Since October I’ve been busily working on a new edition of Half An Hour From Paris, to be published in full colour in spring 2022. I’ve managed to update five of the ten walks and am pleased to report that so far not very much has changed, in spite of Covid.
I saw the heron while updating the walk along the River Bièvre from Igny to Jouy en Josas at the end of November. The day was so grey, wet and cold that I hadn’t brought my camera, not wanting to fiddle with it as well as with gloves, umbrella, pencil and book, as the light wouldn’t be good enough anyway. So I sneaked up on the heron as close as I dared with my Iphone and to my surprise he didn’t move at all.
I bitterly regretted not bringing the camera, as the quality of this picture won’t be good enough to appear in the book. So I am publishing it here as a foretaste of spring and a reminder that even a winter walk in the Ile de France can be unexpectedly rewarding.
Champigny to Nogent via the Ile Fanac and the Jardin Tropical
The Marne near Joinville is the perfect choice for a town-dweller’s autumn stroll, combining the glowing colours of the trees reflected in the water with quick and easy access to Paris. You can shorten or lengthen your walk at whim, as you are never far from a station on the express RER A line.
Since the 19th century this picturesque part of the Marne has been a traditional playground for Parisians as well as locals at weekends, with several famous boating clubs and guinguettes(riverside restaurants with a dance floor and accordion music) still operating along its banks. Joinville is also famous for the cinema studios where several landmark French films were made in the 1930s and 40s.
But what is surprising about this popular and generally tidy part of the river is the survival of two little pockets of greenery where nature has been allowed to flourish more or less unchecked. I knew about the quietly decaying Jardin Tropical hidden on the edge of the Bois de Vincennes, but I didn’t realise how close it was to the Marne until I took this walk. Nor had I ever visited the tiny and surprisingly rustic Ile Fanac, although it is easily accessed by steps down from the Pont de Joinville. I just hadn’t noticed them, assuming that the island was only accessible by boat.
You could easily do the 4½ km riverside walk from Champigny to Joinville without making either of these two detours, perhaps combining it with lunch at La Mascotte riverside restaurant en route. But if you enjoy off-beat discoveries, the Ile Fanac will add another kilometre to your walk if you return from Joinville station and the Jardin Tropical a further 2½ km, returning from the station at Nogent sur Marne.
8 km walk from Champigny to Nogent, via the Ile Fanac and the Jardin Tropical
From Champigny RER station take the exit for the bus station and cross at the pedestrian crossing facing you. Take the quiet Rue St Benoit ahead, slightly to your left, and follow it to the end, where you will see the Marne. Turn right to go down to the towpath and then left to follow it under the Pont de Champigny for just over 2 km. The path here is prettier and closer to the water than on the other side.
Just before the next bridge, the Pont du Petit Parc, look for the steps leading up to it and cross to the other side of the river. More steps lead down onto the Quai Gabriel Peri. Turn right to follow the river for less than a kilometre to the next bridge, the Pont de Joinville.
Just before the bridge you will pass the riverside terrace of La Mascotte, a restaurant overlooking the boats moored at the Port de Joinville. I had quite a good couscous lunch here one Sunday, although the overworked waiter served it with the absolute minimum of ceremony and on another occasion we had to wait a long time for the coffee we had ordered. But it is so rare to find an unpretentious café-restaurant overlooking the river near Paris that La Mascotte is deservedly popular.
Soon afterwards you will pass the former Pathé film studios, with a sign explaining that they were built by Gustave Eiffel in 1906. Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis, arguably one of the finest French films ever made, was completed here in 1944.
After passing the studios return to the riverside path and continue under the Pont de Joinville, where you will find an unobtrusive set of steps leading up onto the bridge.
Steps down from the bridge on the right lead to the tiny Ile Fanac, alongside a lift installed in 2011. You will find yourself in a little park with a useful map displayed nearby. Turn right to follow the riverside footpath around the island.
The Ile Fanac is only 600 metres long and a mere 100 metres wide, containing just 32 buildings mostly hidden by trees, and has around 100 residents, many of them artists. Cycling is not permitted and there are of course no cars.
It has been inhabited since the 19th century and was the site of the first rowing club in France, the Club Aviron Marne et Joinville, built in 1883 and still there, although the building is a reconstruction dating from 2007 after a fire destroyed the original. But the most iconic building is the former Maison Fanac on the west bank (lead photo) from which the island takes its name. It once housed a popular guinguette called ‘Chez Jullien’, vividly described by Zola in his novel Au Bonheur des Dames, 1883. It was saved from demolition in the 1960s and now houses the Ecole Municipale des Arts (music and dance).
Apart from its two boating clubs and the Ecole des Arts, the island is exclusively residential. In the 1960s its future was threatened by a plan to turn it into a sports complex. As a result it was declared a conservation area in 1965 and the entire island is now protected from development, with environmentally sensitive measures taken to prevent erosion of the banks and flooding.
You can follow the footpath right round the island, including the overgrown northern tip where another guinguette used to stand, past houses half hidden by gardens, some with enviable little jetties.
Leave the island by the steps from which you arrived, and continue to the other side of the bridge.
If you decide to end the walk at this point, take the right hand side of the busy uphill road which is a continuation of the bridge, the Rue Jean Mermoz, and turn right at the end into the Avenue Jean Jaurès for the RER station at Joinville le Pont.
To continue the walk, turn right from the bridge to follow the towpath for another 2 km to Nogent. You might pass an occasional fisherman or canoe but the setting becomes steadily more urban and eventually you will have to leave the towpath. Continue to follow the river until you come to a little bandstand. I can recommend it as a useful shelter if you are caught in a shower, as I was.
Opposite the bandstand on the other side of the river, you can see the gigantic sign for Chez Gégène, the doyen of the guinguettes still operating on the Marne and something of an institution.
With your back to the bandstand take the right hand side of the Avenue Franklin Roosevelt in front of you, continue across the Avenue Charles V and up the steps ahead of you. Follow the footpath to the Avenue Watteau, past a discreet sign relating that a château given by Charles VII to his mistress Agnès Sorel in 1444 once stood here, demolished around 1626.
Cross the main road ahead, the Avenue de Joinville and continue straight over into the quiet Avenue des Chataigniers, where you will see a signpost for the Jardin Tropical. The first turning on your right, the Avenue des Marronniers, leads to the RER station of Nogent sur Marne.
Continue along the Avenue des Chataigniers to the end and cross the road to arrive at the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in the Bois de Vincennes facing you. A faded red Chinese archway decorated with dragons and phoenixes marks the entrance to the 4½-hectare park within a park.
To the right of the archway you are in Asia, to the left in Africa, but it won’t take very long to make a circular tour of the park which will bring you back to your starting point.
The site was originally created in 1899 for the scientific cultivation and study of rubber, coffee, cocoa, banana and vanilla plants, which were then sent to the French colonies in Africa and Asia to improve the crops being grown there. In 1907 Tuareg, Indo-Chinese, Madagascan, Congolese, Sudanese and New Caledonian ‘colonial villages’ were recreated in the Jardin Tropical for the ‘Exposition Coloniale’ which attracted two million visitors between May and October. The decaying pavillons dotting the park today are the remnants of these artificial villages.
During the First World War soldiers from the colonies were treated in a hospital in the Jardin Tropical, a mosque was built there (no longer standing) and after the war memorials to those who died fighting for France were put up. They were covered with flowers on my most recent visit, just after 11 November.
The site was used by various horticultural research centres until 1995 but tropical plants were no longer grown there. The abandoned buildings continued to decay and some were vandalised.
In 2003 the site was acquired by the City of Paris and has been open to the public since 2006, although not many people seem to know about it. It is listed as of historical significance but until quite recently a general air of neglect pervaded the whole place. There has been some attempt to make more of the site, with detailed explanatory notices and a general tidying-up, and further restoration is planned. But it has retained its slightly melancholy and mysterious atmosphere, especially on weekdays when it is almost deserted.
