. Here are a few of my fa­vorite ur­ban spa­ces in Paris, Lon­don and Barcelona, Spain.

PARIS: On my trip to Paris this sum­mer, I was struck by the spe­cial en­ergy of its river­side prom­e­nade along the Seine, a space given over to liv­ing the good life. In what used to be a street busy with traf­fic is a new world for ex­er­cis­ing, hav­ing fun with the kids, or sim­ply dan­gling one’s feet over the wa­ter and be­ing in the mo­ment.

And, for a month ev­ery sum­mer, a one- mile stretch of the Seine’s Right Bank turns into the Paris “Plages” — col­or­ful ur­ban beaches with 2,000 tons of sand. It’s not the French Riviera, but this string of fan­ci­ful faux beaches — with pot­ted palm trees, ham­mocks and lounge chairs — makes a fun re­lax­ation zone. You’ll also find “beach cafes,” climb­ing walls, pre­fab pools, tram­po­lines, a li­brary, beach vol­ley­ball, bad­minton and Fris­bee zones.

Else­where in Paris, parks let com­mon­ers lux­u­ri­ate like aris­to­crats. The city’s grand­est park, Tui­leries Gar­den, was once the pri­vate prop­erty of kings and queens. Close to the Lou­vre, Orangerie and Or­say mu­se­ums, the Tui­leries is a won­der­ful place to clear your mind af­ter view­ing all that art­work. Scat­tered among these green­ery beds are sev­eral cafes, ponds with toy boats for rent and tram­po­lines for jump­ing.

One of Paris’ most beau­ti­ful spots is Lux­em­bourg Gar­den, an Im­pres­sion­ist painting brought to life. It’s busy but still re­lax­ing. Some of the pret­ti­est (and qui­etest) sec­tions lie around its perime­ter. Within its 60 acres, there’s a tran­quil­ity and re­fined or­der­li­ness, with spe­cial rules gov­ern­ing its use ( for ex­am­ple, where cards can be played, where dogs can be walked and where jog­gers can run). Slip into a green chair pond­side, go jog­ging, play ten­nis or bas­ket­ball, sail a toy sail­boat, or take in a chess game or mar­i­onette show. The bril­liant, im­pec­ca­bly tended flower beds are com­pletely changed three times a year, and the boxed trees are brought out of the “orangerie” in May.

More off Paris’ beaten path is La Coulee Verte Park, also known as Prom­e­nade Plantee. This skinny, two-mile-long park is a nar­row gar­den walk on a for­mer el­e­vated rail­way line. It’s now a de­light­ful place for a re­fresh­ing stroll or run, and ama­teur botanists ap­pre­ci­ate its vary­ing veg­e­ta­tion.

LON­DON: Lon­don’s parks — like just about ev­ery­thing in the city — sit on a foun­da­tion of his­tory. These invit­ing green spa­ces, once the do­main of kings, are now the sun­bathing grounds of com­mon­ers. Hyde Park, a 600-acre ex­panse in western Lon­don, was orig­i­nally Henry VIII’s hunting grounds. To­day, it’s the per­fect place for mu­se­umed-out tourists to play and run free. It’s filled with lush green­ery, along with pad­dle­boats, a lake­side swim­ming pool, rental bikes, a ten­nis court and a putting green. On Sun­days be­gin­ning around mid­day, visit Hyde Park’s Speaker’s Cor­ner to see grass­roots democ­racy in ac­tion. Here you’ll hear all sorts of pas­sion­ate souls rant and rave about go­ings-on — and heck­lers with op­pos­ing view­points.

Ad­ja­cent to Hyde Park, beau­ti­ful Kens­ing­ton Gar­dens was once the pri­vate play­ground for roy­als liv­ing in Kens­ing­ton Palace. It’s ideal for strolling, with memo­ri­als, foun­tains, stat­ues (in­clud­ing a bronze Peter Pan), and a Peter Pan-theme play area for the kids.

West of Lon­don is Kew Gar­dens, with 300 acres and 33,000 types of plants. For a quick visit, spend a fra­grant hour wan­der­ing through three build­ings: the Palm House, a hu­mid Vic­to­rian world of iron, glass and trop­i­cal plants; a Waterlily House that Monet would swim for; and the Princess of Wales Con­ser­va­tory, a me­an­der­ing mod­ern green­house grow­ing count­less cacti, bug-munch­ing car­niv­o­rous plants and more.

BARCELONA: Spain’s sec­ond- largest city is a crowded tourist mecca, but you’ll find respite in its big­gest, green­est space — Citadel Park — an oa­sis of wide path­ways, ver­dant trees and grass, and a zoo. Orig­i­nally the park was the site of a much- hated mil­i­tary citadel, a sym­bol of Span­ish rule over Catalunya. In 1888, Barcelona trans­formed the fort for a Uni­ver­sal Ex­hi­bi­tion (world’s fair). The stately Tri­umphal Arch at the top of the park served as the fair’s main en­trance, sym­bol­i­cally cel­e­brat­ing the citadel’s re­moval. En­joy an or­na­men­tal foun­tain that the young An­toni Gaudi, the city’s most fa­mous Modernist ar­chi­tect, helped de­sign; con­sider a jaunt in a rental row­boat on a lake; and take in the trop­i­cal Um­br­a­cle green­house and the Hiver­na­cle win­ter gar­den.

Some­times Amer­i­cans pack too much into their itin­er­ar­ies. Re­lax. You’re on the other side of the world play­ing games in a con­ti­nen­tal back­yard. En­joy Europe’s green spa­ces to catch your breath, get away from the crowds and hear your­self think.

Rick Steves’ Europe/RICK STEVES

Put your weary feet up in Lux­em­bourg Gar­den, a pic­turesque place to ParisSeerechargein .

Rick Steves’ Europe/DO­MINIC ARI­ZONA BONUCCELLI

Lon­don’s many parks pro­vide a peace­ful respite from the bustling city.

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