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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

While it is not really legal to sunbathe nude, Munich policemen tend to look the other way even if the tourists don't.

Clothes are required at the parks' four beer gardens. The largest of these is adjacent to a Chinese Tower. On sunny weekends, the beer garden is packed with tourists drinking overpriced brews and listening to passable brass bands. (If you want to drink with the locals, head for the park's Hirschau beer garden.) Three miles long and one mile wide, Englischer Garten also is popular for its equestrian trails and Kleinhesseloher See, a man-made lake.

THE MUSIC PARKS

Vienna

During the peak season from September to May, the Opera House and concert halls in this Austrian capital overflow with the sounds of Mozart, Beethoven and other musical geniuses who lived here.

In summer, the classics expand to Vienna's parks.

What could be more romantic than dancing to a Johann Strauss waltz during an afternoon interlude in the Stadtpark, one of several retreats situated beside the Ringstrasse, a boulevard that arcs around the inner city? Evening concerts are scheduled here: in the Volksgarten (also along the Ringstrasse), in the courtyard of magnificent Schonbrunn Palace (accessed by tram or subway from downtown and notable for open-air chamber opera performances) and in other parks and gardens throughout Vienna.

A leisurely stroll through the Statdpark gives the sensation of visiting an open-air museum attesting to the city's musical heritage. Statues throughout the park honor classical greats, the most famous being a figure of Strauss.

A Mozart monument, erected in 1896, is among the main features of the Burggarten, a small park adjacent to the Hofburg museums and a short walk from the Opera House.

STANLEY PARK

Vancouver

Among this lovely British Columbia city's prime attractions is a 1,000-acre wilderness park only a 15-minute walk or five-minute drive from downtown.

Situated on a peninsula just north of the city center, Stanley Park represents the ideal urban retreat for those who cherish the outdoors.

Walking trails wind through forests of fir and cedar, while at the perimeter a 5-mile promenade known as the seawall hugs the ocean and harbor, luring joggers and cyclists whose exercise is augmented by marvelous views of snow-capped mountains in the distance. (Bicycles can be rented at the park entrance at the foot of Georgia Street, which leads from downtown.) Birders congregate at Prospect Park to spy on cormorants large black diving birds in seaweed nests atop cliffs. The park is also home to the largest great blue heron rookery in British Columbia.

Other attractions include the Vancouver Public Aquarium, where killer whales perform in scheduled shows; the Stanley Park Zoo, whose most popular residents are polar bears; several swimming beaches; a golf course; cricket fields; a beautiful rose garden; and a display of totem poles. Only the aquarium and zoo charge admission.

Those in a hurry can get a glimpse of the park's diverse wonders on a one-way scenic drive.

The park, which dates to 1888, was named for Lord Stanley, former governor-general of Canada and the same person for whom the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup is named.

BOSTON COMMON

Boston

America's oldest city park, 48-acre Boston Common has been a gathering place since 1634, when Puritan settlers purchased the plot from William Blaxton for use as public grazing land. A citizen could graze as many as 70 head of cattle here until the 1820s, when livestock was banned.

In addition to providing lunch for livestock, Boston Common was used as a training ground for the militia, and citizens frequently gathered to witness the hangings of witches, adulterers and Quakers. The park also was the site of a jail and a poorhouse.

More recently, Boston Common has served as a backdrop for illustrious and inspirational speakers, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Pope John Paul II.

For the visitor, Boston Common is the place to meet jogging, relaxing and dog-walking locals who fill the distinctive crisscrossing paths.

On the park grounds, you also will find the nation's first subway station. Opened in 1897, Park Street Station is a National Historic Landmark.

In another corner of the park, Tories and Patriots lie side byside in the Central Burying Ground. Also here is the grave of Gilbert Stuart, father of American portraiture. Nearly everyone has a copy of Stuart's most famous painting: the one of President George Washington that graces the dollar bill.

Along with the adjacent Public Garden, the Common, as it is most often called, is considered the first jewel in Boston's Emerald Necklace, a seven-mile interconnected system of parks mapped out by landscape architect (and Central Park designer) Frederick Law Olmsted.

CITY PARK

New Orleans

While tourists crawl over every inch of the historical French Quarter and often venture out to the Garden District and the antiques shops on Magazine Street, few have discovered the beauty and Southern charm of New Orleans' City Park.