Return from the main entrance back along the Avenue de Chataigniers and turn left into the Avenue des Marronniers to find the RER station at Nogent sur Seine on the right.
RER A trains to Boissy St Leger from Châtelet-Les Halles run every 10 minutes or less and take 21 minutes to Champigny. The return journey from Joinville le Pont is at the same frequency and takes 15 minutes; trains from Nogent sur Marne take 13 minutes. Details
This is the full version of the article on the Ile St Louis which was first published in the Mail on Sunday, 10 October 2021.
Annabel Simms shares the secrets of the Ile St Louis
The Ile St Louis is less than half a mile long and only 273 yards wide, with no famous monuments and no metro. But it is joined to the back of Notre Dame by the Pont St Louis footbridge, to the Right and Left Bank by three bridges, and is surrounded by six metro stations. Connected to the heart of the city but separated by water from its bustle and traffic, it is the perfect choice for a quiet pause or a relaxing stroll away from the crowds.
Visitors wanting the best view of Notre Dame’s flying buttresses tend to cluster along the Pont St Louis with its street performers and musicians, and some of them continue down the island’s main street to form queues outside Berthillon’s famous ice cream parlour. But after that point the crowds abruptly stop and few foreigners descend the steps to the quays. I suspect that for many of them the words ‘Ile St Louis’ don’t convey very much, as they didn’t to me when I first arrived in Paris.
Not so for most Parisians. After 29 years on the Ile St Louis I still enjoy watching their faces change when I tell them where I live. I quickly add that I live in a studio on the fifth floor with no lift, but even so, they can rarely suppress a sigh of envy.
Like most islands, the Ile St Louis feels subtly different from the mainland. On weekdays the main street, which runs through its centre like the backbone of a fish, has a village-like, almost provincial atmosphere. Its narrow side streets leading to the river tend to be quiet, even at weekends.
Unlike the Ile de la Cité, which has always been the religious and judicial centre of Paris and contains traces of the Roman and medieval past, the Ile St Louis only came into existence in the 17th century, when it was developed as a residential quarter.
It was originally two little islands belonging to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, used as pasture land for centuries until they were built over to form one island in the 1640s. Its straight streets and elegant riverside mansions were designed as an extension of the newly fashionable Marais on the Right Bank of the Seine, in the style which reached its apogee at Versailles. Their classical honey-coloured façades still give the island its satisfying architectural unity.
Although the fashionableness of the Ile St Louis has waxed, waned and waxed again, along with the Marais, it has consistently appealed to exiles of all kinds: the rich, the poor, the famous, the foreign, the talented, or just the plain eccentric. Charles Baudelaire, Paul Cézanne, Camille Claudel, Marie Curie, Baron Guy de Rothschild and President Pompidou were all former residents. Its top floors are still inhabited by the young and poor and its riverside mansions by the very rich.
It is a favourite place for many Parisians to take their Sunday walks, buy a Berthillon ice cream or just sit on its quiet quaysides overlooking the river. They come to play the guitar, picnic or sunbathe, watching the iconic views of Paris across the sparkling water. The roar of the city’s traffic is dissolved by the river. On the island’s quays the main sounds are those of seagulls, punctuated by the drifting commentaries from the passing bateaux-mouches and the waves rhythmically washing against the quay in their wake.
A friend of mine, visiting from London, was astonished to notice that several sunny hours had sped by as we sat talking on a bench on the Quai d’Orléans and that we were now surrounded by young Parisians. Some of them had brought bottles of wine or beer but they were barely making a sound. That could never happen in London, she said, deeply impressed.
Recommended places on the island, starting from the Pont St Louis
Le Flore en l’Ile café to the right of the footbridge has the best views of Notre Dame and the Panthéon on the Left Bank. Nearby, a very Parisian and reasonably priced snack of oysters and a glass of white wine can be had at Poget et De Witte’s oyster bar at 5 Rue Jean du Bellay, which also does takeaway.
Berthillon’s ice-cream parlour, founded in 1954 at no. 31 rue St Louis-en-l’Ile, is famous for using only natural ingredients. Berthillon ice cream is also available at several cafés on the island.
At the end of the street is the Hotel Lambert at no. 2, overlooking the eastern end of the island. It was designed in 1640 by Louis Le Vau with ceilings painted by Charles Le Brun, both later employed by Louis XIV at Versailles. Considered one of the most beautiful houses in Paris, it is currently owned by the brother of the Emir of Quatar.
The equally resplendent Hotel Lauzunnext door at 17 Quai d’Anjou, facing the Right Bank, is owned by the city of Paris. Note the drainpipes outside in the form of dolphins with their scales picked out in gold. Baudelaire founded the Club des Haschischins (Hashish Eaters) here, when he was a tenant on the top floor in 1843.
The south-facing Quai d’Orléans near the Pont de la Tournelle, is the best spot for sunbathing, picnicking or just watching the sunset.
This is a walk which I discovered by following the Marne from St Maur-Créteil, a continuation of the walk from the islands of Créteil towards Paris, 12 km away. Although the footpath has been tidily ‘aménagé’ so that it presents no difficulty to local walkers, parts of it are still surprisingly rural, with rewarding views of the Marne. It passes a little island painted by Cézanne and ends dramatically at the confluence of the Seine and the Marne at Chinagora, an astonishing Chinese hotel and restaurant complex which overlooks the meeting of the two rivers.
From there you can return a little way along the Marne to take a shortcut through the listed Art Deco façade of the old Suze distillery to the métro at Ecole Vétérinaire de Maisons-Alfort. And to relax after the walk, there is a friendly Italian café-pizzeria with a sunny terrace next to the station.
6 km walk from St Maur-Créteil RER station to métro Ecole Vétérinaire de Maisons-Alfort
Turn right from the station at St Maur-Créteil and take the pedestrian crossing straight ahead, under the railway bridge. Cross the Avenue Ronsard at the next pedestrian crossing and continue into the Avenue Noel on your right. At the end of this quiet street, lined with 19th century villas, turn right into the equally quiet Boulevard du Général Ferrié, with a green space in the middle. At the end of the boulevard you will see a little bandstand. Turn left at this point, past a playground on your right and a station de pompage and you will see the Marne in front of you.
Turn right to follow it along the Quai Schaken. Eventually you will cross a footbridge over a rustic little canal, actually part of a drinking water treatment plant.
Continue past a few houseboats with little gardens and a convenient bench and take the steps leading up to the Pont de Maisons-Alfort. Cross the bridge and turn right, opposite La Perle du Maroc restaurant, to continue along the Avenue Joffre for a little way. You can see the riverside path below, but it soon comes to an end, so persist along the avenue until you see an opening with steps going down to the path, next to a picnic table.
From this point the path is very rustic, with two pontoons over the water from where there is a spacious view of the Marne.
On the map the riverside path is called the Promenade Paul Cézanne but you will come across both upper and lower versions of it en route. Generally, I have found that it is more rewarding to take the path closest to the water.
En route you will pass some striking bald cypress trees, with their knotty roots clamped into two sandy little beaches.
You will soon pass a footbridge to the Ile du Moulin Brûlé, an island painted by Paul Cézanne in 1894.
The island has been turned into a park, accessed by another bridge further on. I recommend the less frequented side overlooking the navigable part of the Marne on your right, where you might see some huge working barges sliding silently past.
Not long after the detour to the island you will see that the riverside path ahead is barred by a fence around a petrol station which is being demolished. Turn left at the fence, go up onto the road and follow it round the building site to the right to rejoin the path a little further on.
Soon afterwards you will reach the impressive automated lock and dam of St-Maurice.
Although the path is more frequented here, that didn’t bother a cormorant which was methodically drying its wings near the dam.
Soon after the dam you have the option of taking a non-signposted shortcut to the métro station at Ecole Vétérinaire de Maisons-Alfort, a total walk of 4 km. But I strongly recommend continuing along the Marne to its confluence with the Seine at Chinagora, returning along the river to take the same shortcut to the station, another 1½ km.
