Sunday, March 4, 2012

where the wild things are

My absolute favorite thing about Paris is not having a car.  Have I mentioned that before?  I don’t miss driving for a minute.  It helps considerably that we live in the center of it all.  We are mere minutes’ walking distance from sprawling parks, art museums, cafes and stunning cathedrals.  Our grocery store is around the corner as are two pharmacies and countless specialty food shops. 

In the course of daily activity, we cover a lot of ground but Saturday is reserved for venturing out and extending our scope of the city.  The metro occasionally comes into play but we travel by foot whenever possible.  We see so much more that way.

On one such outing, we made our way to the menagerie (zoo) at Jardin des Plantes.  Our path to the zoo took us through the charming, cobbled streets of the Quartier Latin (Latin Quarter), where tourists and students mingle amongst a sea of cafes, crêperies and Irish pubs. 

gothic spires and gargoyles sprout from saint séverin cathedral

Along the way, we passed Saint-Séverin cathedral, with its gothic spires and menacing gargoyles.  The church’s location in the heart of the Latin Quarter seems out of place in an area best known for its raucous nightlife.

It never ceases to amaze me, the way ancient history exists intact around nearly every corner in Paris.    The city’s past is well-preserved and mingles seamlessly with modern day life.  I am humbled by all that there is to know and learn.

DSC_7172 a fitting juxtaposition of old and new

Just past the Latin Quarter, we stumbled upon a smaller, less imposing church, Saint Julien Pauvre, and traipsed through the surrounding courtyard.  This simpler stone structure is one of the oldest churches in Paris, dating back to the 1300’s.

the grounds at saint julien de pauvre

Annabelle was intrigued by an old stone well turned planter box.  She was curious as to how life might have been centuries ago when water was drawn from it. 

DSC_7175 a wishing well, perhaps?

Near Jardin des Plantes, we passed through an unassuming arched doorway and found ourselves standing on the ruins of an ancient Roman arena dating back to the 1st century AD.  Later research revealed that the Arena of Lutece had once housed upwards of 17,000 spectators.  It served as a place where gladiators waged battles and actors performed before the masses.  Originally, the arena was surrounded by stone walls with high arches and bleacher-style seating extending up to the rafters.  It was restored in the late 1800’s due in part to the tireless efforts of Victor Hugo. 

DSC_7271  view from the nosebleed section at arena of lutece

Eventually, we reached our destination, the Menagerie des Jardin des Plantes, a small zoo situated in the heart of the park.  We had been to the zoo on past vacations but this was our first visit since moving to Paris.  Winter at the zoo takes some extra gumption and proper layering and this chilly February day was no exception.

annabelle at the menagerie

Unlike most animal friendly zoos in the States where you pay to see expansive habitats and few visible animals, this French zoo is of the old school variety.  In other words, not so good  for the animals but great for getting your money’s worth.  Such is the paradox of zoo enjoyment.

DSC_7233 i am monsieur ed.

In addition to the usual suspects, French zoos house a number of animals we’d never before laid eyes upon.  All the animals’ names are in French, so it’s often tricky to know what we’re seeing without looking it up.

DSC_7187this is what you get when you cross a house cat with a river otter

We saw everything from Chinese red pandas to good old American raccoons.  I’d like to thank whomever came up with the winning idea of shipping pesky backyard raccoons off to French zoos.  Brilliant!

I was particularly enthralled by the zoo’s impressive array of owl species.  Owls are cool.  Ironically, the French word for owl (chouette) is also the word for cool.  They have a heyday around here with this play on words.   Imagine if we said, “Owl!” every time something was cool.

DSC_7212 too cool for school (in french, that would be a play on words)

My runner up for best in show was the dromedary.  Now there’s an interesting animal.  Camels are alright but dromedaries are way cooler.  Their solitary hump is oddly endearing.  They have friendlier eyes with long lashes and are generally less smug-looking than their two-humped counterparts. 

DSC_7241 one humped wonders

The ape house was amusing as always.  One orangutan had a blue blanket, similar to the one Linus toted in the Charlie Brown comics.  He would cover himself entirely and then peek out through a tiny opening. 

DSC_7215 what the orangutan saw (as taken through the glass on the other side)

At first, I wondered if the orangutan might be hiding under the blanket to avoid attention but it was soon apparent that he enjoyed putting on a show for his rapt audience.

DSC_7217 giving linus a run for his money

We were too late for the reptile house, which closed its doors for the night just as we approached.  In fact, the whole zoo shut down rather efficiently.  French parks don’t mess around when it comes to closing time.  Park workers simply want to go home and eat a nice cassoulet with the family.

DSC_7264 well, that was fun.

When we left the zoo, it was cold enough to warrant fast walking and frequent toe wiggling in an effort to keep warm.  We vowed to return and visit the snakes in the springtime.

DSC_7184 we were colder than we look

The zoo is one of many activities located within Jardin des Plantes.  Jardin de Plantes has a less structured feel than some of the other major parks in the city.  It is not as manicured and has more trees, as well as numerous paths and walkways and even a good-sized hill with a gazebo at the top. 

On one side of the park, at least half a dozen stately brick buildings are filled with natural history exhibits, including dinosaur bones and an intact skeleton of a blue whale.  Like all good French parks, there’s a cafe for refueling, as well as a carousel and playground to satisfy its youngest patrons. 

DSC_7270   lovely statue in jardin des plantes

We don’t visit this park as often as we’d like because it’s a bit of a trek, but that makes it all the more special when we do. 

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