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
Free app using GPS to track your route on IGN or OpenStreetMaps, IGN Rando
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.
Here is the full text of the article which was first published in Bonjour Parison 27 November 2020
Discovering the River Yerres: mills, menhirs and the Maison Caillebotte
In between confinements this year, I began following the tributaries of the Seine and the Marne in search of new walks near Paris. These minor rivers are generally not far from a railway station, stations which I had always assumed served faceless built up suburbs. Wrong. Yes, suburbs have sprung up around the medieval villages and hamlets on these little rivers but at the heart of them you will find traces of a many-layered past, existing side by side with modern infrastructure. And usually the closer you get to the river, the further back you journey in time and the more surprising and picturesque the walk becomes.
Brunoy on the River Yerres, a tributary of the Seine 21 km south east of Paris, is a good example. In the seventh century it was mentioned as a royal possession, prized for the good hunting to be had in the nearby Forêt de Sénart. Its famous château was demolished in the Revolution but Brunoy continued to attract successful Parisians who built several imposing country residences there, some still standing although put to other uses. It is still essentially a residential town.
5 km walk along the River Yerres from Brunoy to Yerres
From Brunoy station take the Place de la Gare exit marked ‘Bus’ which will bring you to the Rue de la Gare with a big brasserie/tabac on the corner. Follow it round to the right, past the modern Mediathèque and a small war memorial. You will see the spire of the church above the skyline on your left. Turn left to face the grandiose Mairie (1898) set in a little square with an imposing plane tree in front of it and the Tabac de la Mairie beside it in the Grande Rue on your right. This is a good place to stop for a drink, savouring the relaxed, almost provincial feel of the scene in front of you. In the Middle Ages this part of Brunoy with its 12th century church, built on the site of an earlier one, was surrounded by a rampart along what is now the Grande Rue, and it is still the heart of the modern town.
With your back to the Tabac de la Mairie turn into the first street on the left, the little Rue Pasteur, then take the first right, the tiny Rue St Nicolas. Turn left into a narrow un-named cobbled street, more like a passage, which will bring you to the back entrance of the Eglise St Médard, built in the 12th, 13th and 16th centuries, embellished in the 18th century and restored in 2005. Turn right and go down steps into the Place St Médard. The main entrance to the church is up the steps on your left.
From the church main entrance turn left and follow the Rue Montmartel round to the left. At the crossroads turn right downhill onto the Rue du Pont Perronet. You will pass a picturesque old mill which is now a hotel, on the site of an earlier mill belonging to the château.
Continue across the bridge and take the pedestrian crossing onto the Ile de Brunoy, passing a restaurant called Le Pavillon de l’Ile on your right. It would be a good place to have lunch as it is in a beautiful setting and modestly priced. I have only had coffee here but the food has enthusiastic reviews on French TripAdvisor. Its terrace has an excellent view of the Neolithic menhir, La Pierre Fritte, on the opposite bank of the River Yerres. Continue along the path a little way and walk down to the river on your right, opposite the children’s playground, to see the menhir.
La Pierre Fritte dates from around 3000 BC but its function remains a mystery. The name derives from la pierre fichée (figée) en terre, literally ‘stone stuck in the ground’. At 2.5 metres high, with another metre buried in the soil, it is the tallest stone visible of a group of three There is a much smaller one next to it and a bigger one submerged in the river beneath it.
Further along the path you will see a wooden barn, La Grange de l’Ile, which dates from the 19th century and has been recently restored. You could continue for a little wander along the island, which is an attractive public park with two picnic tables and paths along the Yerres on both sides, crossed by an impressive viaduct built in 1849.
Retrace your steps to the Pavillon de l’Ile and cross the bridge to the other side of the river. The Pont Perronet, built around 1784, is named after its engineer who also designed the Pont de la Concorde in Paris. It has a tasteful Greek border running along its parapet. Take the steps down from the bridge and follow the path with the river on your right.
You will pass quite a few locals en route but the walk feels rural rather than suburban, with towering trees, leaf-strewn paths and the sound of ducks and moorhens.