To find the shortcut, continue along the river for a little way and then take the wooden walkway uphill, marked with the yellow PR sign and a red and white GR cross. When the wooden walkway ends, turn left, go down steps and take the pedestrianised street opposite, the Allée de l’Amourette. This leads through the listed Art Deco façade, which is all that is left of the old Suze distillery, to the métro station on the left.
Suze is a slightly bitter aperitif made from the roots of the yellow gentian flower which grows in the Jura. It became enormously popular in the 1920s and the family-owned distillery, which originally produced absinthe, was located at Maisons Alfort from 1875 to 1974. Its façade was modernised in 1934, to harmonise with the nearby new church of St Agnès, built mainly at the expense of the dynamic owner of the distillery, Fernand Mouroux (1863-1956). Its curved bell-tower is said to be in the form of the iconic Suze bottle. The façade of the distillery was designed in the same Art Deco style, in the form of a frieze showing the names and coats of arms of all the cities where Suze was produced. It looks rather like the entrance to a proud, old-fashioned railway station.
To follow the Marne to its confluence with the Seine at Chinagora, continue along the footpath. After the next bridge, the Pont de Charenton, the setting becomes completely urbanised. There are three possible routes along the river at this point, the towpath, the footpath above it and the road, but it is more rewarding to follow the towpath all the way, past ducks and the occasional fisherman, until it ends in steps leading up to Chinagora.
Continue around the building until you reach the tip of the headland, with the Seine on your left and the Marne on your right.
Chinagora was built for its Chinese owners in 1992, its architecture inspired by the Forbidden City in Beijing. I first went there about 15 years ago and, like some of the French visitors on Tripadvisor, I felt that I was no longer in France but in China. The languages I heard around me were Mandarin and English, although the restaurant had a small sprinkling of French locals.
It is now under new Chinese ownership after having been closed for several years and the first floor restaurant is open daily after 7 pm, but I haven’t yet tried the food. It used to be good, and the views of the Seine on one side and the Marne on the other are unique.
Continue round to the left for a view of the Seine, looking south.
The quickest and most scenic route to the métro station from Chinagora is to retrace your steps along the Marne, perhaps taking the footpath this time to make a change.
After the Pont de Charenton you will see two sets of steps on your right. Take the second of these up from the Promenade Paul Cézanne, then go down more steps to follow the Allée de l’Amourette facing you. You emerge through the façade of the old Suze distillery onto a main road, with the Ecole Vétérinaire de Maisons-Alfort métro station on your left and La Nonna pizzeria next to it, open daily.
RER A trains to Boissy St Leger from Châtelet-Les Halles run every eight minutes and take 17 minutes to St Maur-Créteil. Details
Métro line 8 trains from Ecole Vétérinaire de Maisons-Alfort leave every few minutes and take 24 minutes to Bastille. Details
Paris this summer was even emptier than usual, as everyone heaved a deep sigh of relief at being able to travel again and headed for the beach. For those of us who were still here, though, there was a plus side. The quais along the Seine around Notre Dame and the Ile St Louis, which were so packed at weekends during the curfew that the police had to turn people away, were once again the havens of calm they used to be before the pandemic.
I live in a fifth-floor studio on the Ile St Louis close to Notre Dame, with no access to outside space. Instead I go to my favourite corner of the south-facing Quai d’Orléans. There is only one bench there before the quai ends just before the Pont de la Tournelle, so most people coming down the steps instinctively turn and walk in the other direction. I have even gone so far as to buy a folding chair, so that I can still bask in this secluded corner if ‘my’ bench is occupied.
During lockdown I had got into the habit of inviting friends for seafood suppers in my studio, so as not to wilt from the lack of human contact. With all restaurants closed, the local oyster bar did a roaring trade in takeaway seafood during that time and I became one of the regulars.
So when two ex-neighbours from my building, Binger from mainland China on the fifth floor and Cristobal from Venezuela on the fourth floor, suggested meeting up again this year, I immediately thought of a seafood picnic on the Quai d’Orléans.
Last summer we all had dinner together for the first time on Binger’s tiny balcony, having got to know each other during lockdown. Both of my neighbours were happier speaking English rather than French, luckily for me. Cristobal was moving out the next day and not long afterwards Binger got a proper job and moved out to be closer to work. We kept meaning to meet up again, but of course never did.
So for our reunion exactly a year later, I offered to bring oysters and prawns and the others brought melon, charcuterie, wine and of course a baguette. I also brought ice, aïoli and a lemon, courtesy of the oyster bar, and an umbrella which turned out to be unnecessary. All of us brought corkscrews, plastic glasses and paper napkins, mistakenly assuming that the others wouldn’t have thought of it.
Cristobal had also brought homemade gazpacho soup and china bowls to eat it from. Although it doesn’t really go with seafood, that didn’t stop us from enjoying it.
It turned out to be lucky that we met when we did, at the end of July, as it was the oyster bar’s last evening before closing for les vacances. Now that everyone is trickling back to Paris, I’m looking forward to its re-opening. And to making the most of the autumn sunshine on the quai.
If you are looking for a day out in the country you can find it, astonishingly enough, at the end of the line 8 métro in Créteil. Weeping willows frame four small islands linked by footbridges, forming a quiet backwater of the River Marne. Little-known to the residents of Créteil or St Maur across the river, let alone Parisians or foreigners, the islands are a hidden pocket of countryside at the edge of the city, home to wild flowers, swans, ducks, herons and the beaver-like coypu, as well as the lucky human residents.
Créteil, characterised by charmless 1960s architecture, is the last place on earth where you would expect to find four islands containing only old houses and villas built in an eclectic mix of styles, hidden by ancient trees and encircled by riverside walks. Apart from a swimming pool, a small park and a restaurant, the islands are exclusively residential. The roads feel like footpaths, with scarcely a car in sight.
In the Middle Ages the islands were owned by the canons of Notre Dame de Paris, who leased them to the local population to help maintain the weeping willows and prevent the fertile soil from being washed away by the Marne. The neglected state of the land after the war made it a cheap and attractive proposition to the disaffected 1968 generation looking for a rural alternative to the new town being created by the planners in Créteil.
In 1978 these new residents formed an association to preserve the islands from urban development and succeeded in getting the 20-hectare site listed in 1982. The islands have scarcely changed since then. It remains to be seen whether the new métro station on the Créteil side being constructed as part of the Grand Paris project will change this state of affairs, but I would put my money on the tried and tested resolution of the residents to keep their paradise intact.
6 km walk to the islands, returning from St Maur-Créteil
From the métro station at Créteil-Université take exit no. 2 for the Route de Choisy, then the right-hand path marked by a red and white GR sign. When the path forks again, take the left-hand fork and continue slightly uphill along the main road, the Rue des Mèches (D86) until you come to a café-tabac, L’Interlude. Take the pedestrian crossing here over the Rue des Mèches and continue uphill.
You will pass the pretty little Parc Dupeyroux surrounding an old mansion, whose formal grounds were transformed by its English owner in the 19th century into a parc à l’anglaise. Further on you will pass the imposing gates to the mansion, which is now the residence of the Prefect of the Val de Marne.
Further up the road, opposite the church, you will cross the pedestrianised Rue du Général Leclerc. There is a market here on Thursday and Sunday mornings and it is a good street in which to buy picnic supplies as there are no shops on the islands to which you are headed.
Soon afterwards you will pass Le Jardin des Mérovingiens, a tiny park with some ancient stones poking out of the ground, actually the remains of an eighth-century necropolis.
Turn right from the park into the Rue Dr Plichon, continue into the Rue du Moulin, follow it downhill to the end, past a sign warning drivers to watch out for cats, and turn right.
The little footbridge to the islands leading to the Allée des Coucous (Cowslip Lane) is straight in front of you and looks very tempting, but you will take it on the way back.
Instead, turn right to follow the quiet riverside path, the Chemin du Bras du Chapitre, which offers endlessly photogenic scenes of green water framed by trees, with glimpses of gardens through the foliage.
and of people picnicking, boating or fishing from its little jetties.
