Even people who live in dramatic world cities have a sleepy Sunday now and then. Natasha, being mindful of my banged-up knee, suggested that we take on a mild walk in the Jardin des Plantes, a public garden we had first seen in the heaviest snow day that we’ve had in Paris! The natural history museum there was hosting a special exhibition of cut and uncut precious stones that had drawn her eye. She purchased tickets online, and soon we were on our way!
We rode line 8 to La Motte-Picquet Grenelle and then transfered to line 10, which passes through my favorite Saint-Germain-des-Prés district before reaching Gare d’Austerlitz. We were able to find the exit dropping us directly across the street from the Jardin des Plantes. I would give kudos to the McDonald’s site planner who realized that corner was a hot property.
We entered the park by its south-eastern corner. We first encountered the entrance to the Galerie de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie Comparée (Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy). We were interested in natural history, but this wasn’t the museum for which we’d bought tickets! We continued onwards and saw an amazing array of colored blossoms, spreading just as far as the eye could see. The Jardin des Plantes had been transformed since we first saw it in January!
As I have mentioned before, the parks of Paris are designed for active use, not passive looking. The many parallel paths of the Jardin des Plantes had plenty of families in motion along with many joggers. The tree-lined paths bracketed a central green just packed with little patches of flowers, each with helpful labels.
Natasha paused before a lovely space packed with warm colors. “Which of these flowers do we have planted at Turtle House?” she inquired. I picked at my collar nervously, having failed to study for the quiz. “Marigolds!” I suddenly ventured, pointing my finger. “Yes,” she replied, “and calendulas and zinnias, too!”
Moments later, a few sprinkles fell from the sky, and so we made a more concentrated effort to reach the museum entrance. I was distracted once again when I saw the Galerie de Géologie et de Minéralogie, but ironically that was not the location for the precious stones exhibit. We continued just a bit further to the entrance of the Grande Galerie de l’Évolution.
The Great Gallery of Evolution
We encountered a great disappointment when we entered the line for the precious stones special exhibition. Due to our misunderstanding the ticketing options, we had acquired tickets for the permanent exhibition of the museum but not for the precious stones. Compounding the problem, we learned that no more tickets were available for the special exhibition for today. It’s the sort of thing we would have caught if we had planned this visit earlier than this morning! We were crestfallen but continued into the exhibition space.
If you have ever explored a natural history museum crammed with small glass boxes with dusty taxidermy animals inside, please push that thought out of your mind. The Grand Gallery of Evolution occupies a building of 97,000 cubic meters, similar to the volume of Notre Dame Cathedral. Its three upper floors cover land animals, while the ground floor features sea life (it is below the floor you see in the image above). The panels in the ceiling change color from moment to moment, sometimes emulating thundershowers to accompany a soundtrack. It’s a surprisingly open indoor space.
Natasha and I felt right at home as we examined the beasts in the parade down the first floor, titled “the diversity of living things: terrestrial environments.” We were surprised to see just how many African beasts were represented in the parade. Since I am writing a manuscript on the spotted hyena right now, I was very happy to see that the taxidermy collection included both a striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) and spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), though I did not see a brown hyena or aardwolf.
I would draw special attention to a side gallery that appears on the second floor. “Menaced species, disappeared species” shows that man has become a factor in evolution, adding our unnatural selection to natural selection, both by hunting and by destruction of habitat.
This gallery of extinct and threatened animals is a hard one to visit, knowing that some of these species will soon fade from memory as no animals of those species remain in the wild. Since the logo used to mark each case was a dodo, I was disappointed that no dodo skeleton or taxidermy was on display; I believe that one was previously visible at the entrance to this hall, though it seems to be absent for now. The roll call is extensive, from California condors (fewer than 100 remaining) to Cape Lions (an example of which appears at the lower left in the image above). I particularly loved the Eurasian Lynx, a feline you would have to seek in Asia today.
A surprising artifact in the extinction hall was a beautifully machined clockwork installed at the Versailles Petit Trianon chapel in 1785 for Marie-Antoinette. It didn’t stay there long, since the Revolutionary government decided to move the machine to the museum in 1794.
I don’t think I would give you a complete account of the museum without mentioning some fresh material for my nightmares. The museum held two different stuffed gharials. That name didn’t mean very much to me, but these are crocodilians that grow up to six meters in length (just under 20 feet). The animals living in Southeast Asia have become critically endangered, with fewer than 1000 remaining in the wild. Some populations are being maintained in the upper reaches of the Ganges River, though. It is important to remember that non-cuddly animals deserve to live, too.
…and some lovely extras
Ever since I saw that the Great Mosque of Paris was next door to this museum, I have wanted a proper photograph of its minaret. Today the sunlight was beautiful and the cloudy skies were dramatic. I finally had my image!
I rejoined Natasha in the garden, and we would have lingered there if another cloudburst hadn’t come on-scene. We paused at the garden exit (where we had entered earlier) when we realized that the French had erected a statue to the founder of the doctrine of evolution. You might have expected to see Charles Darwin up there, but no, it was a majestic statue of Lamarck! Well, he had the benefit of being fifty years earlier and of being French. We’ll let that one slide.
Even though Natasha and I had fortified ourselves with brunch before we started our adventure, we knew we would be ready for proper food when we finished our adventure. We boarded the metro again, but this time we used line 5 to move from Gare d’Austerlitz to Gare du Nord. Generally we crave masala dosa, and sometimes WE CRAVE MASALA DOSA! It was our second visit to Chennai Dosa, and we emerged with happy bellies.
It’s not really straightforward to take the metro from Gare du Nord to our place, so we decided to walk off the dosas with a little constitutional down to the Bonne Nouvelle metro station on line 8. Our route was not very demanding since we we needed to toddle down Rue la Fayette, make a turn south on Rue d’Hauteville, and then stop when we ran out of road.
I had a bit of a problem when that turn to the south arrived, though. My attention was drawn by the lovely facade of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul. We had encountered the church only at a distance before; it’s a pretty prominent landmark to the left as one looks toward the city center from Sacré-Cœur atop Montmartre. I was fascinated to learn that this church was constructed on the site of the Saint-Lazare enclosure, which once served as a half-way house for wayward members of aristocratic families before it became a prison during the French Revolution. The current church only began construction in 1824.
Natasha and I ambled south, occasionally peeking back at the church as framed by the concrete canyon surrounding us. Rue d’Hauteville was a nice place to walk, since the cross streets were all minor and ground-floor businesses didn’t project into the road. When we reached its terminus at Boulevard de Bonne Nouvelle (my brain always translates this as “Good News”), we realized we were in proximity to three notable sites: La Esquinita Mexican Grocery, the Chocolate Museum, and our metro stop. Turning neither right nor left, we immediately descended for our ride home. Our nap awaited!