Updating An Hour From Paris in winter

Updating An Hour From Paris in winter, fourth edition
Provins in winter

The request from my publisher to consider updating An Hour From Paris came just before Christmas. Since then I’ve been recruiting intrepid friends to accompany me as I work my way through the 20 destinations in the book to see what has changed. I expect to have finished by summer so that the new edition can be published in 2025.

So far, updating in the depths of winter has meant clutching the book and a pencil in ungloved hands as a few snowflakes drift down (Provins), squeezing through a barrier to the temporarily closed walk by the Canal St Jean (Chantilly), being unexpectedly invited to view her huge house and grounds by a woman who saw us peeping through her 17th century gateway (La Ferté-Milon) and having a rewarding telephone conversation with the curator of the Maison Debussy (St Germain-en-Laye) who had never heard of the book but thought it a brilliant idea. Oh, and discovering that the traditionally unfriendly local café in Seugy (Royaumont) serves an excellent under-priced kir, actually acknowledged with a smile when I took the glasses back to the counter.

As you can see, there are unexpected pleasures to be had from what could feel like a chore. Provins in particular, which I have not enjoyed much since it became a UNESCO-listed site, has a lovely haunting quality in winter. The Middle Ages seem very close when you are experiencing the same conditions as the people who built those ramparts and the sheer pleasure of finally sitting down in the warmth and sipping ‘hypocras’, a spiced wine drink mentioned by Chaucer, in the one café that was open added the finishing touch.

Only 15 more trips to go – and I’m looking forward to more discoveries.

The Perfect Day Out in Paris

First published on 6 June 2023 in Bonjour Paris

the perfect day out in Paris
Entrance to the courtyard of the Café Griffon, with medieval tower on the right

I’ve now lived in Paris for 32 years and, like most expatriate residents, I have a recurring problem: what to do with family and friends when they come to visit?

Of course I can always turn them loose to visit the city’s famous sights, but what if they’ve already seen them? Current exhibitions are only part of the answer, as I baulk at sending them to join long queues or worse still, having to queue with them. Ideally I want to take them somewhere authentically Parisian that most tourists won’t know about and to share with them the sense of discovery that is one of the great rewards of travel. So I have found that the best solution is to show them surprising little-known places I’ve recently discovered.

My latest find is at no. 55 bis Rue des Francs Bourgeois in the Marais, a street I have walked down hundreds of times. Last year I noticed a small gateway which I hadn’t seen before and on impulse went inside.

the perfect day out in Paris
Entrance to the Café Griffon and medieval tower

The entrance led past a tower, the massive base of which turned out to be an astonishing remnant of the 12th century city wall built by Philippe Auguste. Next to the tower was a pillar, an elegant fragment from the 17th century Hotel de Nouvion which once stood here, set on an earlier base with the date 1577 carved into it. The tower is at the corner of a hidden courtyard, with a café inside it, which was closed. I made a mental note to go back and try the café, but of course I never did.

Last week, walking down the same street, I saw a sign for ‘Crédit Muncipal’ above another, larger gateway. I assumed it led to a boring bank but went through it, past the security guards into a courtyard. There I read the fascinating history of the ‘Mont-de-Piété’, founded in 1637 as a sort of People’s Pawnbroker, offering credit at reasonable rates for objects deposited. The ‘Crédit Municipal de Paris’, owned by the city, is its direct descendant and operates on similar lines to this day, at the same spot. Then I noticed an archway at the side which looked vaguely familiar. It led into the courtyard with the tower and hidden café which I had found a year earlier.

the perfect day out in Paris
Archway between the Café Griffon and the Crédit Municipal de Paris

This time I made a note of the address of the café which is opposite the forbidding-looking entrance to the ‘Archives Nationales’.  Reflecting that I had never set foot inside that building either, and with a family visit looming, I went inside, expecting to find that it wasn’t open to the public.

the perfect day out in Paris
Entrance to the Archives Nationales

But the immense circular courtyard led to a staggering building, the 17th century Hotel de Soubise, once the home of the powerful Guise family and now the repository of the nation’s most precious archives. It houses a museum with ‘Entrée gratuite’ encouragingly written over the entrance.