Just after the little Rue Robert Legeay on your right two signs in French inform you of the history of the next two houses. The first one, a former guinguette, was the headquarters of the local Resistance group between 1943 and 1944, and its chicken-run concealed a radio receiver used to communicate clandestinely with London.
The larger house next door used to be an inn, owned by a M. Bellier, whose bateau lessive (laundry boat) operated on the Bras du Chapitre for fifty years. Victor Hugo may have stayed at the inn as he wrote about the laundry boat in La Lavandière (The Washerwoman), a poem published in 1865. For years the former inn was a reputed restaurant which closed down about ten years ago, presumably when the owners retired, ending the history of an establishment largely unchanged since Victor Hugo’s day.
Continue along the Chemin du Bras du Chapitre, passing under another footbridge, until you reach a stone road bridge. Follow the GR signs up the little street to the right which will lead you to the Rue du Moulin Berson. Turn right to continue over the bridge onto the Ile Sainte Catherine.
Cross the Avenue des Peupliers and take the Passerelle de la Pie, the long footbridge which links the Ile Sainte Catherine to St Maur on the other side of the Marne. It is worth following it for a little way to look down onto the children’s playground in the park on your right and for the spacious views of the Marne. I can recommend the children’s playhouse as the best place to picnic in if it is raining, as it is the only public shelter on the islands.
Re-trace your steps and turn left into the Impasse du Moulin Berson. An inconspicuous gate a few steps further along on the left leads to a smaller footbridge to the little park on the Ile des Ravageurs. Past the two picnic tables on the right there is an opening in the foliage on the left leading to a pontoon grandly called the Port de Créteil, with some barges moored alongside, and a bench. In spring tulips and daffodils flower among the bluebells and daisies and there is a water tap near the wooden tables, making the park an ideal place to stop for a picnic.
If the picnic tables are occupied, there is an excellent and secluded view over the Marne to St Maur from the bench at the pontoon, not to mention close-up views of the ducks.
Leave the park by the footbridge and turn right to follow the Avenue des Peupliers through the centre of the Ile Sainte Catherine. The walk takes you past secluded houses, each of which is built in a different style, from 1960s modern to traditional French rustic. The river can occasionally be glimpsed through the trees.
Turn left into the Avenue des Uzelles, ignoring the footbridge it leads to, and then right into Avenue de la Ferme, a quiet road which contains some magnificent plane trees and feels as if it is in the depths of the country.
Cross onto the Ile Brise-Pain via another footbridge with a notice informing you that it used to be a toll-bridge. This is not surprising, as you really do feel you are crossing from one island to another.
You will pass some more eccentric modern houses, including one with a huge stained glass window and the date, 1976.
Continue along the Allée Centrale to the Domaine Sainte Catherine, a 19th-century farmhouse hidden by trees which has been converted into a restaurant.
It is bigger than it looks and the shady garden overlooks the river. The menu offers traditional dishes and the leisurely ambience, with French families lingering here for hours after Sunday lunch, has not changed since I first visited it in the 1990s. It is technically closed between 3 and 7 pm, but in summer or on Sundays you could stop here just for a drink or tea in the garden if you mention this article or An Hour From Paris.
Turn right from the restaurant and continue along the Allée Centrale to the swimming pool a few steps away. Turn left just after this point, across a series of footbridges which will bring you through the Allée des Coucous to your starting point at the Chemin du Bras du Chapitre, a favourite place for animals and people to congregate.
I have seen swans, ducks, herons, Barbary ducks, cormorants and a beaver-like creature called the coypu, (ragondin in French) originally introduced from South America to be bred for its fur, which has happily colonised the islands. The engaging little muzzles and whiskers of these animals are sometimes visible just above the waterline. They are fed titbits by the local children, although they do considerable damage to the river bank.
Take the Chemin de Halage (towpath) to the right, past allotments (jardins ouvriers) on your left and weeping willows, swans, ducks and fishermen on your right. I have found field mushrooms here and have seen white Star of Bethlehem flowers in spring, growing close to the water’s edge.
At the end of the path take the steps up to the road bridge, the busy Pont de Créteil. At this point you have two options to reach the RER station at St Maur-Créteil. You could turn right to continue over the Marne and follow the signs for Vieux St Maur to your left along the Rue du Pont de Créteil to the station in Rue Leroux on your right. This is the quickest but most traffic-heavy route to the station, just over a kilometre away.
I strongly recommend a much more rewarding 2 km walk to the station. Turn right at the top of the steps and continue to Le Plaisir du Portugal, a restaurant at the corner of the bridge and the Allée Centrale. Turn right, back into the Allée Centrale and take the first road on your left, Rue de l’Ecluse. Follow it round to the left, with a view of an enormous lock and a dam on your right.
Continue under the Pont de Créteil and take the footpath straight ahead.
This part of the Ile Brise-Pain is semi-wild, with no houses at all, although you might pass a few locals tending their allotments, children playing and some solitary fishermen. The path leads to the tip of the island where there are some wooden seats, another water tap and the residents’ allotments which have been recently established here.
The extreme tip of the Ile Brise Pain feels like the prow of a ship, from where you have a distant view of the footbridge to which you are heading and the industrial part of St Maur across the river on your right.
Continue round the island, past the allotments on your left, until you reach a footpath on your right. It leads to a small but dramatic weir, favoured by fishermen.
Take the little footbridge past the weir on your right onto the mainland and the Rue du Port. Turn right and follow the footpath along the river until you reach a bigger footbridge across the Marne, the Passerelle de Halage. En route you will pass the new métro station for Le Grand Paris which is being built in the Rue du Port, which may or may not threaten the islands’ continued charmed existence as a rural enclave.
Cross the footbridge into a quiet tree-lined road, the Boulevard du Général Ferrié, with a sushi restaurant in front of you. Turn left past the restaurant, then take the first right, the Avenue Noel, whose 19th-century houses with pretty coloured tiles give it a provincial feel.
This impression terminates abruptly when the road ends in the busy Rue du Pont de Créteil. Cross at the series of pedestrian crossings on the right and turn left for the Rue Leroux and the RER station at St Maur-Créteil.
Métro line 8 trains from Bastille leave every few minutes and take 31 minutes to Créteil-Université. Details
RER A trains from St Maur-Créteil leave every 10 minutes and take 18 minutes to Châtelet-les Halles. Details
Majestic and serene, the spacious perspectives of the 17th century Parc de Sceaux invariably have a calming effect on the nerves. Despite its vast appearance, the park is surprisingly small. Its château-museum, statues, fountains, canals and staircase waterfall, as well as the rich diversity of its walks and its wildlife, are all contained in less than two square kilometres. But it is always possible to find secluded corners, even at weekends when the park is at its busiest.
It is the most accessible of the classical parks surrounding Paris, just 10 km south of Notre Dame and 13 minutes by train from there on the RER B line, but little known to foreign visitors who are more likely to head to Versailles.
The park was originally created for Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683), the Sun King’s able and hard-working chief minister. As it is a quarter the size of Versailles, strolling around it is a relaxing and satisfying experience. Sceaux, owned by the Hauts de Seine département, is more user-friendly than many larger parks owned by the State and caters for local needs, including sports facilities, a restaurant and three buvettes. It leaves a lasting impression of sober elegance, laced with moments of quiet discovery and enjoyment, very much in the spirit of the Grand Siècle that Colbert did so much to bring into being.
Colbert bought the domain of Sceaux in 1670, enlarged the 16th century château and commissioned André Le Nôtre to design the park. Le Nôtre made clever use of the sloping terrain to create a play of perspectives, culminating in the Grandes Cascades, a staircase of nine waterfalls and fountains leading to an octagonal pond and later prolonged by another green vista, the Tapis Vert.
