MUSEUMS, CHURCHES, GALLERIES: as much as they give us a remarkable insight into the culture of their country, I have found that they aren’t always the best way of ‘breathing’ in the city in the way we, the ravenous tourists, want to. Of course, they have their place, and rightly so, but after a day’s walking, bag-carrying, map-turning and any other such hyphenation you can think of, the prospect of another museum fills me with little excitement. And so to a park. The sacred ‘lungs’ of any city, parks attract everybody: the posers, the philistines, roller-skaters, the culture vultures, the old, the young, the toned runners – the list goes on. It’s a place where you can just ‘be’ rather than ‘sightsee’ and given that most city parks are sights in their own right, we can kill two birds with one stone. Although I don’t recommend doing that in any park.
The French have a verb – lézarder – which can best be translated as ‘to lounge around in the sun’ and if I can find a nice chunk of green amongst the buildings and boulevards, I will happily lézarder all day long.
Richmond Park, London
One of London’s greatest assets is its open spaces, and they come no larger than Richmond Park. The largest of London’s hallowed Royal Parks by some margin, it’s quite special. Although it may be 10 miles outside the city’s heart, it doesn’t matter. It feels, at certain spots in the park, that you are hundreds of miles from London, such is the sight of its wild grasses and famous deer (of Fenton the Dog fame) who more or less have right of way across these 2 360 acres. It has enough hills and troughs to keep the most energetic of walkers happy, but plenty of gentle lawns and ponds for the most leisurely of picnickers. If you do, for whatever reason, need reminding you are within London’s grasp, it has spectacular views of The City and beyond from its various vantage points.
Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris
If there is anywhere in Paris more perfect , it has to contend with the Jardin du Luxembourg. It even sounds pretty. Whenever I picture it, I picture the avenues of fruit trees and the flowerbeds with the Grand Palais du Luxembourg looking over it all, which unsurprisingly look stunning when the sun’s out. It feels peaceful here, as if the sculptors and landscapers who all shaped the garden designed it so it always would be so, and being just minutes away from the main drag that is Boulevard Saint-Germain, it’s definitely a good thing. Victor Hugo loved it so much that it was a key setting in Les Misérables and if the Parisians today love it, too, then it must be good.
Margaret Island, Budapest
I love the fact that rather than declaring a rectangle in the city centre a public garden, the Hungarians opted to devote an entire island to the cause. Okay, it’s not the size of the Isle of Wight but it’s a island nonetheless and it sits, like a pearl, in the middle of the Danube. It’s changed quite a bit from when it was first named in honour of St Margaret, who was sent to live in the convent here by her father in the 13th Century. Although her convent’s ruins can still be seen, you’ll have to look amongst the spa, countless trees, sunbathers, aviary, fountains, joggers, theatre and Japanese garden to see them. In order to keep the island’s air as pure as possible, cars and motorcycles have been restricted for some time – perhaps a better idea then isolating your daughter to a nunnery.
Englischer Garten, Munich
You don’t need to have a degree in German to figure out how it translates (though I wish someone had told me that), but Munich’s Englischer Garten is so-called because of the English style of landscaping it emulated, which was seen in many gardens across Europe at the time. History lesson over, Munich’s premier open space – one of the world’s largest parks – runs outwards from the city centre for some distance and it’s difficult to comprehend how far that ‘distance’ is without exploring it (or at least looking at a map). Unsurprisingly, it’s favoured by tourists and Münchner alike, at any time of day, and given the vast swathes of green along the River Isar, it’s not hard to see why. And it’s the only park I know of where you can surf.