I climbed the grand staircase to the first floor to see the special exhibition about the royal family’s confinement in the Tuileries 1789-1792 and ended up losing all sense of time as I read the secret correspondence between Marie-Antoinette and her lover, the Swedish count Axel von Fersen, who arranged the doomed flight of the royal family to Varennes in 1791.

The letters were written in French in a code that has only recently been cracked, although some phrases which Fersen had carefully blacked out are still unreadable, even with the latest technology. The technical details of the code are clearly presented in French and English and cleverly brought to life in a video in which the faces of the Queen and Fersen are never shown. The camera peeps over their shoulders to show each stage of the coded letter-writing, lace-draped hands painstakingly writing out the draft with a quill, converting it to code and the whole process in reverse at the other end so that the letter could finally be read.

I was deeply impressed by the non-gimmicky but cutting-edge presentation, by the restored princely rooms on the first floor with painted ceilings rivalling Versailles, and pleasantly surprised by the uncrowded space.

archives nationales
Salon de la Princesse, Hotel de Soubise, Archives Nationales

There were far more visitors when I returned on a public holiday a few days later but nothing like the crowds at the big Paris exhibitions. Admission to the museum’s special exhibitions has recently been made free and the weekend opening hours extended. On my second visit I discovered an un-named secluded garden with a maze of hidden arbours, outside the Hotel de Rohan to the right of the museum entrance.

Hotel de Rohan, Archives Nationales
Garden of the Hotel de Rohan, Archives Nationales

I knew that my family would love these places, which are just around the corner from the Centre Pompidou. And from past experience with them, other visitors and from readers’ comments, I also knew that at least one day trip to a little-known place outside Paris would be a highlight of their stay.

So one Sunday I took two friends, one a long-term resident of Paris, the other a frequent visitor from London, to the ancient hilltop stronghold of Château-Landon, 82 km south east of Paris in the valley of the River Loing. We took the train from the Gare de Lyon to Souppes, where we had lunch at a modest family-run restaurant in the market place.

Souppes sur Loing
Marketplace, Souppes sur Loing

I had phoned ahead to say that one of us was vegetarian so the patronne had obligingly added a pasta dish to the day’s menu. I could see that my friends were surprised and impressed by the un-Parisian warmth of our welcome and the ‘rapport qualité-prix’ (value for money).

But they were a trifle taken aback when after lunch I confidently led them down a narrow overgrown path next to a disused railway line. ‘Is it all going to be like this?’ one of them asked as we pushed our way through knee-high damp meadowsweet and buttercups so that our jeans were soon soaked. I assured them truthfully that this was the only wild part of the walk. Our jeans soon dried and I was gratified to see their growing pleasure and delight as we walked along the Canal du Loing and then along a country path full of wild roses, with the bell-tower of the 11th century hilltop church at Château-Landon gradually coming into view, soon followed by its spectacular abbey.

Château-Landon
Bell-tower of Notre Dame on the footpath to Château-Landon
Château-Landon
Château-Landon

On reaching the town we made an unplanned detour from the riverside path to the church to follow the intriguing sounds of singing and dancing coming from a nearby park, where a Portuguese festival was in full swing.

Château-Landon
Portuguese dancers, Château-Landon

The little town itself, as usual, was deserted and the café I had planned to take them to next to the church was closed, but the trusty Turkish doner-kebab takeaway in the market place was open. We were the only customers. We sat outside in the sun listening to the cooing of doves, drinking tea and sampling the patronne’s excellent home-made baklava before catching the last bus to Melun, from where we had a magnificent view of the palace of Fontainebleau, to connect with a fast train to the Gare de Lyon.

Here we decided to treat ourselves to a kir at the mythical Train Bleu restaurant, where the decor of lofty painted ceilings, curtains and mirrors always reminds me of a cross between a cathedral and a Belle Epoque brothel.

