Category Archives: An Hour From Paris

A relaxing stroll in the Parc de Sceaux

Article first published in Bonjour Paris, 4 June 2021

Grand Canal, Sceaux
View of the Grand Canal from the Château de Sceaux

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.

Engraving of Château de Sceaux
Engraving of the Château de Sceaux in Colbert’s time, Adam Pérelle, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Engrving of the Grandes Cascades and the Octogone
Engraving of the Grandes Cascades and the Octogone at the end of the 17th century by Adam Pérelle, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Castor and Pollux, Parc de Sceaux
Statue of the twins Castor and Pollux by Jean-Baptiste Tuby, 1670-1680, overlooking the Octogone

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.

Woodland path, Parc de Sceaux
Woodland path in the north western part of the park

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.

The Villa Hennebique
The Villa Hennebique

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.

Pavillon d'Aurore
The Pavillon de l’Aurore, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Ceiling of the Pavillon d'Aurore, Parc de Sceaux
Ceiling of the Pavillon de l’Aurore by Charles Le Brun

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.

footpath, parc de Sceaux
Steps to footpath near the Allée de la Duchesse

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.

Star of Bethlehem, Parc de Sceauxx
Star of Bethlehem, Parc de Sceaux

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.

path beside the Grand Canal
Path beside the Grand Canal leading to the Octogone

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.

Footbridge across the Petit Canal, Parc de Sceaux
The new footbridge across the Petit Canal

You will pass some Canada geese and a few ducks.

Canada geese, Parc de Sceaux
Canada geese and gosling by the Octogone

The Octogone is ringed with classical statues. The Cascades face the Tapis Vert, flanked by two sculptures of groups of deer.

Grandes Cascades, Parc de Sceaux
The Grandes Cascades at the Octogone
Stag sculptures facing the Grandes Cascades at the Octogone

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.

Memorial to the deported Jews, Parc de Sceaux
Memorial to the deported Jews of the Hauts de Seine department by Christian Lapie, 2006

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.

View of church from Parc de Sceaux
Church spire of St Jean Baptiste seen from the Bosquet Nord

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.

Petit Château, Parc de Sceaux
Petit Château overlooking the carp pond

From the end close to the Petit Château there is a vista of the Grand Canal visible through a gap in the trees.

Grand Canal from the carp pond, Parc de Sceaux
The Grand Canal seen from the carp pond near the Petit Château

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.

Eglise St Jean Baptiste, Sceauxx
Eglise St Jean Baptiste, Sceaux

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.

Map of walk around Parc de Sceaux
7 km walk from Bourg la Reine to Sceaux, OpenStreetMap. A = Arrive, D = Depart, ② = 2 km

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

Coronavirus and a fondue restaurant by the river

The River Oise at Eragny
The River Oise at Eragny in summer

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

O Chalet restaurant, Eragny sur Oise
O Chalet restaurant, Eragny sur Oise









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

La Carrière à Pépin, Eragny
La Carrière à Pépin, Eragny








which displayed a photograph of several Parisian visitors posing outside it in 1902, including Claude Débussy and his wife.

Débussy at Eragny







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.

Cergy Port
Cergy Port







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.

O Chalet
The family, taking fondue seriously











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:, 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.

Annabel’s talk at the American Library in Paris

American Library in Paris, 18 December 2018The American Library in Paris has just sent me this photo of my talk about Half An Hour From Paris on 18 December 2018 and will send me the YouTube recording when it is ready.

Thanks again to those of you who were able to be present and helped to make it such a success! I will post the YouTube recording as soon as I receive it.

Winter walks

Here are my top five recommendations for daytrips in winter. All are in An Hour From Paris except for Malmaison, which is in Half An Hour From Paris.

Château d’Ecouen

Château d’Ecouen in the snowThe short walk through the forest to the Musée de la Renaissance in the château is particularly magical in the snow, which doesn’t melt as quickly as it does in Paris.




Conflans Ste Honorine

Speedboat ferry to La Goèlette restaurant, Andrésy (Conflans Ste Honorine)La Goèlette island restaurant at Andrésy is reached by speedboat. Optional short riverside walk to the station at Conflans Ste Honorine.




Villeneuve Triage

The patron of the Guinguette Auvergnate at Villeneuve Triage
Jean-Pierre Vic, the patron of the Guinguette Auvergnate

Watch or join the dancers at the Guinguette Auvergnate riverside restaurant. Optional short riverside walk to the station at Choisy-le-Roi.






L'Esturgeon and old bridge, Poissy
L’Esturgeon restaurant at the old bridge, Poissy

Visit the Villa Savoye built by Le Corbusier in 1929. Optional short riverside walk to the station at Villennes sur Seine.





Château de MalmaisonVisit the home of Napoleon and Josephine, perhaps followed by lunch at the nearby Brasserie du Château.

‘Evenings with an Author’ at the American Library in Paris

Tuesday 18 December 7.30-9 pm at the American Library in Paris, 10 rue du Général Camou, 75007 Paris, métro Alma-Marceau

Annabel Simms’s talk, “How to briefly escape from Paris to France,” will outline her criteria for selecting daytrips in her original guidebook, An Hour From Paris, and its recent sequel, Half An Hour From Paris. She will explain why the Ile de France is one of the most accessible and rewarding regions in the country, still little-explored by many Parisians, let alone foreign visitors. She will illustrate her talk with a detailed look at one of the destinations in Half An Hour From Paris, including some of the experiences that went into writing it. Finally, she will try to assess the future development of the Ile de France, now that it is being rebranded as Le Grand Paris.




What is a GR route? French footpath signs explained

What is a GR route? French footpath signs (hiking trails) explained

French footpath signs explained
GR route through Grez sur Loing

It took me years to understand the logic of French footpath signs, finally resolved by attending a weekend course for baliseurs, the volunteers who actually paint the signs. You can read more about this fascinating experience in The Nature of the French. The most revealing thing I learned was that the signs are meant to be discreet. Practical usefulness is all very well, I was told, but aestheticism is more important.  Not all French walkers agree.  A helpful French website explaining how not to get lost when following the signs is

The footpath signs were created by the FFRP (Féderation Française de la Randonnée Pedestre,, the equivalent of the Ramblers’ Association in the UK or the American Hiking Society in the US.  Their volunteers are responsible for maintaining the system of letters and coloured markings which help you find your way across country. These waymarked footpaths are shown in red on the IGN (Institut Géographique National) large-scale maps.

On the ground the red and white or yellow markings are deliberately rather discreet, usually painted at eye level on a tree or lamp-post. However, once you start looking for them you will notice them everywhere, including central Paris. It is generally a good idea to follow the FFRP paths, which avoid busy roads as far as possible, sometimes leading to an unsuspected underpass or taking you through a pretty wood.

Footpaths are classified as follows:

GR (Grande Randonnée): Major footpath crossing several regions.  Red and white stripe.

GRP (Grande Randonnée de Pays): Major footpath circling an entire region. Red and yellow stripe.

PR (Promenade et Randonnée): Shorter circular routes taking one to eight hours. Yellow stripe.

French footpath signs explained

Two horizontal stripes mean you are on the right path, a horizontal stripe above a right or left angle means turn right or left at the next fork and a horizontal cross means you will stray off the path if you take this route. More unusually, two horizontal stripes with a vertical line through them indicate that the path is a diverticule, a waymarked deviation from the main one.

French footpath signs explained pdf