What remains of the Siege of Paris in this old theme park?
Most theme parks have a name that promises something, whether it’s thrills and adventure, or a world focused on particular characters. Le Jardin d’Acclimatation (The Acclimatation Garden)…not so much.
Maybe that’s part of the reason it’s easy to overlook this charming little theme park located in a corner of the Bois de Boulogne, in the swanky neighborhood of Neuilly sur Seine, which borders Paris.
Still, I have to respect the fact that le Jardin d’Acclimatation has held onto its name, branding be damned. It’s a name that goes all the way back to 1860, and has been frequently uttered since then, including during the Siege of Paris.
For most historians of the Siege, the Jardin d’Acclimatation is best known as the source of many of the exotic zoo animals that Parisians ate as the long, nearly meatless months went by.
But it was created for quite the opposite reason. A sort of collaboration between the Société Impériale Zoologique d’Acclimatation (Imperial Zoological Acclimatation Society) and Napoleon III, its purpose was to help new species of animals and plants acclimate to the Parisian weather. From the day it opened in 1860, the park was also used as a place for people to see this exotic flora and fauna (including an aquarium!), and stroll around.
As time went on, stands selling refreshments opened up, and le Jardin d’Acclimatation was one of many lovely Parisian places to stroll. Like any Second Empire park worth its salt, in addition to its own natural features, it also had features like an artificial cave and man-made bodies of water.
.…And also like any Second Empire park worth its salt, it was requisitioned shortly before the Siege of Paris began on September 19, 1870. It would be used as a grazing area for an impressive amount of livestock brought in when a siege seemed imminent and it was clear that the city’s population would need food reserves.
At that point, some of the zoo’s animals were shipped away to other zoos for safety. Not all of the animals went far; many ended up in the Jardin des Plantes, a smaller zoo in the southern part of the Latin Quarter. As food for the animals became scarce, they were sold off to high-end butchers and restaurants, ending up on the plates of wealthy Parisians.
After the turmoil of the Siege and the Commune died down, the Jardin d’Acclimatation reopened to visitors in 1872. As the years passed, it moved away from its initial purpose to become a site of pure amusement, though often with a bit of education thrown in (this sometimes included the display of human beings from indigenous cultures, a practice that most of us would find horrific today, but that was typical at the time).
There were still zoo animals, but things like outdoor performances and even early rides for children also sprang up in the Jardin.
In 1875, a high stone tower was built to house homing pigeons. The structure is a direct descendant of the Siege of Paris, when pigeons were one of the only ways to send and receive messages from the outside world. The Siege made people realize how useful and important homing pigeons were, and soon, similar towers were set up in various places in France. This one is known as le pigeonnier de Gambetta, named in honor of Leon Gambetta, a charming statesman who proclaimed the 3rd French Republic, and took a balloon from Paris to the city of Tours during the Siege, where he tried to muster troops to help save Paris.
Le pigeonnier de Gambetta still stands today, a charming and striking landmark among modern roller coasters and a flying zeppelin ride.
Because by the early 20th century, the Jardin d’Acclimatation was part of a new trend: amusement parks. Of the early amusement parks then in Paris (others were Magic City and a Parisian Luna Park), only this one has survived.
That said, most of the rides at the Jardin d’Acclimatation today are modern, dating to the 2010’s. But there are a few that are older, including La Rivière Enchantée, which dates to 1928, and moves surprisingly fast for what’s supposed to be a lazy cruise among the foliage.
Despite its modern rides, the Jardin d’Acclimatation’s present incarnation is inspired by its past. It has a distinctly “steampunk” look, and in the central area of the park, old-timey music plays at all times. That’s about the closest the place comes to being like Disneyland Paris, which is a relatively short suburban train ride away.
Disneyland overshadows le Jardin d’Acclimatation, and it doesn’t help that the place itself doesn’t do a lot of aggressive marketing. Then again, I think that might be a deliberate choice.
Last weekend, my family and I visited it for the first time and discovered a strange but charming hybrid of theme park and regular old Parisian park. Everyone seemed happy and relaxed, but many of the rides were no joke, including three impressive roller coasters (the fourth one was undergoing renovations) and a ride called the Astrolabe that my husband, a fan of most thrill rides, dubbed a “vomit machine,” a respectful tone of awe in his voice.
Unlike my husband and son, I’m not a rides person. Chronic sinus issues make me feel off-balance often enough that I don’t enjoy any extra drops or lurches. But I was hoping for some thrills of my own. Would I find anything there that dated to the era of the Siege? Would there maybe even be some sort of memorial or or statue?
Fortunately, I wasn’t expecting much, so I wasn’t disappointed to discover that there wasn’t anything like that.
Still, there were a few surprises.
At one point in my family’s wanderings, we came across the old artificial cave I mentioned, now part of a llama enclosure. And there are some buildings near there that date to the park’s pre-Siege days. It was moving to see these places in this 1860 engraving of the Jardin d’Acclimatation that I found when researching this article.
But what moved me most was a booth I stumbled upon while waiting for my husband and son to finish another roller coaster ride.
The stand houses an old-fashioned pellet gun shooting game, where participants aim for hot air balloons, just as the Prussians who surrounded the city during the Siege were doing any chance they could. (Fortunately, most of the hot air balloons (which carried correspondance, homing pigeons, and passengers) that left Paris during the Siege managed to escape that fate.)
There was no context or explanation for the game, no old-fashioned depiction of Prussian or French troops during the War, or of besieged Parisians waving farewell to what was a symbol of hope and connection to the outside world. But I don’t think the theme was a coincidence. After all, a nearby stand featured homing pigeons, another likely homage to the Jardin d’Acclimatation’s past.
Seeing this stand felt to me like the past resurging, an inexplicable ghost that won’t leave. It’s one of the things I love most about Paris: The past always comes through, even when you’re surrounded by Snapchat ads and metal roller coasters.
A Beauty and the Beast retelling set during the 1870–1871 Siege of Paris, Hearts at Dawn has been selected as a Historical Novel Society Editors’ Choice book. It’s currently available in Kindle and paperback formats and is part of the Kindle Unlimited Library. I hope you’ll give it a read!
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I hope you enjoyed this trip to the Jardin d’Acclimatation. Feel free to subscribe to this blog or follow me on Goodreads or Amazon to find out when I publish new posts.
Until next time!