Saturday, January 26, 2013

Le Jardin Tropical du Bois de Vincennes

Entering the Jardin Tropical was like entering a different world. The silence was eerie. There was no movement, nothing stirring, only a forest-like environment with complete solitude. Keeping in mind the historical background of the garden and viewing the vestiges of what had once existed made the whole experience seem out of time.

At the end of the 19th century, France set up a tropical agricultural research center in the Bois de Vincennes to increase crop yields of cacao, coffee, bananas, rubber, vanilla, nutmeg and other spices, which were crops raised in France’s colonies. However, in 1907, it became the site of a colonial exposition. Six different villages were built in the Jardin Tropical, representing areas of the French colonial empire at the time– Madagascar, Indochina, Sudan, Congo, Tunisia and Morocco (including a Tuareg desert camp.) Architecture was replicated and hundreds of men and women were brought over from the French colonies to be exhibited to crowds of visitors. In addition, there were authentic recreations of pavilions of Congo, Indochina, French Guiana, Madagascar, Dahomey and Tunisia. Two million people came to see it all during the six months of the exposition. For the visitors, going to the colonial exposition was like being transported to another world; their first exposure to people and practices so far-removed from their own must have been an unreal but fascinating experience. In addition, the belief that it was Europe's duty to bring civilization to heathens gave visitors a sense of racial superiority to the native peoples on display.
When the agricultural research center was moved to another site, the garden gradually deteriorated into ruins and remained abandoned until 2003, when it was bought by the City of Paris. Since then, the site has remained neglected, either for lack of funds to renovate it (it would probably take 6.5 million euros to renovate the garden) or because it’s an embarrassing reminder of an exploitative period in French history. In any case, the disintegration of the garden continues and only vestiges of the pavilions and mini-villages are all that’s left.

Entrance sign to the Jardin Tropical, located at 45 bis, Avenue de la Belle-Gabrielle,
in the Bois de Vincennes, 75012

Entrance to the Jardin Tropical with the Chinese Gate in the background
The Chinese Gate

La Porte Chinoise (The Chinese Gate) is situated at the entrance to the Jardin Tropical. To the right of this gate is the Asian part of the garden, and to the left is the African part. On this gate, sculpted in wood, were flowers and other intricate designs, but time has taken its toll, and the bas-relief figures and ornamentation are either gone or no longer as distinct as they once were.

A path leading into the garden
Khmer bridge and stupa, a religious monument, from a distance
This is the Khmer Bridge of the 7-headed naga, which is a serpent-being. Its fan-like rendering is on either end of a concrete bridge. The Buddhist naga has the form of a cobra-like snake, usually with one head , but sometimes with many. Some nagas are capable of using magic powers to transform themselves into human shapes.

Monument aux Cambodgiens et Laotiens morts pour la France (Monument to the Cambodians and Laotians who died for France) This monument is a stupa, a Buddhist religious monument. It is dedicated to the combatants in Indochina who were from Laos and Cambodia.
Dedication plaque on the stupa

Small Chinese pagoda
Path across the Khmer bridge leading to the Esplanade du Dinh
The original temple on the Esplanade du Dinh was built in South Vietnam and brought by the French government to the 1907 Exposition in the Jardin Tropical. It represented an elaborately decorated dinh, a town hall typically found in a Vietnamese village. It was quite large with intricate wooden ornamentation. In 1919, Emperor Khai-Dinh dedicated the temple to the Indochinese soldiers who died in World War I. On the night of April 21, 1984, the temple was destroyed, presumably by arson. It was replaced by La Pagode Cochinchinoise rouge (The red South Vietnamese pagoda) built in 1992.
Memorial dedicated to the Indochinese soldiers who died in WWI
The Red Pagoda replaced the original Vietnamese temple destroyed by fire
Plaque dedicated by Emperor Khai-Dinh

Red Pagoda
Red Pagoda

Stone dragon motif on the steps
Facing the temple across the courtyard is a very large portico
In the center of the courtyard is a bronze funeral urn, a copy of one of the 9 funeral urns of the palace of Hue, the imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty in Vietnam from 1802 to 1945.