You will soon have another view of the mill with the church at Brunoy behind it. There is a heron visible in the photo if you zoom, down from the church spire.
The path ends at the picturesque Pont de Soulins, built in 1745 and painted by Caillebotte in 1874.
Cross the road and turn right onto this bridge, which has a footpath on the left leading to a gateway into the Parc de la Maison des Arts. The Maison is a villa, Le Réveillon, built in 1870 and now an arts centre, which you will eventually pass on your right.
The path soon goes under another impressive viaduct. Continue following the river, watching out for a discreet GRP left turn sign which will take you across a footbridge and up an embankment onto a main road. Cross the road straight ahead of you, if you can (the pedestrian crossing is further away) to a small road directly opposite showing a height restriction of 1.90 metres for cars. This is the unmarked continuation of the river footpath, next to a children’s playground in the Parc des Deux Rivières at Yerres.
Cross the next little footbridge over a dam and turn right to follow the Yerres onto the Ile Panchout. There are extracts from poems along the path which I personally found rather irritating, although well-intentioned. You may glimpse a fenced-off herd of Highland cattle, introduced here for ‘l’éco-pâturage’ i.e. to crop the grass in a sustainable way.
Turn right across the next footbridge and continue to follow the river. When you see a roadbridge ahead leave the path and take the steps on your right up to the bridge and a bus stop. Cross the road and turn left, over the river. The Maison Caillebotte is the white building straight ahead on the right.
Admission to the grounds, which contain some remarkable trees, is free. I have not visited the house but the grounds alone are worth the trip.
The Caillebotte family bought the property in 1860 and spent their summers there until they sold it in 1879. It had been transformed by a previous owner in 1824 who turned the extensive grounds into a landscaped jardin à l’anglaise, complete with orangery, ice-house and other fashionable fabriques. The former ‘chalet Suisse’ now houses the restaurant and tea-room and the walled kitchen garden, where I helped myself to some raspberries, has been beautifully restored and is run by volunteers.
Like most of the owners of elegant villas in Brunoy and Yerres, Caillebotte père had made his fortune in Paris, in his case by supplying the French army with sheets and blankets. His second son, Gustave (1848-1894) became a talented painter of independent means, champion and patron of the Impressionists. The bucolic river and garden setting at Yerres inspired several of his early paintings. His outstanding collection of Impressionist paintings now forms the heart of the collection at the Musée d’Orsay.
To return to Paris turn right from the Maison Caillebotte onto the main road and continue on the right past La Grange au Bois, a 19th century villa in the fashionable ‘rustic’ style, now a music and dance conservatory, along the long Rue de Concy. When you come to a roundabout, turn left into Rue de la Gare and continue uphill. Cross the road and take steps up on the right to the RER station at Yerres.
RER D trains from Gare de Lyon to Melun run two to three times an hour, stopping at Brunoy 28 minutes later. Trains from Yerres run every 15 minutes, taking 24 minutes to Gare de Lyon. www.transilien.fr
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I spent the three months of the first lockdown with my family in the Oxfordshire countryside, so had no experience of lockdown in Paris. I felt rather like that generation of young men born just too late to fight in the First World War who spent the 1930s feeling less than heroic. So when Lockdown Two was announced I decided to stay put and see if I could survive alone in my walk-up studio on the fifth floor on the Ile St Louis.
The veterans of the first lockdown in Paris all agree that this second version is nothing like the first. The schools are open, some people are still going to work and the streets are not sad and deserted. Most important for me, walking along the quays of the Seine has not been banned, as it was before. The biggest challenge was to get used to filling in the permission form every time I wanted to leave the house. But now I have it down to a fine art. I fill in the form online and save a screenshot to my phone. I tick the box saying I am buying essential supplies (usually bread) and always carry a shopping bag. The limit of one km from home for a maximum of an hour only applies if you tick the exercise box. Aha!