Le Train Bleu
Le Train Bleu restaurant, Gare de Lyon © Wikimedia Commons

We were enjoying the contrast between our day in the country and our luxurious Parisian surroundings so much that we decided to stay and have supper there. It was packed with tourists, but they found us a table without raising an eyebrow at our unstylish walking gear.

As my London visitor later told me, it was the perfect end to a perfect day.

 

 

A fairy-tale walk to the Château d’Ecouen

Article on Château d’Ecouen first published in Bonjour Paris, 24 March 2023, based on the chapter in An Hour From Paris, 2019

château d'ecouen
Château d’Ecouen, front entrance

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.

View of the forest walk from the Grille du Pré-Curé

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.

château d'ecouen
Rear view of the Château d’Ecouen in winter, surrounded by snowdrops
Château d'Ecouen
Rear view of the château in spring, with a carpet of wood anemones

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.

Château d'Ecouen
‘La chasse d’Esau’ by unknown artist in the bedroom of Anne de Montmorency, RMN, Stéphane Maréchalle

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.

Château d'Ecouen
View from upper floor window of the château

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.

Bethsabée à la fontaine, RMN

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

Charles V clock with automated crew, attributed to Hans Schlottheim (1547-1625)

and the beautiful pink and blue Ottoman pottery from Iznik in Turkey, inspired by Chinese models, on the second floor.

Plate from Izmir, 16th century
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.

Château d'Ecouen
1.8 km walk from Ecouen-Ezanville station to the Château d’Ecouen

(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

A walk along the Seine from the Château de Malmaison

Article first published in Bonjour Paris, 10 October 2022

The Seine at Bougival
The Seine at Bougival, courtesy of Wendy Sweetser

The elegant little Château de Malmaison is in a lovely setting within easy reach of Paris, which is why Napoleon and Josephine chose it, but has few international visitors. You could make your visit even more satisfying by taking a little-known walk through the Parc de Bois-Préau next door, which once belonged to the château, to the church where Josephine is buried in the historic centre of Rueil. It is an attractive little town with a market, a good brasserie next to the church and a total absence of tourists.

You could end the trip with a short bus ride to Bougival to take a beautiful 3 km walk along the Seine at a spot made famous by the Impressionists, past the house of Georges Bizet to the RER station at Rueil-Malmaison, 25 minutes from central Paris.

The Château de Malmaison
The Château de Malmaison

The more you know about Napoleon and Josephine, the more rewarding the visit to the château will be. These two highly successful self-made people had a lot in common and each died with the other’s name on their lips. Josephine de Beauharnais was a 32-year old widow with two children, from a minor aristocratic family in Martinique, living on her beauty and her wits in the precarious world of the Directory which governed France from 1795 to 1799. She was six years older than the rising but socially unpolished young general when he met and fell in love with her. They married a few months later in 1796 despite the opposition of his family, who felt that he could have done much better. It seems that she was not in love with him and that Napoleon was furious when he found out about at least one lover soon after their marriage.

He turned out to be a devoted step-father to Josephine’s children and all the evidence is that she eventually fell deeply in love with him. The divorce in 1809 was reluctantly arranged so that he could marry again when it was clear that she could not provide the Emperor with an heir. He made a generous settlement on her, including Malmaison and its valuable contents,  insisted that she keep the title of Empress, and continued to support her financially despite her extravagance. He once remarked that the only thing that ever came between them was her debts. They stayed good friends until her death at Malmaison, aged 51, in 1814. After his abdication on 22 June 1815 Napoleon spent a final few days at Malmaison before leaving France for exile on St Helena.

The 17th century château was acquired by Josephine in 1799 and Napoleon paid for it on his return from Egypt. He employed two young architects to do major renovation work on it between 1800 and 1802 although he curtailed their more ambitious plans to remodel it completely. Unlike Rambouillet and St Cloud, former royal châteaux which became Napoleon’s later residences, Malmaison was redesigned as a private country house where the First Consul could work, entertain and relax. Between 1800 and 1802 the government known as the Consulate (1799-1804), of which Napoleon was the leading member, met there frequently, in a more informal atmosphere than that of the Tuileries.