Bronze funeral urn
Small lake
Le Pavillon de la Tunisie (The Tunisia Pavillion)
The slats in fan shapes are part of an art installation. It is interesting-looking, but I don’t think the art complements the building or vice-versa.

On the path leading away from the Tunisian Pavillion

A view from the back of the Tunisian Pavillion
A pond behind the pavillion
Le Pavillon de L’Indochine (The Indochina Pavillion) is still in use for environmental offices.
The Indochina Pavillion
La Serre du Dahomey (The Greenhouse of Dahomey - Benin today)
The heated greenhouse of Dahomey for tropical plants is located beside the Indochina Pavillion.
The bas-reliefs on the greenhouse were inspired by plant and animal life.

A man-made waterfall for the exposition

A sculpted wooden bridge
A man-made lake
The kiosque of Reunion Island
The kiosque is all that’s left of the Le Pavillon de la Reunion (Pavillion of  Reunion Island, off the southeastern coast of Africa)

The kiosque was meant to be a place to sample exotic food and drink from the French colonies; its interior panels displayed 16 species of wood from tropical trees. Today the wood is somewhat degraded, but the wood has resisted the elements without having been treated beforehand.

Kiosque of Reunion Island
La statue d’Eugene Etienne, a French politician, is situated just beside the kiosque of Reunion Island. He was born in French Algeria. He was the Under-Secretary of State to the colonies from 1887 to 1892, Minister of the Interior, and Minister of War before World War I.
Le Pavillon de la Guyane (The Pavillion of French Guiana)

French Guiana is located on the North Atlantic coast of South America.
Le Pavillon de la Maroc (Morocco Pavillion)
Remnants of blue mosaic tile above the window and door of the Moroccan  Pavillion
Sculpture of Perseus
Perseus, having slain Medusa, is holding her head aloft. Perseus killed Medusa (a monster with snakes for hair who turned people to stone if their gaze met hers) in what is now Morocco in the Garden of the Hesperides, the Greek version of the Garden of Eden. I’m not sure why this sculpture is in the garden, so I can only guess about the mythological connection. Maybe the sculpture is located in what was originally the Moroccan area, as it is nearby the Moroccan Pavillion.
A large obelisk dedicated in the 1920s to commemorate the sacrifice of colonial troops from Madagascar
Memorial to the soldiers of Madagascar

Inscription on the memorial

The Chinese gate on the way out of the garden,
looking toward the Avenue de la Belle-Gabrielle
This was not an easy place to get to. It is located at the eastern edge of the Bois de Vincennes, adjacent to the suburb of Nogent-sur-Marne. After visiting the Chateau de Vincennes, in the northern part of the Bois, I had planned to take a bus to the Jardin Tropical. My husband and I questioned every bus driver at the nearby bus station, but none knew where the garden was. Neither did the taxi drivers, or else they just didn’t want to go that way. We went home. On Sunday, we set out again, this time taking the RER Line A, the railroad line from the Gare de Lyon to Nogent-sur-Marne. Unfortunately, there was no one at the information kiosque at the Gare de Lyon, so we used a metro ticket to board the RER. Don’t do this. You can get ON the train, but you can’t get through the turnstile at the Nogent-sur-Marne station with a metro ticket. We are not scofflaws and never try to cheat the subway system, but there was no one in the station office, so we did the only thing we could do--ducked under the turnstile, since we are not young and agile enough to hop over it.

The garden was a short walk from the RER station. Runners in a 5K race were streaming by on the Avenue de la Belle-Gabrielle, which passed right by the garden. All commotion and noise stopped once we entered the garden. Although it is in a deteriorating state, the garden was fascinating, and even my husband was intrigued. I can only imagine what this garden would look like if the buildings and grounds were restored to their former glory. I loved this place--although it was deserted and solitary, it was alive with history.






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