All museums, cinemas, restaurants and cafés are closed and all non-essential shops. My dance class has been suspended and my local swimming pool is closed. But I am carrying on with my gymnastique douce (gentle exercise) and sophrologie (relaxation through breathing and meditation) classes on Zoom, as well as with my university class in literary theory. The Barthes-influenced reading list for this class, called ‘Penser l’objet’, is nearly killing me, but lockdown has already had some good effects. It’s easier for me to speak up in French when I can see everyone’s face, and that is better on Zoom than in the classroom, where French students have a tendency to sit in rows. I have been forced to read extracts from Proust and have overcome a lifelong reluctance to even open A la recherche du temps perdu. And on being invited to write and read out a Proustian description of an object, set as optional homework, I rediscovered parts of my brain that I haven’t used since ‘A’ level. Unlike the literary theory, that exercise took no time at all and it was fun. Now that I and the class know that I can write creatively in French, even though I speak it with an English accent, I feel much less like a foreigner.
As for my beginners’ class in modern Greek, I have never met the other students or the teacher. We correspond by email and are sent audio clips. My homework is returned promptly every week with detailed encouraging comments. I haven’t had this level of teacher attention since leaving university and I am thriving on having a simple but challenging set task to accomplish every week, translating from French to Greek.
But by far the best immediate result of lockdown has been that I go for at least an hour’s walk along the Seine every day. Pre-confinement, I sometimes spent the entire day in my studio working but I haven’t done this once since lockdown started and think I will never return to my bad old ways. I am appreciating the play of light over the river in a way I never did before, when I would give the sky a passing glance on my way home. Now I notice how the clouds and the light change with each passing moment, especially at sunset, in a way which seems to be in harmony with the rhythm of my walking and the other strollers I pass en route.
It was on one of these walks along the river that I saw a young man skipping. He gave me a sheepish smile and I smiled back. But when I saw another young man skipping on a different walk I began to think that there might be something in it and bought myself a child’s skipping rope. It’s strenuous exercise and I have to limit it because my arthritic feet complain if I do too much. I also get out of breath in a way I never did as a child. But unlike other strenuous exercise I have tried that is supposed to be good for you I find it is such a pleasure that I am continuing to do it.
I was a little concerned that I would wilt from the lack of live human contact. Then I discovered a new oyster bar round the corner from where I live that does takeaway. I’ve taken to inviting a friend or a neighbour round every Friday to come and share a candle-lit shellfish supper in my studio, with home-made aioli for the whelks and prawns and a bottle of Muscadet. It’s cheap and it’s fun. It’s technically illegal as we are not supposed to be mixing but I feel that it is a calculated risk and people can always say no. So far no one has.
I’m also continuing my Sunday walks during lockdown with a friend who feels the same as me about the need to get out for a proper walk at least once a week. We wear masks and keep our distance and so far no one has stopped us. Both of us are appreciating details we have never noticed before. Here is a view from the Promenade Plantée, a disused overhead railway line near the Bastille. It’s a walk I have done before but never noticed this astonishing statue
And this is the sky last week where we parted at Bastille, after a walk that began in wind and rain and ended in yet another glorious sunset
The other day I rushed out to the post office at Hotel de Ville and it was only when I saw a group of gendarmes that I realised I had forgotten to fill in the permission form on my phone, for the first time. Then to my horror I saw that I had left the phone at home. One of them noticed the dismay on my face, so I thought I had better explain. Hearing my accent he switched to (quite good) English. Humbly I offered to go home and get the form, adding that it was up five flights of stairs. On hearing that, he looked even more sympathetic and let me off. I thanked him profusely, complimented him on his English and beat a hasty retreat. The fine is 135€ so I felt rather relieved.
And cheered to be spending my second experience of lockdown in Paris.
I learned how to make traditional bitter English marmalade from my grandmother, who liked it so much when she first tasted it in England that she learned to make it herself. Home-made marmalade, like home-made mayonnaise, tastes infinitely better than the shop-bought varieties, which usually contain additives and are too sweet. I had been making it for myself since my student days, but in Paris I just learned to live without it, until one February I noticed the familiar Seville oranges on sale in my local greengrocer, labelled ‘oranges amères’ (bitter oranges). I bought some and made a few jars as an experiment. From that year onwards, my fate was sealed. I now make marmalade in my Paris studio every year, in two batches so that I will have a year’s supply for myself and a few jars to give to deserving friends in Paris and London who clamour for it. But when, one year, I offered to give one of them the recipe instead of the marmalade, he recoiled in horror.