Josephine’s pioneering but expensive tastes were expressed most fully in the vast park of 726 hectares, which at one point included a menagerie of exotic animals, until Napoleon decreed that they had to go. Her lifelong interest was botany and the hothouses at Malmaison were filled with at least 200 plants unknown in France before then, dahlias, lilies and particularly roses, of which there were more than 250 varieties by 1814. She employed an English landscape gardener and kept up a correspondence with the director of Kew Gardens in London. During the war both the French and English admiralties colluded to allow ships carrying rare plants for Malmaison through the blockade and the beautiful flower paintings of her illustrator, Redouté, made his name.

Josephine's dinner service at Château de Malmaison
Josephine’s dinner service, with a design by Redouté

After the divorce, her chief interest, after her grand-children, was her plants. It was Josephine who pioneered the modern hybridisation of roses and the use of vernacular rather than Latin names for them. She was also the first person in Europe to successfully rear black swans in captivity, brought from Tasmania in 1802. They have been re-introduced into the park.

Black swans at Château de Malmaison
Black swans at Malmaison

Suggested visit to the Château de Malmaison

From La Défense/Grand Arche station follow the exit signs for the bus terminal inside the RER station and take the 258 bus to La Jonchère. Get off about 25 minutes later at ‘Le Château’, having pressed the red button beforehand to stop the bus if someone else hasn’t already done so. Cross the road, turn left and then first right down the quiet tree-lined Avenue du Château de Malmaison which leads to the château, 300 meters away on the right.

Napoleon and Josephine had the château redesigned and furnished in the fashionably simple yet elevated classical style of the Consulate, to which it has been carefully restored, right down to the striped curtains in the Salle de Conseil, recalling a military tent. The dignified half columns outside, supporting classical statues, were actually props needed to prevent the structure from collapsing while the house was being aggrandised for its new role as home to the First Consul and his wife, effectively the First Lady.

Back of the Château de Malmaison
The back of the château

The black and white flooring on the ground floor was cleverly designed to unify the entrance hall, dining room and billiard room, which became one vast ballroom when the doors were swung back. The dining room frescoes of dancing girls in the Pompeian style recall Napoleon’s later rooms at Rambouillet, as do the Egyptian motifs. The portraits of Josephine reveal her elegance and her undisputed role as an arbiter of fashion. Like many other people at that time, she had decayed teeth and was always painted with her mouth closed, lips slightly curved in a mysterious smile.

Portrait of Josephine at Château de Malmaison
Portrait of Josephine in coronation robes, workshop of François Gérard, c. 1808

The park contains a magnificent cedar of Lebanon, now higher than the château, planted by Napoleon and Josephine in 1800, the year of the victory of Marengo.

Cedar of Lebanon at Château de Malmaison
The cedar of Lebanon at Malmaison

Although reduced to a tiny fraction of its original size, the park is pretty and quiet, landscaped à l’anglaise with a stream and a little bridge from which you can watch the black swans.  In summer you can sniff some of the roses for which Malmaison became famous, including the beautiful sweetly-scented Souvenir de Joséphine.

'Souvenir de Joséphine' rose at Château de Malmaison
‘Souvenir de Joséphine’ rose at Malmaison

There is no tea room at the château and you are not supposed to picnic in the grounds, so the Brasserie du Château, on your right at the end of the Avenue du Château on the way back is your nearest option for food. From there turn left into the main road for the 258 bus stop ‘Le Château’ going back to La Défense or you could take the 259 bus from the same stop if it comes first, getting off at the ‘Esplanade Charles de Gaulle’ stop for the RER station at Nanterre Préfecture, a 20-minute ride. These buses run every 10-15 minutes.