In July 1677 Colbert invited Louis XIV to Sceaux, having prudently first made sure of a warm welcome for him from the villagers by halving their taxes. The royal visitors were impressed by the ‘marvellous cleanliness’ of the apartments, unusual for the period, the banquet, the music and the fireworks, followed by a performance of Racine’s Phèdre in the Orangerie. As he emerged, the king was acclaimed by all the villagers dancing under the illuminated trees of the park. Enchanted, he remarked that he had never been more agreeably entertained.
The good taste and clever management which marked the king’s visit continued to be shown in Colbert’s expansion and embellishment of his favourite residence. His son added the Grand Canal and the present Orangerie, designed by Jules Hardouin Mansart in 1686.
In 1699 the château was sold to the Duc du Maine, the legitimised son of Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan. The Duchesse du Maine, who had inherited the stylish tastes of her grandfather, the ‘Grand Condé’, made Sceaux famous for its elegant parties at the beginning of the 18th century. They became known as the ‘Nuits de Sceaux’, at which Voltaire and other distinguished visitors were frequent guests.
After the Revolution, Sceaux was declared a bien national (national property) and sold off. The château was demolished and the park turned into farmland before reverting to semi-wilderness. Alain-Fournier (1886-1914) was a pupil at the nearby Lycée Lakanal from 1903 to 1906, at a time when the park was in a state of romantic neglect. It has been suggested that Sceaux was the inspiration for the mysterious domain described in his celebrated novel Le Grand Meaulnes, published in 1913.
The park was rescued from dismemberment in 1923 when it was acquired by the Département de la Seine and most of it, including the Grandes Cascades, restored in the 1930s. The present château, built in 1856 by the Duc de Trévise, now houses the Musée du Domaine de Sceaux. The Grandes Cascades and parts of the Grand Canal are currently undergoing maintenance work but care has been taken not to interfere with the park’s accessibility to the public.
Suggested 7 km walk around the Parc de Sceaux
From the station at Bourg la Reine take the ‘Sortie André Theuriet’, opposite a large Monoprix. Take the second street on the right rising slightly uphill, the little Rue André Theuriet which follows the railway tracks, with a statue of André Theuriet on the right. Turn right to continue across the railway line into the Avenue du Lycée Lakanal. You will see a strange tower ahead of you, surmounted by four gargoyle-like dragons, part of the Villa Hennebique. Follow the road slightly uphill and turn right into the main road, the Avenue Victor Hugo.
You will pass the Villa Hennebique, the family home of the successful pioneer of reinforced concrete, constructed in 1903 using the new fireproof material he had patented. It is now a listed building.
Continue along the main road opposite the Lycée Lakanal, past some pretty 19th century villas. At the roundabout turn left, past the Lycée on the corner, into the Avenue Claude Perrault and cross the road. Take the second entrance to the park on the right, which leads to the Pavillon de l’Aurore, an elegant little building crowned with a cupola.
The architect of Colbert’s château is not known but the Pavillon de l’Aurore (Temple of the Dawn), the only building commissioned by him to have survived, has a painted ceiling by Charles Le Brun. It shows the chariot of the dawn dispelling the clouds of night, probably a reference to the Sun King.
Go round the Pavillon to the left and continue left, past the 18th century brick Pavillon de l’Intendance, until you come to the entrée d’honneur, the imposing principal entrance to the château. Turn right past the château, passing the Orangerie on your left. The entrance to the château is to your right on the other side of the building, facing the Grand Canal (lead photo).
The museum inside tells the story of the château and its owners and the admission ticket includes the Pavillon de l’Aurore and the Orangerie. A useful free map of the park is available at the ticket desk if you ask and les toilettes are very elegant, although without mirrors. The buvettes also do not sell alcohol, my only complaints about the management of this park.
Go past the buvette to the left of the museum entrance and follow the stately tree-lined Allée de la Duchesse to the start of the Grandes Cascades to admire the spectacular view. As the Cascades are undergoing restoration you can no longer follow the path straight down to the Octogone. Instead, with your back to the Cascades, take the woodland footpath to the left of the Allée and follow it until you come to steps on the left leading to another woodland path, sloping downhill.
You will become aware of the sound of birdsong, particularly the cries coming from the flocks of parakeets which have made their home in the park. You might also glimpse a red squirrel, as I did, hear a woodpecker or spot some rare wild flowers.
Follow the woodland path downhill for a little way and then turn right to follow the poplar-lined path along the Grand Canal, bordered on the left by magnificent plane trees.
Follow the path right round the Octogone, past a new footbridge not yet in use, a very useful replacement for the original which disappeared after the Revolution.
You will pass some Canada geese and a few ducks.
The Octogone is ringed with classical statues. The Cascades face the Tapis Vert, flanked by two sculptures of groups of deer.
Follow the Octogone round to the other side and continue along the Grand Canal to the end, where there is another buvette. Follow the canal on the other side and take the first tree-lined path on the left which leads to the 18th century Pavillon de Hanovre, the western exit from the park.
From there I have shown a suggested route to the Petit Château on the map. But I have to admit that I have not taken it. I have been unable to resist detours to explore the Plaine de Châtenay, a sunny meadow full of wild flowers, and the Plaine de l’ex-Pépinière, which contains an unexpected and moving memorial to the deportation of the department’s Jews, in a small clearing in the woodland.
The north western part of the park is full of tempting woodland paths and includes two large enclosed ‘parcs canins’ where dogs are allowed to roam off the leash. I find the fact that it is possible to get lost in it one of the great attractions of this park. If you do lose your bearings, the spire of the 16th century Eglise St Jean Baptiste is a useful landmark.
The Petit Château near the Eglise St Jean Baptiste at the north end of the park was built in 1661 and acquired by Colbert in 1682. It is used for local exhibitions but is currently closed. It overlooks a sunken carp pond the size of a green-tinted Olympic swimming pool, overhung with roses, which still contains carp. It is a tranquil, mysterious place. Popular with ducks, herons and locals quietly sunning themselves on its benches, it is one of the most serene and beautiful places in the park.
From the end close to the Petit Château there is a vista of the Grand Canal visible through a gap in the trees.
The exit from the Petit Château is currently closed, so turn left from the carp pond to leave the park by the Entrée Eglise. Turn left, past the church which is also being restored. This part of Sceaux contains several cafés and has a very attractive, village-like atmosphere.
Opposite the Café de la Paix, next to the former Mairie, is the entrance to the Jardin de la Ménagerie, so called because the Duchesse du Maine buried her pets here. The two stately stone columns mark the graves of her canaries.
Cross this little park diagonally to the left, emerging at a crossroads with a fountain. Cross the main road, the Avenue de Camberwell, and take the quiet residential road straight ahead, the Rue de Penthièvre. Turn right at the end into the Rue du Lycée, then first left for the little RER station at Sceaux.
All southbound RER B trains from St Michel-Notre Dame to Robinson or St Rémy lès Chevreuse stop at Bourg la Reine about every 5 minutes and take 13 or 17 minutes. Trains from Sceaux run every 15 minutes, taking 19 minutes to St Michel-Notre Dame. Details
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On a hill overlooking a bend of the Seine to the west of Paris, the vast Parc Saint Cloud, which once surrounded a royal château, is nowadays mainly frequented by locals. This short walk through the eastern part of the park, just 10 km from Notre Dame at the end of the line 9 métro, produces a real sense of dépaysement on the doorstep of Paris.
You are transported from the stately 17th century French formality of the Grande Cascade waterfall with its panoramic views of Paris to the romantic hilltop Jardin de Trocadéro designed à l’anglaise in the early 19th century as a secluded retreat for the children of the royal family.
In post-Covid times you can also visit two interesting and very different museums at opposite ends of the park, which you will pass en route. The walk continues through the quiet little streets of the old hillside town of Saint Cloud with its church containing the relics of the sixth century saint who gave the town and the park his name. From there you descend by a series of steps to a range of transport options, including the 72 bus which follows the right bank of the Seine in Paris from the Pont Mirabeau to the Ile St Louis, giving you an armchair view of some of the city’s most iconic sights.