It is in fact not difficult to make, even in a studio, but the process is time-consuming – and extremely rewarding, as you will get a result that cannot be bought. Seville oranges are only on sale for about three weeks from mid January to early February, in a few Paris greengrocers, so that making marmalade is a very seasonal ritual. Over time, in response to people’s requests, I have modified my grandmother’s version, which was a classic tawny orange containing chunky peel, to produce a more translucent golden jelly with thinner strips of peel suspended in it, but with the characteristically sharp fruity tang that comes from using the minimum quantities of sugar I can get away with. I have found that if I use less sugar than the quantities given here, the marmalade will not set. I have also experimented with quicker methods but have reluctantly concluded that there are no short cuts to getting the results I want.
Seville orange marmalade
Makes about ten 1lb/250g jars
The only essential equipment, apart from Seville oranges, lemons and sugar, is a very sharp knife, 2 pieces of cheesecloth or muslin and 2 large saucepans or casseroles with lids. I use the only deep casserole I possess, one medium sized saucepan and an old tea towel cut in half to improvise two bags for the pips. You will also need about 10 empty jam jars with lids. I usually end up with an assortment of sizes, hoarded or begged from friends in advance.
1 kilo/2 lb Seville oranges
2 kilos/4 lb granulated sugar
Scrub the fruit in cold water, removing the little stem button at the base of each orange. Cut the oranges up as finely as you can on a chopping board, reserving the pips. This is the most time-consuming part of the whole process, taking about an hour unless you have help, but essential if you want a beautiful translucent result. Put the shredded peel into two saucepans, along with the juice that will keep running out onto the board as you throw the pips into a bowl. Cut up the lemons last, distributing the peel between the two pans. Now divide the pips, tying them up into two pieces of material so that they can’t leak out. Bury one in the centre of each pan and fill to the top with cold water. Leave them to soak overnight.
The next day, bring the contents of each pan gently to the boil and then cover and simmer slowly until the peel is quite soft – about 1½ hours. The scent of simmering oranges permeating my studio is one of the reasons I make marmalade every year.
Lift out the bags of pips, squeezing their jelly-like pectin-rich liquid into the pans before discarding them, and turn up the heat until the marmalade is quietly bubbling. Cautiously pour in the sugar in a steady trickle. It should be evenly distributed between the two pans, with more in the bigger one if they are not the same size. Stir with a wooden spoon to prevent the sugar from catching and burning while you bring the pans to a fast boil. This is the trickiest part, as the weight of the sugar will bring the water perilously close to the top of the pans and as they get hotter the contents will start to splutter. Maintain a fast boil just below maximum heat, stirring fairly constantly until ‘setting point is reached’ as they say in recipe books. This is supposed to take about 20 minutes but I have found that it can take longer, up to 40 minutes, and occasionally an hour. If it is taking longer than 30 minutes, add the juice of half a lemon to each pan.
Keep testing by putting a teaspoonful on a saucer to cool. I put mine outside on the window sill. If it wrinkles when you blow on it, it is ready and you must switch off the heat immediately. These saucer-blowing moments are the most nerve-wracking but magical part of the whole process, as if you continue cooking after setting point the marmalade will burn and instantly turn brown, although it will still taste much better than any shop-bought marmalade. If you lose patience and decant it into jars before setting point is reached, you will find that it never sets at all. If this happens, you can rescue it by pouring it all back into the pans the next day, adding the juice of 2 lemons and boiling it for a little longer.
Once setting point is reached and you have switched off the heat, you can relax and enjoy the alchemist’s pleasure of ladling the marmalade into jars. Put a metal spoon or knife into each jar first, to prevent the glass from cracking. I use a mug to pour in the marmalade as I don’t have a ladle. Stir the jars once and leave them to cool for several hours, preferably overnight. I don’t find waxed circles or frilly paper covers necessary and just use the original lids. The marmalade will keep in the fridge for a year, although you are unlikely to find that it lasts that long.
The wild versus the tame: swimming in the Thames and the Seine during Covid-19
In recent years I have been dismayed to find what I think of as real swimming – in ponds, lakes, rivers and the sea – referred to as ‘wild swimming’. But on reflection perhaps it is a revealingly apt term. The opposite would be, after all, ‘tame swimming’ in chlorinated heated water in an indoor pool with artificial lighting. This is now the norm.
The tendency towards a tame risk-free existence has been exacerbated by the effects of Covid-19 and now seems irreversible. In our new virtual world, who would want to get their feet tired or dirty and experience the shock of icy water running between their toes?
Well, I take heart from the fact that an atavistic, almost anarchic tendency has also emerged from the pandemic: a longing for the real versus the artificial, for the wild versus the tame.
I spent the three months of lockdown with my family deep in the English countryside, with a few days in London towards the end of June and I’m now back in my Paris studio. My London and Paris friends all tell me how much they came to value their neighbours and their garden or balcony during confinement, how magical it was to live in a city without traffic or tourists, and to hear birdsong.
For me the stand-out experience of lockdown was the joy of discovering several bathing spots in the rural Thames, a mile away from our house in Oxfordshire. My favourite river beach was nearly always occupied by a few other people, but as a solitary swimmer in unfamiliar waters I found their presence reassuring. On my first visit I was slightly irritated by the music coming from a little group of adolescents but after a while they turned it off and surrendered to the warmth of the sun and the deep seductive peace of the river and the water meadows. I overheard one youth suddenly say to his mates as they prepared to cycle home, ‘It’s so beautiful here.’ It was.
In mid-June I spent four hours rambling with a friend on Hampstead Heath in north London. My favourite ‘wild swimming’ spot, the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond, was closed, but our wanderings took us to the Viaduct Pond, a stretch of water I had never seen before. The sight of such a peaceful place in a city of nearly nine million people just emerging from lockdown felt deeply reassuring. It was as if the water possessed magical healing properties.
When I returned to Paris a few days later, a heatwave struck and I spent as many hours as I could in my favourite spot by the Seine, overlooking the Left Bank. To my annoyance my privacy was invaded by two young men who took possession of the bench behind me. Then I saw that they were stripping off to reveal bathing trunks and sent them an amused glance. We started laughing and chatting and they offered me a beer.
They turned out to be Algerian, which might have explained their ignorance of the Seine’s reputation for pollution. But they said they didn’t care, they were so desperate to swim after three months of lockdown. In fact, because of the prolonged absence of river traffic the water was clear enough to reveal the stones on the riverbed for the first time. They gingerly picked their way over these and then launched themselves into a brief but joyous swim. Full of envious admiration, I gave them my paper handkerchiefs to dry off with.
On a sunny Friday evening in July I strolled with a friend along the Right Bank of the Seine which was packed with young people picnicking by the water’s edge. Near the Bastille we came across the unexpected sight of an older couple who had set up a table in a quiet spot overlooking the water, complete with a tablecloth, wineglasses and candles. They were clearly expecting company, as the table was laid for four. We could not imagine what the gendarmes, who were patrolling the riverbank and telling people off for bringing their own alcohol, would say to them when they got there, but I did not envy them that task.
What these experiences have highlighted for me is the importance of spontaneous social contact and of the natural world to people’s well-being. And especially the value of human contact IN the natural world.
The sudden spike in the demand for flats with gardens or balconies in both London and Paris reveals a heightened awareness of this fundamental need, exacerbated by confinement in the virtual world. It seems that ordinary people, as well as the environmentalists, are appreciating the healing power of an unpolluted natural world more than ever before. If, among other things, that will mean cleaner rivers in which to swim, Covid-19 will have had at least one beneficial effect.