Preview of Half An Hour From Paris, published May 2018
Diagram map showing journey times from Paris
Map of the Ile de France
Rail map of the Ile de France
The Ile de France: past and present
How to use this guide
GARE DU NORD
1. Parc de la Poudrerie
2 km walk along the Canal de l’Ourcq to the astonishing remains of a 19C gunpowder factory hidden in a woodland park and nature reserve. Return from Vert-Galant station or optional 3 km continuation of the canalside walk to Villeparisis station.
20 minutes by train
GARE DE L’EST
2. Lagny sur Marne
Lively medieval market town, impressive 13C church, café with toilettes containing bas-relief and lavabo of 12C church, restaurant. Optional 5 km riverside walk to monumental outdoor sculptures carved by local artist and bus to Val d’Europe station.
23 minutes by train
12C cathedral and Bossuet’s 17C walled garden at Meaux, restaurant. Optional 10 km walk along the quiet Canal de Chalifert, past old village with café-restaurant where Ronsard was curé in 1552 and another café in idyllic riverside setting, to Esbly station.
24 minutes by train
4. La Ferté sous Jouarre
42 minutes by train
CHATELET LES HALLES
5. Neuilly Plaisance
1 km walk along the River Marne to 1960s guinguette for drink/lunch/dancing. Return to Neuilly Plaisance or option of 2.8 km walk along Canal de Chelles, then bus or 2 km walk to Chelles-Gournay station.
16 minutes by train
4 km walk along the River Bièvre and tea in garden of 18C Château de Roches, now a museum to Victor Hugo. Return from Vauboyen station or optional 2½ km continuation of country walk to Jouy en Josas station, past 12C Madonna in church, Oberkampf’s 18C textile workshop, café with garden.
37 minutes by train
7. Château de Vincennes
Impressive 14C castle and donjon in Bois de Vincennes, medieval royal residence and seat of government. Good-value traditional brasserie for lunch. Optional 3 km walk through the park past the Lac des Minimes to the little-known Jardin Tropical containing abandoned pavilions from the 1907 Exposition Coloniale, returning from Nogent sur Marne station.
17 minutes by métro
PONT DE NEUILLY METRO
8. Parc de Bagatelle
10 minutes by bus
LA DEFENSE RER/METRO
Bus ride and short walk to 17C Château de Malmaison, home of Josephine and Napoleon. Lunch in nearby brasserie with garden and return by bus to La Défense. Optional 10-minute bus ride to Moroccan restaurant at Bougival. Return by bus to Nanterre Préfecture station or optional 3½ km walk along the Seine to Rueil-Malmaison station.
25 minutes by bus
GARE ST LAZARE
10. Marly le Roi
3½ km walk through old village of Marly le Roi and park of Louis XIV’s vanished château, past 17C aqueduct, 11C church and former homes of Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun, Auguste Renoir and Anaïs Nin to Louveciennes station. Optional 1 km continuation past Mme du Barry’s former château at Louveciennes, downhill to the Seine past viewpoints painted by the Impressionists and remains of the Machine de Marly at Bougival, returning to La Défense by bus from Bougival. Optional 4½ km continuation of riverside walk to Rueil-Malmaison station.
33 minutes by train
Getting around the Ile de France
The cultural context
Getting into the local rhythm, the pleasures of provincial life, the love of numbers, the French attitude to information
Public transport: types of ticket, trains, buses, taxis, boats, bicycles, walking, maps, useful sources of information, books, bookshops
Best days to visit
Train traveller’s glossary
Chronology of French rulers
Preface in full
An Hour From Paris, a guide to 20 rewarding but little-known daytrips within an hour of Paris by train, first appeared in 2002 and is now in its third edition. I wrote the book I would have liked to have had in my hand when I first arrived in Paris from London in 1991. I needed to know how to get into the surrounding countryside by train, what was worth seeing, how long the journey would take, and how to get back without necessarily returning to my starting point. I also wanted enough local and historical information to appreciate the context of what I was seeing, a clear local map and directions, and honest comments on what I was likely to find en route, including food.
Part of my impulse to explore beyond Paris came from the need to get into the countryside and escape crowds, especially other visitors. So I also wanted to know which wild flowers and animals I might see. Ideally I wanted to be able to walk for pleasure as well as by necessity, if possible by a stream or river, but not for too long before reaching a café or a station.
No such book existed, so I started exploring the train network around Paris with a copy of the green Michelin guide to the Ile de France in my hand instead. As it was written for car drivers many of its recommendations turned out to be impractical, but the places themselves were always rewarding. Some of them, such as Conflans Sainte Honorine, became the starting point for further explorations on foot as I began to appreciate just how interesting and accessible the Paris countryside is, and how little-known it is to most Parisians, let alone foreigners. It took several years of happy exploration and discovery before I realised that I had enough material to write the book I had always wanted to read.
The subsequent success of An Hour From Paris has led many readers to ask for a sequel. I resisted this for some time, as their assumption and mine was that I would have to travel further afield to find rewarding new daytrips, probably called Two Hours From Paris. But when I came to look over the notes I had accumulated over 20 years, I saw that there were plenty of places in the Ile de France that I had not included in An Hour From Paris which might be worth re-visiting, as the train service had improved so much that many of them were now far more accessible. I did re-visit them, over several years, and was delighted to make further discoveries, such as the country walks around Auvers sur Oise. Meanwhile Paris friends kept giving me ideas for new destinations within an hour of Paris, such as Marly le Roi and the Parc de la Poudrerie, and I discovered others myself, such as the Canal de Chalifert at Meaux. Finally I decided to put ten of these trips taking around half an hour by train into a shorter book called Half An Hour From Paris.
Of the ten destinations described in Half An Hour From Paris, the oldest ones with Roman or medieval origins, Lagny, Meaux and La Ferté sous Jouarre, are to the east of Paris where few tourists go, as are the most surprising places to be found just outside Paris: the Château de Vincennes, Parc de la Poudrerie and Neuilly Plaisance. Igny to the south and Parc de Bagatelle, Malmaison and Marly le Roi to the west developed between the 17th and 19th centuries mainly as a result of their proximity to Versailles. Today they are prosperous suburbs concealing an interesting history, but little-known to foreign visitors.
Although there is now far more information about the Ile de France available online than there was when I first started exploring, some of it derived from An Hour From Paris, these lesser-known places tend to be mentioned superficially or not at all. Not everything is available online, and even if it is, it often helps to know beforehand exactly what you are looking for. The medieval stone bas-relief of St Furcy in the toilettes of the Café St Furcy at Lagny is not mentioned by the tourist office and the locals do not spare it a glance, although I did find it on an obscure website once I had discovered its existence. And Google does not go into detail on how to get to places like the Parc de la Poudrerie by train, or pick out the most rewarding route for walkers when they get there.
The thrill of discovering places like these a stone’s throw from Paris is what makes exploration off the beaten track so rewarding. I hope that you will enjoy these trips as much as I have enjoyed discovering and researching them.