Phoenix Park, Dublin
Something a lot of people aren’t aware of – if they’ve even heard of it at all – is that Phoenix Park, sprawling across the north west of Ireland’s capital, is one of Europe’s largest urban parks. Its size is testified by the fact that it plays hosts to pop concerts and the like but quite like Richmond Park (which is slightly larger than it), it’s easy to forget that you’re so close to a capital city, particularly when you see rutting stags and old monuments that wouldn’t look out place in a village in County Clare. More or less a completely walled park, Páirc an Fhionnuisce, as it’s known in Gaelige, is also home to one of the city’s main attractions, Dublin Zoo, but the thing I find most remarkable about the place is that almost a third of the country’s population at the time descended on the park for a speech given by Pope John Paul II. Admittedly that third was only one million people, (only a small country!) but it still sounds a lot…
Villa Borghese Gardens, Rome
I’m sad I never had the chance to have a proper look at the Villa Borghese Gardens when I was in Rome. Like the Englischer Garten, they were styled in the English fashion, and you might be able to draw parallels between these gardens and some of the landscape gardens in England, but at the same time they feel so Italian with the pine trees and sculptures, not to mention the Villa Borghese (now the Galleria Borghese), that it’s forgivable if you can’t. It’s either a touristic coincidence or clever planning on the Italians’ part that the gardens wait for you at the top of the Spanish Steps – that is if you can make way your around, over and under the tourists sitting on them. But once you’re there, it’s so green, perhaps no more so than any other urban park, but in the midst of the sun-drenched streets of Rome, it definitely feels like it.
In the heart of Berlin, sprawling around the Berlin Victory Column, is the Tiergarten, or ‘Animal Garden’. But to call it just a ‘garden’ seems unfair – it’s certainly a lot more than flowerbeds and a playground. As far as city parks go, it’s certainly impressive. It seems as though the city has grown around this oasis of trees and ornamental ponds, and not the other way round. Getting lost among its avenues and memorials is probably a nicer experience than you might think, since in certain parts of Germany’s second-largest urban park you could be in a forest from one of the Brothers Grimm’s tales. And the best thing about that is not the Hansel and Gretel-like pathways that lead you to shady glades, but that there’s not a single chance of encountering a big bad wolf. Not unless you end up in the Berlin Zoo in the park’s south-west corner, that is…
Park Güell, Barcelona
What looks at times like a gingerbread village in a kaleidoscope is actually Barcelona’s finest open space. A living canvas to the city’s most famous resident, Antoni Gaudí, this park is actually a finished piece of his work. If you can recompose yourself after the dizzying walk up the hill and from the equally dizzying display of mosaics, you will appreciate the fresh jewel in busy Barcelona’s crown. Although my experience of Barcelona was a drizzly one, I know the city can become particularly hot and hazy at ground level and having the option to take refuge above it all in a setting such as Park Güell is one I’d take. Its views across the city and out across the Med are worth the climb and its colourful quirks and wavy lines are, in my eyes, a nice change from the streets criss-crossing down below.
Bois du Boulogne, Paris
From the symmetrically-pleasing parterre of Jardin du Luxembourg, a visit to the other end of the horticultural spectrum in the Bois du Boulogne is something worth doing. You could be forgiven for thinking you were in a forest, but technically, you are in a forest (thus Bois du Boulogne) that spreads itself along the western edge of the city. I like the fact that, like the Bois de Vincennes in the east, it has an almost wild, National Park kind of feel to it where the trees seem so much taller, and a left turn ahead can take you to La Grande Cascade, a statue or the edge of a lake. France’s most famous racecourse, Longchamp, can be found here and the famous red clay of the Stade Roland Garros is just outside the park’s southern edge.
St James’s Park, London
I didn’t want to end this list without giving a mention of my favourite of Central London’s parks. It’s nowhere near the size of Hyde or Regent’s, and I think that’s why I like it so much. Effectively Buckingham Palace’s back garden, it has everything a park should have and even a little extra (I’m referring to the pelicans). It looks good at almost any time of year, most notably in late spring and early summer when everything’s in bloom and I always feel obligated to at least walk past it, if not through it, whenever I’m in London. Its location is unbeatable, and framed by sights such as the London Eye, Horse Guards Parade and Big Ben, I don’t think there is any green space in London I would rather spend my time in.