In 1560, a certain Jean Nicot introduced tobacco to Catherine de Medici, raving about its various healing powers. The queen and her court were soon hooked — and the ambassador would go on to be immortalised in the word nicotine.
The backstory of tobacco in France has long infused smoking with an air of nobility; its cultural cred has also been enhanced by Baudelaire waxing lyrical about smoking, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre naming it as one of life’s most important things, and of course, cigarettes having a starring role in practically every French movie.
Francophiles of a certain age will well remember how eye-wateringly smoky Paris once was. But about ten years ago, the city started to get a little healthier. You saw organic eateries open, people jogging outside, and — zut alors! — restaurants ban smoking. To this day, if you want to eat and smoke, you must sit en terrasse or head out to the trottoir.
But even la liberté to smoke in open public spaces has been somewhat curtailed, with the announcement that 52 Parisians parks — 10% of green space — are now officially smoke-free.
Some of these parks happen to be gorgeous little secret gardens, so if you’re after a breath of fresh air, in both senses of the expression, the next time you’re in town, head to one of these nooks:
Square Louvois 75002
This petite park is often overlooked, overshadowed as it is by the beautiful Palais-Royal gardens nearby. But the square is worth a visit if you need some calming time-out — or for admiring the splashing fountain. This impressive monument, dating from the 1830s, pays homage to the four great rivers of France, in the quartet of glamorous female statues standing between the upper basins; also note the astrological signs etched into the rim of the middle basin.
Jardin Madeleine de Scudéry 75003
Buy yourself a healthy lunch of sushi or dahl at the Marché des Enfants Rouges and find a seat in this neighbouring park, which doubles as a veggie garden. This sweetly rustic corner is named after a celebrated sixteenth-century author, whose famous salon was in a townhouse on this very spot; her old walls, and her light-hearted spirit, are all that remain.
Square Saint Médard 75005
Wander south down the market street Rue Mouffetard, buying a baguette, cheese and berries as you go. When you reach the end, just before the pretty Fontaine Guy Lartigue, you’ll notice a narrow garden just to the side of the old church. It’s a lovely, leafy place for an impromptu picnic.
Square Gabriel Pierné 75006
This delight of a park, just behind the Institut de France, is especially gorgeous in April, when its cherry blossoms burst into bloom and then shower the cobbles in a confetti of pink petals. Take a seat — a green garden chair or a stone bench — and admire the eclectic surroundings: the gilded Baroque dome, olde-worlde wooden shopfronts, and an ivy-draped townhouse (which, fun fact, starred as Julia Child’s house in the film Julia and Julia).
Square Alex Biscarre 75009
The doors of the Hôtel Dosne-Thiers (now a library owned by the Insitut de France) are rarely open to the public, but at least the grand townhouse’s old backyard is a charming space for all to enjoy. Claim one of the comfortable benches that are dotted around the circular lawn, and admire the bursts of flowers and inspired mix of trees. It’s a handy spot to know if you need a break when you’re trekking uphill to Montmartre.