3½ km walk from Pont de Sèvres to Saint Cloud
Take métro line 9 to its terminus at Pont de Sèvres and leave by ‘sortie no. 1’ which will bring you out into the bus station. Keep walking straight ahead towards a pedestrian crossing on the right which will take you onto the right-hand side of the Pont de Sèvres.
You can see an egg-shaped glass-covered dome to your left on the Ile Séguin, a useful landmark. It is the auditorium of La Seine Musicale, a music and performing arts centre which opened in 2017. The 19th-century building ahead on the other side of the river, surmounted by a clock, is the Musée de Sèvres, Cité de la Céramique, on the edge of the Parc Saint Cloud.
Take the steps down from the bridge, marked ‘Musée de Sèvres’. Turn right along the main road and follow the signs for the Musée de Sèvres across the pedestrian crossing.
The museum tells the story of the art of pottery, with examples drawn from every period and every country, but with pride of place given to the porcelain which has been manufactured in Sèvres since 1759. It is never crowded and worth a look even if you know nothing about ceramics. The more you discover, and you will discover a lot here, the more interesting it becomes.
The museum is currently closed, so turn right past the entrance and continue to a gate which leads into the Parc Saint Cloud, on a path parallel to the Seine but mercifully not too close to the busy road beside it. I have never forgotten the sense of release I felt when I first visited this museum on an impulsive escape from Paris and discovered the entrance to the unsuspected 490-hectare park next door.
The hillside setting with its sweeping views of the Seine is visually more dramatic than Versailles, but without the crowds. Without the château either of course, although since 2012 an association has been lobbying for its reconstruction.
In the 16th century a château stood halfway up the hill with gardens sloping down to the Seine. The setting was so attractive that in 1658 Louis XIV bought the château and its 12 hectares of parkland for his younger brother, the 18 year old Philippe d’Orléans. By the time ‘Monsieur’ died in 1701 the original château had been absorbed into the fabric of a much grander building and the park, re-designed by Le Nôtre, had expanded to a whopping 590 hectares. The finishing touches to the Grande Cascade staircase waterfall were added by Jules Hardouin-Mansart in 1690.
The château was a favourite country retreat with its successive royal and imperial owners, including Marie Antoinette, Napoleon I and Napoleon III. It was the setting for Napoleon’s coup d’état in 1799 and for that of his nephew in 1852. It was from Saint Cloud that Napoleon III made his ill-fated declaration of war on Prussia in 1870. Two months later the château had become the headquarters of the Prussian army besieging Paris and was bombarded by the French from the nearby fort of Mont-Valérien. One of their shells fell into the Emperor’s apartments and started a fire which burned for two days. It seems that the Prussians were not displeased by this turn of events and did nothing to put it out. Twenty years later the burnt-out ruins, a sad reminder of defeat, were finally dismantled by the French state, which continues to be the owner of the park.
Walk straight on for about a kilometre, past a pompous group of statues (‘France crowning Art and Industry’, 1900) until you come to the 90-metre long Grande Cascade, the most visually dramatic ensemble in the park.
All the fountains and jets in the park are turned on annually every Sunday in June for 25 minutes, at 3, 4 and 5 pm and can be seen here. Free concerts are sometimes held in the park at these times if the weather is fine.
Take the left-hand path to the top and turn left, then right past a square of water, the Bassin du Grand Jet, overlooked by an elegant group of statues (lead photo). Turn right up steps to follow a path which will bring you to the back of the statues overlooking the Grande Cascade, with a plunging view of the Seine and some well-known Paris landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower and the Sacré-Coeur.
You cannot continue much further along this path behind the statues as it has been barred, so retrace your route slightly to go down steps on the right and turn right uphill, past the semi-circular Bassin du Fer à Cheval, which contains some enormous carp, and the rectangular Bassin des Carpes on your right which does not, as far as I could see. Continue past the Bassin des Carpes and then follow the path to the left to join the Avenue de la Grille d’Honneur, with the little Musée Historique on your right.
This building and the larger one opposite, originally servants’ and guards’ quarters, are the only structures belonging to the château to have survived the fire. The under-visited little five-room museum (free admission) displays the history of the château, and contains a helpful scale model of the original structure.
To the right of the museum entrance there is a discreet door leading to a public wc and two vending machines selling coffee, soft drinks and snacks. It was deserted on my recent visit. There is an elegant café called L’Orangerie not far away near La Petite Gerbe which now sells takeaway coffee, beer and crêpes, but with a long queue outside.
Turn left from the museum entrance. The clipped triangular yew trees in front of you mark the outline of the vanished château. Above them, to the right, is a series of steps which lead up to the Jardin de Trocadéro, the high point of the park and of the walk, with spectacular views of Paris en route.
The plateau at the top of the hill was landscaped around a central lake and a stream in 1823 to create a private garden in which the royal children could study and play, with interior views rather than the formal panoramic views in the rest of the park. It contains rare scented flowering trees from Lebanon and China, chosen to give a continuous display of colour throughout the year. It has been open to the public since 1872, but on weekdays remains a delightfully secluded hilltop retreat, with more birds than people. On my recent visit on a sunny Sunday, the park’s busiest day, it was full of people picnicking on the grass but the atmosphere was quiet and peaceful and there was plenty of room for everyone. The grass is dotted with wild flowers.
Go round the lake clockwise to leave the Jardin by the northern corner. Keeping the river on your right and the distinctive church spire of Saint Cloud in front of you, follow a winding path downhill which will take you past a children’s playground on the right to the exit at the Grille des Ecoles.
Continue along the path, now called the Allée des Lilas, which becomes the Rue des Ecoles, and passes some exotic-looking 19th century villas.
Continue across the Place de Silly, and turn right downhill along the Rue Dr Desfossez. This older part of town still feels like a village, with steep narrow streets clustered around the church. Turn left down steps to go into the side entrance of the 19th-century church, built on the site of a much earlier one. Its spire appears to have been copied from an earlier version, as it is recognisable in the 1675 painting. I have always found it open.
On the left at the back there is a chapel to Saint Clodoald, the grandson of the first French king, Clovis. An elaborate memorial plaque recounts the story of how he escaped the fate of his royal brothers, murdered by their uncles, and grew up to become a priest, renouncing the throne and the world by symbolically cutting off his long hair. He founded a monastery here, which became a place of pilgrimage after his death in 560 and has given the town its name.
His relics are preserved in a casket under the altar of his chapel. The plaque on the left commemorates the visit of the Bishop of Saint Cloud on the Mississippi to this church in 1922.
Leave the church by the main door next to Saint Clodoald’s chapel. To your right is the Rue de l’Eglise which has a baker selling takeaway coffee. There is an old-fashioned café next door, a good place to stop for a drink in non-Covid times.
Directly in front of you in Place de l’Eglise is a bust of the composer Charles Gounod 1818-1893, a resident of Saint Cloud, with steps leading down through a little park to the tram and bus stops.
Follow the steps down through the Square Gounod and leave by the exit on the right. Turn right down the busy Rue Dailly and cross it at the pedestrian crossing. Look left to find steps leading down through the Rue Audé to the T2 tram stop for Parc de Saint Cloud. Trams from here go to La Défense.
For the 52 and 72 buses to Paris, continue over the footbridge across the tram line and downhill. The terminus for the line 10 métro, Boulogne Pont de St-Cloud, is only 500 metres away across the Pont Saint Cloud, but the walk is so horrible, surrounded by snarling traffic, that I strongly recommend taking either bus there, whichever leaves soonest. Get off two stops later for the métro station, also known as Rhin et Danube.
The 72 bus ride to Paris is by far the most enjoyable route back, taking about 55 minutes to Châtelet. Sit on the right-hand side for close-up views of the Eiffel Tower, Invalides, the Assemblée Nationale, the Musée d’Orsay, the Conciergerie and Notre Dame.
