I like parks, their atmosphere of calm. Nature is all around you. City parks are great to visit in your home city and, more importantly, while on holiday. They are the oases in the vast metropolis in which you’ve trusted your tourist guile. Trusting guile can be tricky; you need a safety net. Find a park.
I think city parks should be part of every urban travel experience. Years ago I realized that “destination” should not be the purpose of travel. Movement itself, I have found, is the honey within travel’s great tree of opportunity, its branches drawing you out from the ground, into the air, away from what is known and comfortable in order to experience. Are you experienced? Have you ever been experienced?
A walk through a single museum sends you to the heights of aesthetic pleasure, and also leaves your legs aching from tramping across cold, damp stone floors (there is a reason Medieval life spans were just 35 years!). Visit two museums in a day—London, Rome, Paris, Kiev, or wherever—then walk through a ruin, wait in lines, jostle and be jostled by tourists, and your will ceases to be free. You begin to fizzle. Now repeat this four days in a row. You are about to hit the tourist wall. If this happens, you may miss not only what you’ve come to the city to experience, but you will get home with the feeling that you need another holiday just to get over the one from which you only just returned. Likewise, bitchiness can set in, where you snap at your companion, slap the kids, look at who are around you rather than what is in front of you, and basically turn into a curmudgeon—all because you tried to do too much.
I see this all the time. I’ve seen it in every European city, in every train station, in museums, restaurants, churches, street corners, even on romantic river cruises. I’ve even heard it coming through the walls at hotels. I wondered why these people were traveling together, or a worse thought, how could they live together? I’ve lived this agony, too, where on Day 4 of the 8-day holiday you suddenly wonder, “Why didn’t I just stay home for a week and catch up on sleep, take in a film, be alone?” Bad attitude.Where I seldom saw such ugly displays by people was when I happened to pass through a city park on the way to yet another “I need to see this!” museum, statue, ruin, or who the hell knows what else. In these parks I saw people smiling, sitting together hand in hand, bending down to smell a rose, reading a newspaper, watching their kids run like mad beasts around a playpen, or sitting lazily beside a pond, just soaking up some sun. This happened to me in Hyde Park, Orsteds Park, Hof Sebrects (oh, yes!), and at the Boboli Gardens. The first time I saw this, in Prague‘s Franciscan Garden, I imagine I wondered how these people could just sit and relax when there is so much stuff to do! I marked them down as locals and went off in search of tourists to jostle. This happened 20 years ago. What stuck with me about that trip after I got back to my job was the park—not the art museums, the stuffed mummies, or that expensive meal.As I got wanderlust, I began to stop at the parks in whatever city I happened to be touring. Just for 10 minutes or so, at first. Soon, city parks were part of my experience. I seldom pass up the chance to walk through a park or spend a half-hour reading, writing, or just staring off into space (a colorful flower is such a space). And when I do pass up that chance, I double back later so I experience what there is that could have been missed.
Traveling tires the body, and worse, the mind. When we travel, we expect mealtimes to be our rest times, and then we hop back up on that horse to charge onto the next site. After all, you have only a few days to pack it all in. If you’re coming to Europe from overseas, you likely have even more of a sense of urgency to see everything on your list. See this, see that … see, see, SEE.
But the mind can take just so much picture viewing before it turns their beauty into a mush of color. Likewise, you can stand in lines or within a scrum of people just so much before you say “Enough!” and bypass what may be the best part of a city visit. I felt that when I toured the Louvre a few years back.
So, again…Why parks? A park is a park: you wander in, find a bench, relax, perhaps eat a packed lunch. If you’re lucky, a café is there for you to sit for a coffee or cool drink. A park is a park.
Well, yes, the uses of any park are nearly universal. If you have kids, you’re heading for the swing-sets; if you don’t, you’re headed in the opposite direction. Lovers enjoy intimate spots for quiet conversation, flirtation, laughter. Photographers look for people in action, or statues draped by shadow. Teens like open fields for sports games, or smooth concrete for skating. Wanderers find paths through the forest; people in contemplation often sit on the banks of a pond. The Park. We know why it’s there.
All these uses of a park make every park unique, in fact, not the same. Unique perhaps as a fingerprint, because all who use parks are themselves unique. Everyone has his or her own favorite use for their neighborhood park: a best time to go, where to sit, who to watch (we recidivists know each other, even if but a nod is all that exchanges between us).
For these European city parks, I’ve tried to point out the obvious and the unique for each park: Warande Park‘s hidden groves beyond its wide stone boulevards; how Venice‘s Royal Gardens rise up quickly so the eye has all this natural beauty amid the surrounding stone towers; and where Wilanowie Palace Gardens has draped a section of Warsaw in nature’s palettes for centuries. Likewise, I’ve tried to strike a balance between how people use a park and the individual park’s unique qualities. When I set out on a month-long rail and bus trip to visit a dozen cities and their two dozen city parks, I warned myself that there was going to be a lot of overlap between one park and the next. Not only would my camera be important to highlight the “slim” differences, I had thought, but I needed to be ready for the slightest prick of inspiration (like a stealth mosquito) to “write up” the best parts of European’s great city parks—if in fact those were to be found.
I have to admit that I was very wrong to have such fears about what I might find. My camera seemed to find its own eye; I thought I might get a blister on my trigger finger. Just in Berlin‘s Tiergarten, I took more than 300 photographs! I also found myself keeping pen and notebook close at hand because of all the great and unusual sites I found in each park. These are not exaggerations.
I expected a good trip around Europe and maybe drink some good beers; what I got were 2,433 photographs, 113 pages of notes, and the idea that I was not alone in my love for parks, passion for walks, finding the best benches for a snooze, watching, admiring, sunning, meeting new people, talking all kinds of politics, sharing home recipes, and being among nature while a whole huge metropolis buzzed around me.
What you will find on these pages, then, are not so much travel tips & tricks—we’re talking parks here, after all—but an idiosyncratic look at the best and underrated city parks around Europe, along with my sketch of the city in which the park grows. As I said up front, travelers and tourists deserve to give themselves a rest from the constant attention-grabbing sites, artworks, buildings, churches … or the work they do while passing through the city.
City parks are almost always within a couple of blocks from tourist “destinations” and are just waiting for you to find them: Krakow, Poland has a park—The Planty—that rings the entire Old Town neighborhood; the Leaning Tower of Pisa is surrounded by a park … how easy is that to find a recreation park? And, really, for all the beauty you have traveled miles and miles to absorb inside buildings, produced by the hands of men & women, why not enjoy the beauty of nature, colors that inspired those same artists, shapes that moved architects to design buildings? Besides, visiting parks has been medically proven to decrease blood pressure, relieve eyestrain, and generally induce a good old-fashioned snooze beneath a shady tree.
This European-parks travel guide will not be static. I visit new parks every couple of months—many parks—so they will find their place on the site. Likewise, I revisit parks in the cities through which I travel, and I will be updating what more I see, changes to the park, more bits & odds about what’s to do and where to go outside the park. What I want to do, as well, is to take photographs of all the parks as each season changes their beauty from one side of their face to the other. So when you visit the site in winter, you’ll see winter landscapes; and autumn will snap your senses against nature’s colorwheel. Ah, yes! Lots of travel. Many more parks. A fresh palette for each walk.
Comments on the parks & the site are welcome. Beware! As the parks and cities are built as pages, the only place to comment is on this post, through the comments link at the bottom of the post. Sign in and let me know what you think.
I hope you enjoy European City Parks. Find a city you’ve yet to visit; find a park that grabs your imagination. And then…experience.