It began as a bet. In 1775, Marie Antoinette’s brother-in-law, the Comte d’Artois, said he could build a park in six weeks. She said he couldn’t. They wagered the equivalent of $200,000. He won the bet at a cost of approximately $4,000,000 in the currency of the day. It may not have been a sound return on investment in terms of dollars and cents, but Parisians are still able to enjoy the Parc de Bagatelle in the Bois du Boulogne. Nine hundred workers toiled on the site to transform it into a garden fit to host a Queen. The count hired a Scottish garden designer, Thomas Blaikie, to continue work on the gardens after the bet was safely won.
The park passed to successive new owners who placed their stamp of creativity upon it. Today it is a blend of new and old; and of French, English, Scottish, and Asian elements. The Bagatelle does not reveal its secrets all at once. It unfolds gradually, like one of the roses in its justifiably famous rose garden, here a waterfall, there a Chinese pagoda, around the corner, a swan in the lily pond created to honor Monet.
By some miracle, the Bagatelle survived the Revolution. Afterward, it changed hands several times. Napoleon used it for hunting meets. An oriental-style pavilion, still standing, was built to allow the Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, a commanding view of the equestrians in the ring below. Now 9,000 roses representing 1,200 different varieties bloom from June to October where horses once pranced. The rose gardens have been the site of an annual competition since 1907, the prestigious, international Concours du Roses Nouvelles. The fragrance of the roses is almost overpowering in its intensity. Roses of every type clamber over ropes and arbors. They are trained in tree form or allowed to sprawl to the verge of the boxwood edged bed. It is simply glorious.
During the Restoration period after the Revolution, the Bagetelle was returned to the Artois family, who sold it to Lord Seymour in 1835. He and his adopted son, Sir Richard Wallace, expanded the park adding an orangerie and more stables. It stayed in the Seymour family for the next 70 years. The city of Paris bought the park in 1905 to keep it from being broken up into building lots by a careless heir of the property. The orangerie now hosts a Chopin festival, but the stables are gone. Horses have been replaced by roses. Comte d’Artois’ little palace, the Trianon, plays host to concerts and exhibitions throughout the year, including the Louis Vuitton rare and classic car competition, held annually during the last weekend in June.
Following the serpentine paths will take you to courtyards displaying formal statuary, a small scale Trianon, a grotto, waterfalls, a belvedere, iris garden, ornamental vegetable garden, and an elegant restaurant for when you are ready to rest after all your walking. One of the most striking views in the park is the ultramodern skyline of the office towers in La Defense juxtaposed against Comte d’Artois’ chateau. Time has marched on, but the beauty of the park remains. The visitors who enjoy the peace and beauty are the real winners of that long-ago bet.
A bagatelle means a little trifle, a nothing. It was the name of the little pink garden house that was on the property when the Comte d’Artois and Marie Antoinette made their not so trifling bet, and it’s still there today. The Parc de Bagatelle is one of my favorite places in the world – lovely in any season of the year.