The Bois de Vincennes (French pronunciation: [bw?.d(?).v.s?n]), located on the eastern edge of Paris, is the largest public park in the city. It was created between 1855 and 1866 by the Emperor Napoleon III.
The park is next to the Château de Vincennes, a former residence of the Kings of France. It contains an English landscape garden with four lakes; a zoo; an arboretum; a botanical garden; a hippodrome or horse-racing track; a velodrome for bicycle races; and the campus of the French national institute of sports and physical education.
The Bois de Vincennes has a total area of 995 hectares  (2,459 acres), making it slightly larger than the Bois de Boulogne, (846 hectares/2,091 acres), the other great Parisian landscape park located at the western side of the city. It occupies ten percent of the total area of Paris, and is almost as large as the first six arrondissements in the center of the city combined. The Bois de Vincennes is about three times larger than Central Park in New York City (341 hectares/843 acres), and is slightly larger than Richmond Park in London (955 hectares/2,360 acres); but is smaller than Griffith Park in Los Angeles (1,170 hectares/2891 acres). Only about half of the Bois de Vincennes is covered with trees.
The bois de Vincennes was part of the ancient forest that surrounded the ancient Roman town of Lutetia; at that time it was called Vilcena, the origin of the present name. In about 1150 King Louis VII (1137-1180) built a hunting lodge at the site of the present chateau. King Philippe-Auguste (1180-1223) enclosed the forest with a wall, stocked it with game, and began building a castle. King Louis IX, or Saint Louis (1226-1270) built a chapel next to the castle to house an important religious relic, which he believed to be the crown of thorns from the Crucifixion of Jesus. He was also famous for holding a royal court of justice under an oak near the chateau.
In 1336 King Philip VI of France (1293-1350) began construction of the imposing donjon of the Château de Vincennes. The work was continued by his successor, Jean II of France (1319-1364), and finished by Charles V of France (1338-1380), who surrounded the donjon with a rectangular wall flanked by nine towers. He also began to rebuild the chapel founded by Saint Louis. The new chapel was called La-Sainte Chapelle, modeled after the Saint-Chapelle in the Palais de la Cité in Paris. It was not finished until the 16th century. A hunting party in the forest is shown as the December scene in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1412-1416), with the towers of the chateau visible in the background. The forest was also the home of a community of monks of the order of the Minimes; their presence is remembered by the name of the Lac des Minimes within the park.
In 1654 Cardinal Mazarin commissioned the royal architect Louis Le Vau to build a new palace for King Louis XIV next to the chateau. The new palace featured a pavilion for the King and another for the Queen, separated by a portico and by a wall connected by arcades to the medieval section of the chateau. The donjon had been transformed into prison in the 15th century. The palace was popular with the King for a time, but once Louis XIV established his residence at Versailles, the château of Vincennes was rarely used.
In the 18th century Louis XV (1710-1774) opened the park to the public, excepting servants in livery. He had hundreds of trees planted and laid out long straight alleys through the forest in the form of intersecting stars. In 1731 he constructed a pyramid-shaped monument to mark the meeting point of the two main alleys, which can still be seen.
The 14th century donjon of the Château de Vincennes, a former royal residence and then a prison, is now open to public.
The Château de Vincennes and its park in 1724.
Beginning in 1794, large parts of the Bois de Vincennes were turned into a military training ground. Some of the structures of the old chateau were demolished, and a firing range was built. In 1840-43, a new fort was constructed in the park east of the chateau, and a 166 hectare section of the park was cleared and used for military parades and exercises.
In 1854 the Emperor Louis Napoleon, and his new Prefect of the Seine, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, decided to transform the Bois de Vincennes into a public park. Haussmann had three major projects for Paris; to improve the traffic circulation of the city, for both practical and military reasons; to build a new system to distribute water and take away sewage; and to create a network of parks and gardens all over the city. The purpose of the park was to provide green space and recreation to the large working-class population of eastern Paris, similar to the Bois de Boulogne, which Louis Napoleon had begun building in 1852 for the more affluent population of the west side of Paris.
To build the parks, in 1855 Haussmann created a new Service of Promenades and Plantations, led by an engineer, Jean-Charles Alphand, who was already at work on the Bois de Boulogne. Alphand was a master organizer, the builder of the most famous Paris parks of the 19th century; besides the Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes, he built the gardens of the Champs-Élysées, the boulevard of the Paris Observatory, Parc Monceau and the Parc des Buttes Chaumont.
Alphand stated his philosophy of gardens very clearly in his memoir Les Promenades de Paris: "When we say that a garden should preserve a natural appearance, we don't mean that it should be an exact copy of the nature which is around us. A garden is a work of art." While nature and the site gave the general lines, the art consisted of the "combinations of forms, colors, and light." Alphand carefully composed his picturesque landscapes out of lawns, groves of trees, flower beds, streams and lakes, visited by taking winding paths.
Alphand's task was made much more difficult by the nature of the site. In the center of the park was an enormous military training field, completely cleared of trees. Around the base were firing ranges, a factory for making ammunition, and several forts and redoubts, which occupied large tracts of land. Even after the park was created, the Army continued to build; A new military shooting range was opened in 1860, and a school of pyrotechnics was built in 1864.