Métro line 9 to Pont de Sèvres or line 10 to Boulogne Pont de St Cloud, 40 minutes from central Paris. Buses 52 or 72 from Parc St Cloud to central Paris, around 55 minutes. T2 tram from Parc St Cloud to La Défense, 13 minutes. Details
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Here is the full text of the article which was first published in Bonjour Paris on 23 March 2021
The great attraction of this little-known walk around Sucy-en-Brie is that it combines some unexpected glimpses of wildlife with buildings of historic interest, just 29 minutes from Châtelet les Halles with trains every 10 minutes.
Sucy-en-Brie is between the River Marne and the edge of the Forêt de Notre Dame, partly encircled by two streams which flow into the Marne. The canons of Notre Dame de Paris were the seigneurs of Sucy and the surrounding land from the seventh century until the Revolution and until the late 19th century it remained an agricultural village with a small population. In the 17th century a few Parisian families built châteaux de plaisance there, attracted by this bucolic spot only 22 km from the capital. Madame de Sévigné spent part of a happy childhood in one of them. It was the coming of the railway in the 1870s which led to a population explosion and eventually transformed Sucy-en-Brie a century later into a suburb of Paris on the RER A train line.
But the old village with its narrow streets clustered around the 12th century church is the heart of the modern town and there is a new appreciation of its historic value, visible in its recent restoration and partial pedestrianisation. Four of the original six châteaux are still standing, although put to other uses, and many green spaces have been preserved as public parks. The 19th century fort on the edge of town is accessible to anyone who cares to wander inside. When normal times return I will be trying out the Bistrot du Fort nearby. This restaurant and the café next to the station are open on Sundays, which is another plus as far as I am concerned.
On leaving the train take ‘Sortie 1, Place de la Gare’. Cross the road diagonally to the left towards the pharmacy with its green cross on the corner of Rue Montaleau. A baker and a small grocery store in between the café and the pharmacy are useful sources for picnic supplies, open on Sundays.
Follow Rue Montaleau uphill and take the third left into the Rue de Sévigné, past a distinctive house with a cupola.
Madame de Sévigné was orphaned at the age of seven and spent part of her childhood in the Château de Montaleau, the home of her grandfather, Philippe de Coulanges. The château is on the hill at the end of Rue Montaleau and you will pass it on the way back. It now houses the Tribunal d’Instance, the magistrate’s court.
Turn left into the Rue de Sévigné and then right into the Rue des Fontaines. Take the first left onto a rustic little GR footpath, the Sentier du Vieux Val, which winds around people’s back gardens, one of them containing a few inquisitive hens.
At the end of the path turn right onto the Rue Maurice Berteaux and continue uphill to the traffic lights. Cross at the pedestrian crossing and take the first left into the Rue Raspail. At the end of this street cross the Rue Thiers onto another little GR footpath straight ahead and continue to the Rue Chevreuil. Turn right and keep straight on down the Rue Pasteur until you see a pond with a bench, overlooking an islet accessed by a footbridge, a favourite place for ducks. The pond is grandly named the Lac du Grand Val and is fed by the Morbras. A bras mort, literally ‘dead arm’, means a backwater.
After a while if you look hard at the islet you will probably spot a coypu or two, camouflaged by their colour to blend into the water’s edge. In fact on my recent visit we saw so many that we named the islet Coypu Central. A coypu looks like a cross between a beaver and a large water vole. Originally brought to Europe from South America to be bred for their fur, coypu are now considered an invasic species and have been eliminated in England, although not yet in France where the word for them is ragondin. The ones in Sucy were absolutely fearless and came out of the water to nibble the grass only a few feet away from us and some passersby.
Turn left from the bench and follow the water right round to its end on the opposite bank, where you will see a pedestrian crossing. Cross it and look up to see steps above you. Climb these and turn left, over a small bridge across the Morbras which cascades noisily here over a little weir. The entrance to the Parc du Morbras is a little further, on your right.
The Morbras flows through the bottom of this park, which feels beautifully untamed although it has a children’s playground, two picnic tables and is overlooked by some houses. I first visited it in November, when it was deserted and covered with colchiques, wild autumn crocuses, a rare sight in urban areas.
On my February visit it was full of planted spring crocuses and local people enjoying the sunshine but the parts near the river still felt more like the countryside than like a park. Take the lower path close to the Morbras and follow it for the length of the park and through the inevitable car park to the exit.
Turn right and follow the road downhill, cross at the pedestrian crossing on the left and turn right into a busy road, the Avenue Maurice Schumann. Follow it across the Morbras and left into the Rue de Noiseau. Cross the road here and take the GR footpath on your right into a wood bordering a little stream, the Rû de la Fontaine Villiers. Follow the stream on your left for just over a kilometre, through a kind of straggling park, frequented by locals. The footpath forks at the end, from where you can see the D136 ahead.
Take the righthand fork and follow the path until it ends at a small road, the Avenue de la Fontaine de Villiers. Continue along the road for a few metres to a pedestrian crossing. Cross and follow the footpath straight ahead under pine trees, parallel to the busy main road, Avenue Charles de Gaulle. You will eventually come to a roundabout and a restaurant on your right, Le Bistrot du Fort. I have never tried this restaurant which is of course closed at the moment but its terrace and traditional French menu look promising.
Continue along the main road and take the first right, an unmarked footpath which follows the moat around the Fort de Sucy on your right and leads straight to the entrance. The fort was one of a series constructed to defend the capital between 1879 and 1881 after the disastrous siege of Paris by the Prussians in 1870. It did not play an active part in the First World War and was occupied by the Germans for most of World War Two.
They blew up their munitions and part of the fort before their retreat in August 1944, but enough is left to give you an interesting glimpse into late 19th century French defensive architecture. It is managed by a voluntary association who dress up in military uniforms of the period for the free guided tour at 3 pm on the first Sunday of each month. I happened to arrive at the right time on my first visit and found the little museum inside rather touching. It is closed at the moment but you can always wander round the fort on your own. On my recent visit one of the courtyards was being used for practice by a local archery club, which seemed fitting.
Turn left from the fort entrance and return along the Allée des Douves towards the main road, Rue Ludovic Halévy. Take the GR woodland footpath on your right which parallels the main road and continues past some attractive old buildings. This walk is used by local people walking their dogs and astonishingly, given the busy road close by, we heard an even noisier woodpecker which was attracting everyone’s attention above our heads.
The footpath leads to a car park and passes a handsome 17th century building now used as the salle de mariage for civic weddings. It was formerly the Château de Haute Maison. After 1893 it was the home of Ludovic Halévy, the librettist of Carmen, and his family who entertained many distinguished visitors there.
Cross the main road ahead of you, the Avenue Winston Churchill, at the pedestrian crossing into a quiet little street straight ahead, still the Rue Ludovic Halévy, into the heart of the old village. Turn left into the Rue Guy Mocquet, follow it round to the right into Rue de la Porte, whose name recalls the town’s former ramparts, and turn left into the Rue de Boissy. The Eglise St Martin is on your right. Go round it to your right to find the entrance.
I have always found this church open and it has a very peaceful atmosphere, perhaps because it has stood here for so many centuries. There seems to have been a church dedicated to St Martin on this spot since 811 although the earliest parts of the present church date from the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1793 three of its four bells were melted down by the revolutionaries to make cannon but they left the biggest one, called Martine, which dates from 1658. Three more have been added since 1997.
Turn right from the church into the Rue du Moutier. At the end turn left downhill into the busy Rue Pierre Semard. Continue downhill past the Tribunal de Proximité on the right, the former Château de Montaleau owned by Madame de Sévigné’s grandfather, which dominates the hill.
Cross at the pedestrian crossing and take a path straight ahead, indicated by a sign for the car park reading ‘P Montaleau (sous-sol)’. Follow it past the château on your right and turn left to go through the park along a straight path leading downhill. You will eventually pass a stretch of water on your right and soon afterwards the path becomes the Rue Montaleau. Continue downhill, past the house with the cupola on the corner of Rue de Sévigné which you passed earlier, to return to the station.
RER A trains to Boissy St Léger run every 10 minutes from Châtelet les Halles, taking 29 minutes to Sucy-Bonneuil. Details on https://www.transilien.com/
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Here is the full text of the article which was first published in Bonjour Paris on 11 February 2021
Exploring the River Oise in the footsteps of the Impressionists
It was the coming of the railway that made the sleepy agricultural villages and towns along the River Oise so attractive to the Impressionists. They were dedicated to painting in the open air and mostly short of cash because their new style of painting did not sell. The region offered varied landscapes which were just beginning to be affected by industrialisation but had not yet become suburban and it was within easy reach of Paris, with lower rents.
What was true for the Impressionists is still true for today’s Parisians looking for a rewarding day out in the country. The creation of the new town of Cergy Pontoise in the 1960s led to the building of a second railway line, the RER A, but development and population expansion have been mainly inland. The banks of the river have changed remarkably little in over a hundred years. They are still lined with 19th century villas and often the only sound is that of birdsong as huge working barges slide silently past. Even in winter, in the rain and with restaurants closed because of the current restrictions, you can be sure of spacious views, not many people, most of them local, and a railway station within easy reach.
Dr Gachet, the doctor and friend of many Impressionist painters, moved to Auvers sur Oise in 1872. His friend Camille Pissarro settled in Pontoise in the same year. Known affectionately as ‘the father of Impressionism’, he invited his younger painter friends, Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh among others, to paint with him there. The railway also turned obscure villages such as Eragny into popular destinations for weekend visitors from Paris, who came to fish along the banks of the Oise. The fondue restaurant O Châlet was once a guinguette from where a ferry took fishermen across the river, and something of the guinguette holiday atmosphere still lingers in its cosy interior, packed with local families at the weekend.
The suggested 7½ km walk along the left bank of the Oise starts at St Ouen l’Aumône station with a detour to the 13th century Abbaye de Maubuisson, then follows the river past Pontoise and the views painted by Pissarro and his friends to the fondue restaurant at Eragny, ending at the SNCF station of Eragny Neuville, with an alternative walk to the RER station of Neuville Université. But you could skip the Abbey and Pontoise and start the walk at St Ouen l’Aumône Quartier de l’Eglise station instead, ending at either of the two stations at Eragny (4½ km) or just walk to the restaurant for lunch from either station and back (3 km). You could also prolong the walk along the Oise from the restaurant, crossing the bridge to Cergy Port for the RER stations at Cergy Préfecture (5 km) or Cergy St Christophe (7 km).
7½ km walk from St Ouen l’Aumône to Eragny Neuville
From the station take the exit marked ‘Rue du 8 mai 1945’ and turn left, under the railway bridge. Take the pedestrian crossing into the Rue Guy Sourcis opposite on your right and follow the railway line until you reach a level crossing. Cross the line and turn left, following the sign for ‘Abbaye de Maubuisson’ into Avenue Richard de la Tour.
Follow the path right round to the park entrance, from where you will see a long low building, the former chapter house which now functions as an arts centre.
This building is all that remains of the once extensive Abbey which covered 79 acres, but it is impressive enough to make the visit worthwhile, even though the current restrictions mean that you cannot go inside. With the little stream of the Liesse flowing through its grounds and even fewer visitors than usual, the Abbey is a good place for a picnic.
It was founded in 1236 by Blanche of Castille, the pious wife of Louis VIII and the mother of Louis IX, Saint Louis, close to her château in Pontoise. It was both a Cistercian convent for up to 120 young women of royal or noble birth and an occasional royal residence. It was from here that Philippe le Bel issued the infamous order to arrest the Knights Templar in 1307. But by the end of the 18th century it had fallen into decline, with only a few nuns left when it was closed on the order of Louis XVI in 1786.
Retrace your steps to the level crossing and continue downhill to the very end of the Chaussée de Maubuisson. Cross the main road and take the footpath opposite, marked ‘Chemin de Pothuis’ which leads to the Oise.
Turn left along the towpath. Across the river you will soon see the gracious silhouette of the 12th century cathedral at Pontoise. Eventually you will pass some concrete bases with an information panel beside them explaining that they were part of the ‘Ligne Chauvineau’, a line of military anti-tank defences put up along the Oise in 1939 to protect Paris from invasion.
A little further on you will pass reproductions of eleven paintings done between 1872 and 1908, nine of them by Pissarro in the 1870s, placed at the spot where they were painted.
Pissarro lived across the river in Pontoise at 85 Quai du Pothuis. The views have not changed as much as you might expect, although some of the factories shown in the paintings have disappeared. The sight of the bridge and the ramparts at Pontoise, in the Middle Ages a frontier town defending the borders of the kingdom of France, immediately explains the appeal of this spot to a painter.
Continue along the towpath, past the lock and another bridge. About 250 metres after the bridge you will pass a former inn, Le Goujon d’Eragny, with a worn stone memorial tucked under a side window, facing the direction in which you are walking.
It was put up by the inhabitants of Eragny in memory of one of the seven crew of an RAF Lancaster bomber whose body was recovered here after the plane crashed on 6 June 1944. It was on a mission to destroy the station at Achères to hamper German communications during the D-Day landings but was brought down by anti-aircraft fire. It exploded over the 11th century church at Eragny, which was completely destroyed, although no civilians were killed. Six of the airmen are buried together in the new cemetery at Eragny; the body of the seventh was never recovered and must have fallen into the Oise.
Soon afterwards you will pass O Châlet, with a row of skis outside and the red and white flag of Haute Savoie, a reminder of the regional dishes of raclette and fondue in which the restaurant specialises.
I first passed it on a Sunday walk along the Oise last February and went inside to ask for their card. It was like stepping into a 1950s time-warp, packed with local multi-generational families in festive mood and pervaded by the delicious smell of melting cheese. Modest family-owned places like this are fast disappearing in the Ile de France and I made a mental note to go back and try it out. I did go back on a rainy Sunday several weeks later, with my family who were over on a visit from England. The six of us were the only foreigners but we immediately felt at home. The kir was made of rosé wine flavoured with griotte cherries and it was generous and good. So was the fondue and the very reasonably-priced house wine. When the owners discovered that we had come all the way from Paris by train in non-stop rain they offered us a lift back to the station, which we gratefully accepted. I have not been able to return because lockdown intervened but they assure me that they will be re-opening as soon as it ends. My 24 year old niece later told me that the trip to ‘the restaurant by the river’ was the highlight of her Paris visit.
O Châlet is on the corner of Rue de la Fontaine, which leads to La Carrière à Pépin, a former quarry a few metres away. The information panel there reproduces a photo of Débussy and his wife posing in front of the quarry on a visit to Eragny in 1902.
To reach the SNCF station at Eragny Neuville follow the Rue de la Fontaine uphill, past the quarry. The street is named for a local spring which never freezes in winter, making it a valued resource in the days before piped water was supplied to every house. A lavoir (wash house) was built around it in the 19th century, and until the 1950s professional washerwomen came from other villages to do the washing for Paris weekend visitors to Eragny. It is located just after the bend in the road, down steps on the left, with an information panel showing a rare photo of a lavoir in use.
Continue to the end of Rue de la Fontaine and turn sharp right uphill into Rue de la Gare. At the little roundabout take the first right into Rue de Neuville. There is a good view of the Oise from here just before you turn left into the little Rue des Belles Hâtes, which leads to steps down to the station. Cross to the other side for trains to Paris.
NB: If you are heading for the RER station at Neuville Université, continue from O Châlet to the next bridge. Take the road under the bridge, the Chemin de la Carrière à Pépin, follow it uphill and round to the left and go up steps on your right onto a main road. Cross at the pedestrian crossing on your left and turn left past the Parc Relais car park, then take the first right which will lead you through the bus station to the RER station.
Trains from Gare du Nord to Pontoise run twice an hour, stopping at St Ouen l’Aumône 38 minutes later. Trains from Eragny-Neuville to St Lazare run two to three times an hour, taking 35 minutes.