The grand-daddy of New Orleans' parks, City Park is home to the city's art museum, the largest municipal golf facility in the South, 36 lighted tennis courts, eight miles of fish-filled lagoons, 15 baseball diamonds, a 25,000-seat track-and-field stadium, a 5,000-seat football stadium, a botanical garden, a unique children's playground and an amusement park with a turn-of-the-century carousel.

But don't go to City Park for its man-made attractions. The real reason to visit this 15,000-acre park is its magnificent live oaks. Dripping with Spanish moss, the deep green canopies offer a shady respite on sultry afternoons. Massive branches, with lengths more than twice the height of the tree, brush the ground and stretch across the park. About 250 of these majestic trees boast circumferences of more than 10 feet.

The most famous of City Park's trees can be found near the New Orleans Museum of Art. The Dueling Oak is where Creole men began settling their disputes in the 1700s when the area was part of the Louis Allard plantation.

The oldest tree in the park is the McDonogh Oak, estimated to be more than 600 years old. Another well-known tree is the Suicide Oak, where legend has it that many Creoles, caught in the despair of the Reconstruction era, went to end their lives. Today the tree has lost some of its largest limbs, but it remains an important part of park history.

More than 25 live oaks are part of a walking tour developed by the Friends of City Park. A brochure detailing the walk can be obtained at the park.

BALBOA PARK

San Diego

A world-renowned zoo that draws more than 3 million visitors each year anchors San Diego's lively Balboa Park. Among the zoological garden's more than 5,000 residents are the United States' only pair of giant pandas. Shi Shi and would-be mate Bai Yun live as neighbors in a $1.3 million exhibit that features not only separate bedrooms but also individual back yards.

An aerial tram and bus tour help visitors explore this lushly landscaped zoo that includes a playground for polar bears and a whimsical hippo beach.

Graceful orchids dangle over the peaceful trails in Fern Canyon, a showcase for the zoo's plant collection that encompasses more than 10,000 species.

While the zoo may be the most celebrated component of Balboa Park, it claims only 100 acres of a 1,200-acre recreational area that was established in 1868. The park also is home to an arts center, a 1910 carousel, botanical center, Japanese garden and a dozen museums ranging from art and natural history to sports and science.

GOLDEN GATE PARK

San Francisco

Golden Gate Park in San Francisco has it all: beautiful spaces, historical structures and one sad story.

One of this park's most beloved attractions is the Japanese Tea Garden, which was developed for the Midwinter Fair of 1894. The tea garden with its dwarf tree forest, colorful pagodas and pretty waterfalls was designed by Makato Hagiwara. Dominating the garden is a massive bronze Buddha statue. Cast in Japan in 1790, it is the largest Buddha displayed outside of Asia.

Hagiwara and his family lovingly tended the garden for 47 years. Their relationship with the park ended abruptly when the family was forced into an internment camp during World War II. After the war, the family was not allowed to return as garden caretakers.

It was another 29 years before the Hagiwaras' contribution to the park was recognized. A plaque, unveiled in 1974, notes their service and loving devotion.

Open daily, the tea garden is loveliest in April when the cherry trees bloom.

Golden Gate Park was designed in 1871 by William H. Hall and developed by John McLaren. Stretching from the Pacific Ocean deep into the city's notorious Haight-Ashbury, the park is about three miles long. Its oldest building is the Conservatory of Flowers, whose ornate white frame was imported from Ireland and erected in 1879. Another interesting and often-photographed structure is the Dutch windmill that was built in 1903 in the northwest corner of the park. It decorates a tulip garden.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Balboa Park: Call the visitors center at 619-239-0512 or the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau at 619-236-1212.

Boston Commons: Call the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800-888-5515.

City Park (New Orleans): Call the New Orleans Visitors Bureau at 504-566-5068.

Englischer Garten: Call the German Tourist Board at 212-661-7200.

Golden Gate Park: Call the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau at 415-391-2001.

London parks: Call the British Tourist Authority at 800-462-2748.

Music parks (Vienna): For information about the parks, Vienna or other destinations in Austria, call 212-944-6880.

Parque del Retiro: For information about the park, Madrid or other destinations in Spain, call 312-642-1992.

Stanley Park: For information on the park, other Vancouver attractions or other destinations in British Columbia, call 800-663-6000.

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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