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It may not strike first-time visitors to Paris, but one of the world’s most civilized cities is also a theme park. Parisland, I call it. And not with derision. For those who love art, literature, music, food, high style and history — that’s you, and you, and most certainly me —Paris just might be the ideal destination.
But what if you tire of the glories of Paris?
What if you want a change of scene?
The answer is not to pack your bags and move on to the next urban wonderland.
It’s to stay in Paris — and visit France.
That is, the Ile de France, the well-kept secret of the French, not often visited by travelers. And this is mystifying, because here you can find chateaux and gardens and beautiful walks and picturesque but not expensive restaurants and — against all expectation — unfailingly friendly people. Oh, and fresh air. Oh, and no crowds.
Those lovely, bucolic, culturally rich destinations — nature and history’s own theme parks – are all accessible by train.
All are an hour from Paris or less.
An hour outside an American city, and you’re likely to find yourself in a suburb. But although a fifth of the total population of France lives in the Ile de France, only 15% of the land can be considered “urbanized.” A remarkable 23% is considered “forest.” 50% is agricultural. There are still villages that seem completely untouched by the twenty-first century.
Annabel Simms is a Brit who moved to Paris and developed a deep knowledge of the fifth arrondissement. Business took her to the modern, soulless inner suburbs. Then an urge “to get into the countryside, any countryside” led her to discover France’s excellent network of commuter trains — and what she was looking for. The day trips of “An Hour from Paris: 20 Secret Day Trips by Train,” published in 2002 and revised several times, are the happy result. There are, of course, chateaux. But there are also four small islands near Cretail. A lovely walk along the canal through La Ferté-Milon. An open-air restaurant on an island (Ile du Martin-Pecheur) where everybody — and that will, apparently, include you — gets up and dances. A village (Moret-sur-Loing) beloved by Impressionist painters. The village of Andrésy, where you’ll find “a little jetty with an electric bell to the right which you press to summon the small speedboat opposite. I loved it all; “An Hour from Paris: 20 Secret Day Trips by Train” was the most exciting travel guide I’d read in years. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
And now, great news: When readers asked for a sequel, Simms discovered that train service had improved so dramatically that her day trips were far more accessible. Her new book, “Half An Hour From Paris: 10 Secret Daytrips by Train,” takes you to the east of Paris, where few tourists go (the Château de Vincennes, Parc de la Poudrerie and Neuilly Plaisance), to the south (Igny), and the west (Parc de Bagatelle, Malmaison and Marly le Roi). I read these sentences with delight: “The medieval stone bas-relief of St Furcy in the toilettes of the Café St Furcy at Lagny is not mentioned by the tourist office and the locals do not spare it a glance, although I did find it on an obscure website once I had discovered its existence. And Google does not go into detail on how to get to places like the Parc de la Poudrerie by train, or pick out the most rewarding route for walkers when they get there.” With many maps, guides to trains, notes on best days to visit, a glossary. [To buy “Half An Hour From Paris: 10 Secret Daytrips by Train” from Amazon, click here.]
Among the day trips in the new book:
Parc de la Poudrerie
20 minutes by train
2 km walk along the Canal de l’Ourcq to the astonishing remains of a 19C gunpowder factory hidden in a woodland park and nature reserve. Return from Vert-Galant station or optional 3 km continuation of the canalside walk to Villeparisis station.
24 minutes by train
12C cathedral and Bossuet’s 17C walled garden at Meaux, restaurant. Optional 10 km walk along the quiet Canal de Chalifert, past old village with café-restaurant where Ronsard was curé in 1552 and another café in idyllic riverside setting, to Esbly station.
16 minutes by train
1 km walk along the River Marne to 1960s guinguette for drink/lunch/dancing. Return to Neuilly Plaisance or option of 2.8 km walk along Canal de Chelles, then bus or 2 km walk to Chelles-Gournay station.
Parc de Bagatelle
a short bus ride
Bus ride and short walk to a landscaped ‘English’ park within the Bois de Boulogne with tea room, lakes, grottoes, waterfalls, peacocks, roses, wild flowers and exceptional iris garden.
My next trip: Go to Paris. Then leave Paris.
To visit the website of Annabel Simms, click here.
Previously published on The Head Butler.
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