Alphand solved the problem by annexing addition sections of land at the edges of the park, and by creating three smaller parks around the Bois, each with its own artificial lake and picturesque landscape. Lake Daumesnil, designed like a romantic landscape painting, had two islands, and sloping green lawns. The Lac des Minimes to the north included some of the ruins of the original Medieval monastery that once stood there; and the Lac de Saint-Mand? in the southwest completed the park. This last lake was higher in elevation than the others, on the Plateau de Gravelle, and therefore provided water to the other lakes through artificial streams. Trees, lawns and flower beds were planted by Jean-Pierre Barillet-Deschamps, the chief horticulturist of the city, who had landscaped the Bois de Boulogne.
Alphand saw that the park had popular attractions and concessions to attract visitors and to help pay for the park. A large hippodrome, or horse-racing track, was built in the southeastern corner of the park, similar to the Longchamps hippodrome at the Bois de Boulogne. There were cafe-restaurants at the different lakes. The park was also decorated with picturesque architecture, mostly designed by Gabriel Davioud, the city architect. His works included the grandstands of the hippodrome and the Temple of Love, a round doric temple which was placed on a promontory on the Isle de Reuilly in Lac Daumesnil, above an artificial grotto. On the same island was a Swiss chalet (taken from the Paris Universal Exposition of 1867), a cafe, a bandstand, and buildings for vendors and game concessions. A swinging suspension bridge connected the two islands in the lake.
Jean-Charles Alphand, the builder of the Bois de Vincennes, the Bois de Boulogne, and many of the other great parks of Paris.
At the 1900 Summer Olympics in Paris, most of events took place in the Bois de Vincennes. The Velodrome, which seats forty thousand spectators, was built for the cycling events. The park hosted the first international cricket match between England and France; England unsurprisingly won.
In 1899, an experimental tropical garden had been established in the far eastern end of the park, where rubber trees, coffee trees, banana trees and other tropical plants were scientifically studied. In 1907, this garden became the site of the first Colonial Exposition held in Paris, designed to showcase the cultures and products of the French colonies. The exposition featured six villages, complete with inhabitants, from the different parts of the French Empire; an emcampment of Tuaregs from North Africa; a farm from Sudan; a village of Kanaks from New Caledonia; and villages from Madagascar, French Indochina, and the Congo. The Exposition was seen by two million visitors.
During the First World War, the Dutch spy Mata Hari was imprisoned in the fortress of Vincennes and executed by firing squad in the moat of the fortress on 15 October 1917. Eyewitnesses reported that her hands were not bound, and that she refused a blindfold. According to the legend (not documented), she is said to have blown a kiss at the firing squad, and to have said, "What a strange custom you French have, to shoot people at dawn."
In 1929, the Bois de Vincennes was officially annexed to the city of Paris and included in the city's 12th arrondissement, similar to the Bois de Boulogne which was attached to its 16th arrondissement.
The convicted spy Mata Hari was executed in the moat of the fortress of Vincennes at dawn on 15 October 1917.
For six months in 1931, the Paris Colonial Exposition took place in the Bois de Vincennes. Like the earlier 1907 exposition, It was designed to showcase the culture, products and resources of the French empire, but it was much larger. It occupied the side of the park along the length of the Avenue Daumesnil. The features of the exhibit included the Palace of the Colonies. In front of the palace was a large gilded bronze statue by Leon Drivier entitled France bringing peace and prosperity to the colonies. It had pavilions from each colony and from other nations, cafes and theaters, a Senagalese village complete with inhabitants, and a zoo.
The exposition featured eight spectacular fountains, fed with water from Lake Daumesnil. The Grand Signal was a centerpiece of the exposition, a tower forty-five meters high, which spouted water from the top and from jets at nineteen different levels. Two other fountains created a bridge of water forty meters long between the two islands in the lake. A third fountain, called the Theater of Water, was an arc of towers and spouts eighty meters long, which in evening performances produced cascades, jets and curtains of water colored with electric lights. These were early ancestors of today's musical fountains in Dubai and Las Vegas.
Several vestiges of the fair can still be seen. The entrance gate is still standing. After the Fair closed, the Palace of the Colonies became the Museum of the Arts of Africa and the Oceania. In 1934 the zoo was moved to its present location, and embellished with a sixty-five meter high artificial mountain, which became the home of a collection of mountain goats and sheep. The pavilion of Cameroon was preserved and turned into a Buddhist temple and religious center.
During the Battle of France in 1940, the Chateau was the headquarters of the French General Staff. It was heavily damaged and not fully restored until the 1990s. At the end of World War II in 1945, the French army began to move out of the Bois de Vincennes.
The Bois de Vincennes is home to four artificial lakes. The water for the lakes was originally pumped from the Marne River, but today comes from a pumping station near the Pont d'Austerlitz on the Seine.
The Arboretum de l'École du Breuil, in the park's southeast corner, is a municipal arboretum established at this location in 1936. It was created in 1867 by Baron Haussmann as the city's school of horticulture and arboriculture. Today the arboretum contains about 2000 trees, as well as notable collections of shrubs, four hundred varieties of heritage apple and pear trees, and three hundred varieties of lilac.
An Alnus serrulata or hazel alder tree in Arboretum.
The donjon of the Château de Vincennes is open to the public.
The Buddhist Religious Center, originally the Cameroon Pavilion of the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition.