Article on Château d’Ecouen first published in Bonjour Paris, 24 March 2023, based on the chapter in An Hour From Paris, 2019
If you are looking for total dépaysement (change of scene) and are also interested in the French Renaissance, there is no need to travel as far as the Loire. One of the most elegant examples of this style in France, the 16th-century Château d’Ecouen, houses the rich furnishings and objets d’art that make up the collections of the National Museum of the Renaissance.
Perhaps because it is only 19 km and 21 minutes by train from Paris, the château, surrounded by its 17-hectare park which is full of flowers in spring and enchanting under snow in winter, is gratifyingly under-visited. Most of its visitors are French so you won’t have to join long queues.
The full impact of its hill-top site is only revealed when you approach it on foot via the signposted walk from the station through the Forest of Ecouen, a distance of just over a mile.
I first went there on the 269 bus from the station, only three stops to the château but by a route which means you approach the building from the front. When I went there again through the forest some years later, I actually failed to recognise it as the same place, so different were the two impressions.
The rear view of the château gradually rises into view as you approach it from the woodland path and is magically revealed in all its stateliness as you emerge onto the vast flat lawn at the top.
The château was built for Constable Anne, Duke of Montmorency (1492-1567), the owner of over 130 châteaux and one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in France. Completed in 1555, it is in the High Renaissance style, a development of the Early Renaissance style of the châteaux of the Loire built during the reign of François I. The architecture, the grounds and the decor all reflect the new taste for a château as a place for gracious living rather than a medieval fortress. Painted friezes decorate the windows and walls and dreamy Biblical scenes are painted on the chimneypieces.
From the terrace of the restaurant/tearoom and the upper floor windows there are superb views of the park, the roofs of the houses descending the steep hill to Ecouen and the rolling countryside of the Plaine de France beyond, recalling the hazy, stylised landscapes in medieval paintings.
The château was saved from destruction after the Revolution by Napoleon, who turned it into a school for the daughters of members of the Légion d’Honneur in 1806. The rooms now contain a fine selection of furniture, tapestries, glass and china made in France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands in the 16th and early 17th centuries, representative of the Renaissance taste for elegance and refinement. The most famous exhibit is a priceless Brussels tapestry, woven c.1515, which extends over three rooms on the first floor and tells the story of David and Bathsheba, dressed, of course, in 16th-century clothes.
Some other highlights are the Charles V clock in the form of a golden ship, complete with moving clockwork crew, shown in action in an accompanying video, on the ground floor
and the beautiful pink and blue Ottoman pottery from Iznik in Turkey, inspired by Chinese models, on the second floor.
Getting to the Château d’Ecouen by train and on foot
Trains to Luzarches or Persan-Beaumont stopping at the station of Ecouen-Ezanville leave the Gare du Nord every 15 minutes on weekdays and every half-hour at weekends, taking 19 minutes. There are two cafés at the station, one open on Sundays.
Cross the Place de la Gare diagonally to the right of the station exit, turn right at the boulangerie into the Allée du Bois and follow it into the forest. Turn right into the Chemin du Four à Chaux (paved) which rises gently uphill, then curves left and comes out at the junction of several paths. Turn right, following the sign to the château past the picnic area on your left. This unpaved road rises gently uphill to a gate set in the château wall, la grille du Pré Curé. Go through the gate, continue uphill past the signboard showing a map of the grounds and you will come out at the back of the château, with a superb plunging view of the Plaine de France on your left. Walk round the château to the right to find the main entrance on the other side.
(Map and all photos by Annabel Simms, unless otherwise stated)
The new enlarged edition of Annabel’s book ‘Half An Hour From Paris’ will be on sale shortly. Details will be posted on www.anhourfromparis.com
I was first told about the iris garden in the Parc de Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne by the French librarian at the OECD, to whom I was giving English lessons at the time. It seems to be a local secret, visited mainly by residents of the exclusive 16tharrondissement in which the Bois is situated. Like the librarian, who made the excursion every year, I try to visit it between late May and June, when the different irises are all in flower together for a window of about three weeks. I’ve missed some years, although one year I successfully used the irises as bait to persuade friends to visit from London. They agreed I hadn’t exaggerated the effect.
This year I missed one self-appointed date and a friend cancelled at the last minute for the other. It was getting late on Friday 27 May when I decided to stick to my third plan, despite having been slowed down by chores, and plunged into the métro. I knew I couldn’t possibly get to Bagatelle before 7 pm and the park closes at 8, but I thought even an hour would be worth it. It was only when the bus which I had taken from the métro started crossing the Seine into Puteaux that I realised I had missed my stop and was being carried at a spanking pace into an unknown region beyond Paris.
With great presence of mind I hopped off at the next stop, crossed to the other side of the road and jumped onto a bus going in the other direction, horribly conscious of time ticking away. But the bus didn’t retrace the route I had taken. It turned off to the right along the Seine. With a sinking heart I got off and followed the river back in what I hoped was the right direction, only to see the footpath coming to an end and what looked like an endless motorway roaring along beside me into the distance. I asked the only pedestrian in sight, who knew as little as I did, although we both pored over our respective phones. Finally I took a tempting footbridge leading across the Seine to an island, mainly to get away from the traffic, turned right along the riverside footpath and after asking two more people for directions finally found myself at the edge of the Bois in familiar territory.
With aching feet I galloped up to the entrance to Bagatelle at 7.30 pm and got to the gate leading to the iris garden which was just being closed by a park attendant. He warned me it would only be open for another 15 minutes, as they start closing the park at 7.50 pm. I breathlessly thanked him, reached the garden and sank down on a bench within the sound of a little fountain splashing into the tiny canal that runs the length of the garden.
Right on cue, the sun came out and transfigured the irises. The garden was almost empty, something I have never experienced before, and the lengthening shadows and the unearthly cries of peacocks in the park outside completed the sense of having been suddenly transported to a different world. There were only two people there, both intently photographing the irises in different parts of the garden. They studiously ignored me, so I did the same. I sniffed at several irises to inhale their fragrance, which I have discovered varies with the colour. Some smell delicious, others less so. The pale blue ones still had the most delicate scent.
When the attendant came to ask me to leave I beamed at him and said it had been well worth it, and I meant it. It was only when I reached the bus stop that I discovered why I had missed my stop on the way there. The bus was on a deviation and I would have to walk back to the métro at Pont de Neuilly, something I had never done before. Feeling too devil-may-care by now to consult my phone I simply continued strolling along the quiet Rue de Longchamp, and made a useful new discovery. It is a more direct route to the métro than the one taken by the bus, less than 1½ km, and the street itself felt more and more soothingly provincial. Looking up just before no. 32, I was charmed to see an old sign forbidding people from letting their horses and oxen mount the pavement
followed by a plaque with the history of the house, which had belonged to the Victorian writer, Théophile Gautier.
The street ended in an unexpected little cluster of upmarket local food shops, restaurants and quiet cafés, outside which the well-heeled inhabitants of Neuilly sur Seine were sipping their aperitifs. It felt almost like a stage set for a French village. I turned right at the end of the street, using the phone to guide me this time, and there was the métro, in the busy main road which links the concrete square arch at La Défense to the Arc de Triomphe.
I felt as if I had been very far away from Paris in a very short time. With hindsight, every minute of that journey had been worthwhile.
You can consult the updated chapter on the Parc de Bagatelle in the new edition of Half An Hour From Paris, currently being prepared for publication.
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.
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
What does a fondue restaurant by the River Oise have to do with the coronavirus pandemic? Nothing at all, and that is the point. I am currently in an Oxfordshire village in England, sitting out the lockdown at my sister’s house, having decided to leave my Paris studio just hours before the travel ban came into effect on 17 March. Like everyone else, I don’t know how long this will last. But even though no one can travel within France at the moment I’m posting this blog as a reminder of the good things in life Before Coronavirus and as an affirmation of their continuity After Coronavirus.
Back in February, while trying out a Sunday walk along the River Oise 30 km north west of Paris, not far from the village of Auvers sur Oise made famous by Van Gogh, I came across a modest little restaurant with a garden
The tables, gay with red and white checked tablecloths, were packed with local families, and when I went inside to ask for their card I noted that the house wine was half the price you’d pay in Paris and the place was pervaded with the delicious smell of melting cheese. They specialise in the Savoyard dishes of fondue and raclette. My friend and I didn’t stop but I made a mental note to go back and try it out. Soon after that we passed the Carrière à Pépin, a former limestone quarry
which displayed a photograph of several Parisian visitors posing outside it in 1902, including Claude Débussy and his wife.
I found out later that Eragny, like Auvers, had become quite popular with Parisians when the train line to Cergy made the villages along the Oise easily accessible. We continued along the river until we reached the bridge to Cergy Port, a modern but attractive little marina with several cafés, before taking the train back to Paris.
Several weeks later my family came to visit me for a few days in Paris. I booked the fondue restaurant on the Oise for Sunday lunch, feeling sure that it would be a success. But when I went to collect them I found my niece and two nephews, all in their twenties, looking very fragile. They had been out clubbing the night before, had got home at 3 am and were clearly suffering from hangovers as well as from lack of sleep. My sister and her husband had slept badly too, as their luxurious-looking bed was uncomfortable. It was raining again and the forecast for the day, which turned out to be accurate, was that the rain would be continuous.
I got them onto the RER train at St Michel and watched as the 30-minute train ride had its usual calming effect. My youngest nephew slept off his hangover while the rest of the family started to take an interest in the rural scenery opening up around us as we left Paris behind. But I didn’t have a clue about how to get to the river, as the station was one I had never been to. The millennials took over, whipping out their phones to locate us on Google, and we three elders trailed after them through a nondescript suburban landscape, washed by rain.
And then we found the path to the river. Abruptly the noise of traffic ceased and we heard birdsong. The family, who are used to birdsong, pricked up their ears. ‘It’s not the same’, they said, and ‘How loud they are!’ We concluded that some of the woodland birds might be different from the ones found in Oxfordshire, and for all I know this is true.
By the time we had walked the kilometre along the River Oise to the restaurant everyone’s mood had changed. We were all fascinated by the huge working barges silently sliding past us along the the grey river, through softly falling rain. My sister was intrigued by the grand nineteenth century houses with gardens sloping down to the towpath, probably second homes built by Parisian escapees. My brother-in-law stopped to read a notice giving the history of the restaurant and excitedly informed me that it was a former guinguette. These were modest riverside restaurants with a dance floor, patronised by working class Parisians spending their Sundays boating, walking or fishing, which reached the peak of their popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I was not surprised, as the busy friendly atmosphere of the restaurant was far removed from the ‘traditional’ half empty restaurant in Paris, also sporting red and white checked tablecloths, where we had been ripped off the night before.
We dripped inside, where a table for six had been laid near the window. Every other table was taken, full of multi-generational local families, so although we were the only foreigners we were not particularly conspicuous.
The rest of the afternoon was pure pleasure. The apéritif was a generous glass of rosé wine flavoured with griotte cherries, something none of us had tasted before, accompanied by little home-made canapés, and it was good. The bubbling fondue arrived, and it was very good. So was the house wine. The charcuterie tasted like charcuterie, not like something taken out of a packet. The salads were freshly made. My youngest nephew, in between appreciative mouthfuls of fondue, asked whose idea the restaurant had been. I modestly acknowledged that it was mine, to general approbation.
As we were nearing the end of the fondue the owner’s wife came over and showed me how to stir it properly to prevent it sticking. I explained that I had been doing that, but clearly not well enough. She smiled, so I volunteered the information that we had come from Paris by train just because I liked the look of the restaurant, and that we had not been disappointed.
‘You came from Paris by train in this weather!’
I explained that five of us had actually come over from England, let alone Paris. She went away, and a few minutes later her husband appeared and offered to drive us back to the station, as it was still raining. I was about to politely decline when I saw the family’s faces and realised that this was an offer not to be refused. Meanwhile my sister had noticed the old photos of the restaurant and of barges on the walls and asked the owner about them. His face lit up as he told her that several generations of his family, including his own, had made their living from the river.
His car held three of us and the remaining three elected to walk. Not for long, because he passed us trudging through the rain on his way back and offered to drive the second batch too. I hesitated for only a second this time and we were whisked away to join the others at the station, where our English voices elicited fascinated interest. Clearly, Eragny doesn’t get many international visitors, unlike Auvers or Barbizon, where you can sometimes feel that you are in an over-visited theme park.
Later my niece wrote to me that the high point of her Paris visit had been the trip to the fondue restaurant. As I think it was for all of us, even though we had abandoned the planned walk by the river. The short stretch we had walked in the rain to a genuinely local restaurant had been all that was needed to transport us to a different time and a different world and the whole family had appreciated the experience.
Now that all six of us are likely to be sitting out the coronavirus pandemic in isolation together for an indefinite period, that happy memory will be even more precious.
Below are details of the walk for when better times return.
Savoyard restaurant on the Oise: www.o-chalet.fr, tel 01 34 66 02 51, open noon-2.30 pm Wednesday-Sunday, except August.
Nearest stations, around 1 km from the restaurant: Neuville Université RER A, every 20 minutes or less, taking 30 minutes from Châtelet-Les Halles or Eragny Neuville SNCF, every 30 minutes, taking 35 minutes from Gare St Lazare.
The recommended walk is 2.5 km along the river from the SNCF station St Ouen l’Aumône Quartier de l’Eglise (38 minutes from Gare St Lazare) to the restaurant. It’s worth visiting the 12th century church when you arrive. After lunch at the restaurant (booking essential) you could return via either of the above two stations or continue for another 5 km. Follow the river and cross the bridge over to Cergy Port to reach the RER A station at Cergy Préfecture, from where it is 37 minutes to Châtelet-Les Halles.