Heart of the city Parks: Across Europe and North America, little jewels await travelers on a common search for a respite.

May 03, 1998|By Harry Shattuck and Syd Kearney | Harry Shattuck and Syd Kearney,Houston Chronicle

While planning vacations in the great cities of the world, we carefully plot courses to the best-known museums, theaters, restaurants and shops.

But where do we discover a community's heart? Often in its parks and playgrounds, away from concrete and crowds and mass tourism propaganda.

Best of all, a walk in the park usually costs only time.

Londoners' appreciation for pomp and circumstance and spirited debate takes on new meaning in St. James' and Hyde parks. Fun-loving Bavarian charm is never more evident than in Munich's Englischer Garten. Vienna's Stadtpark stages open-air concerts beside statues commemorating classical musicians. Vancouver's Stanley Park is a wilderness in the shadow of downtown skyscrapers.

In the United States, tranquility pervades beneath ancient oaks in New Orleans' City Park. And San Diego's Balboa Park houses the world's most acclaimed zoo.

Herewith, some favorite city parks:

THE ROYAL PARKS

London

Few world capitals offer such an expanse of greenery: 1,700 parks encompass 67 square miles in Greater London, and it's possible to cover almost all of the inner city by walking from park to park.

St. James', Green and Hyde parks stretch contiguously to the west of Parliament and the theater district. All were once part of King Henry VIII's hunting grounds and were dedicated to public use in the 17th century. But each has its own character.

Military bands perform frequently within St. James' Park, and its central location makes this a favorite midday escape for government leaders, who doff their richly tailored suit coats to discuss affairs of state and watch ducks and geese in nearby lakes.

Green Park offers numerous shaded pathways, which are especially welcome on a warm summer day.

But none is more celebrated than Hyde Park, which borders London's fashionable Mayfair district. Open-air concerts have featured artists as diverse as Luciano Pavarotti and Mick Jagger, and locals have gathered since the early 1700s in and around the Serpentine, an artificial lake in the heart of the park.

A must-stop, especially on Sunday, is Speakers Corner near the Marble Arch at the northeast extreme of Hyde Park. Since 1866, when the government relaxed restrictions against free speech, orators have preached to their hearts' content about any cause. Audiences are allowed to heckle at their pleasure, too, and few resist. The frequent result is impromptu theater at its best.

Also notable is Holland Park, not because it's well-known, but because it isn't. Many people, even many Londoners, have not heard of it, which may be the niftiest thing of all.

In the better-known parks, everything seems manicured - carefully cropped lawns, scrupulously pruned bushes, trees with nary a dead limb.

But Holland Park, which isn't far from Kensington Park, is woodsy. Leaves lie on the ground to kick through. Limbs fall as they do in any forest and are not picked up. It feels like country. ctual cottontail rabbits have been spotted here.

And as a result, it is one of the few perfect escapes from London's cost-a-pretty-pound busy-ness.

In absolute contrast, Holland Park also has a superb little Japanese garden, called Kyoto Garden, with a perfectly harmonic convergence of gentle pond, graceful trimmed plants and perfectly coiffed trees. To sit and simply stare at this subtly beautiful scene, to let your mind shift to nothingness as the sizzle of traffic fades to a whisper is to find peace.

Never mind the peacocks that wander by. They are just a bit of British showiness.

Holland Park is about a half-dozen blocks west of Kensington Park, north of Hammersmith Road and south of Holland Park Avenue.

THE PEOPLE'S PARK

Madrid

Situated only about two blocks behind the Prado Museum, the Parque del Retiro in Madrid's stylish Jeronimos district is residents' favorite gathering place.

Originally a 17th-century Hapsburg hunting park and private estate, these 300 acres now feature immaculately maintained gardens, a jogging course, a bandstand and theater, several gazebos and open-air cafes with seating and a large lake used for boating.

Several architectural masterpieces flank the lake: Two elaborate palaces designed in the late 19th century by Ricardo Velazquez Bosco are still used for exhibitions, and a half-moon colonnade stands behind a huge equestrian statue of King Alfonso II. Beside a formal rose garden, the Monument to the Fallen Angel depicts Satanas, a handsome, athletic youth crashing down to Earth.

People-watching is an art form: No telling when a wedding party in formal dress will meander through the gardens.

ENGLISCHER GARTEN

Munich

Miles of wooded trails along the Isar River and great grassy lawns lure residents of Munich to Englischer Garten, the world's largest and oldest recreational park.

Named for its 18th-century landscaping style, Englischer Garten also is well known for its nude sunbathers. Housewives, students and briefcase-carrying bankers all are likely to stop and strip to catch a few rays.

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