However, I have found it much more rewarding to prolong the trip by taking a 1½ km walk through the Parc de Bois-Préau to the church in the heart of the historic centre of Rueil, where Josephine is buried. There is a better, more authentic brasserie with a traffic-free terrace facing the church in the main square and it is an interesting short walk from there through the little town and its market place to the next bus stop.

Optional 1½ km walk through the Parc de Bois-Préau to Rueil

 From the château gates take the pedestrian crossing to your right and go into the car-park.  Turn left to eventually join a little footpath sign-posted ‘Parc de Bois-Préau’ (pronounced Pray-oh). Go through an opening in the wall ahead and turn left for the path into the park. Continue left, past les toilettes, and follow the main path and the signs for ‘Centre-Ville’ for another kilometer.

The park belonged to the Château de Bois-Préau, which you will eventually pass, and was landscaped à l’anglaise in the 18th century. Josephine bought it in 1810, with money supplied by Napoleon. It has kept its original appearance, offering wide vistas, a little stream, and some stately old trees, dotted with occasional statues and benches and roamed by a flock of Canada geese. I have found drifts of snowdrops growing there in January. There is a statue of Josephine in coronation robes in front of the château, which you will pass on your right.

Château de Bois-Preau

The château, like the park, has become an extension of Malmaison, housing a museum dedicated to Napoleon’s exile, death and continuing legend. It is currently closed for renovation.

Leave the park at the exit just after the château, and cross the road on your right to continue straight ahead into the small semi-pedestrianised Rue Jean Le Coz, lined with 18th and 19th century houses. Follow it to the end, passing the Office de Tourisme on your right. You will see the baroque façade of the Eglise de St Pierre et St Paul framed between the buildings at the end of the street.

rue Jean Le Coz, Rueil
Rue Jean Le Coz and Eglise St Pierre et St Paul, Rueil

The church contains Josephine’s tomb surmounted by a statue of her kneeling, in the same pose as at her coronation.

Tomb of Josephine, Rueil
Tomb of Josephine in the church at Rueil

Her tomb faces the mausoleum of her daughter, Hortense de Beauharnais, step-daughter of Napoleon, wife of his younger brother and mother of Napoleon III, who paid for the restoration of his mother’s monument in 1858. Although part of it dates back to the 12th century, the church feels very much like a Bonaparte family chapel and it is always open.

The well-established brasserie facing the church with a large outside terrace is aptly called Le Beauharnais. It is the best place in which to sit and savour the relaxed, almost provincial atmosphere of the little town. I have only shared a planche mixte here, a generous platter of cheese and charcuterie, but the menu includes classic French dishes as well as snacks and vegetarian options. My friendly neighbours at the next table confirmed that the place is deservedly popular with the locals.

Return to the Rue Jean Le Coz and turn right to follow a straight route down the semi-pedestrianised Rue Hervet, across the Boulevard de Maréchal Foch, through Place Jean Jaurès where a market is held on Tuesday and Saturday mornings, and along Rue de la Réunion, which ends back at the main bus route, Avenue Paul Doumer. Turn left for the ‘Danielle Casanova’ stop for buses 258 and 259 towards Paris.

To continue to Bougival for the riverside walk 3 km away, cross the road and turn left for the 259 stop towards St Germain-en-Laye.

3 km riverside walk from Bougival to Rueil-Malmaison

Riverside walk at Bougival
The riverside walk at Bougival

This part of Bougival with its pastoral views of the Seine was a favourite with artists and writers in the 19th century and has changed very little. The English artist Turner, often considered a forerunner of the Impressionists, first painted the Seine near this spot in 1831 and was followed by Corot, Renoir, Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Berthe Morisot and Vlaminck. Later Bougival residents included Mistinguett, the music hall star, Georges Bizet, the composer of Carmen, Ivan Turgenev and Alexandre Dumas fils. The village reached the height of its popularity as a riverside destination for eating, drinking, boating and dancing during the 1880s, its atmosphere captured by perhaps the best-known Impressionist painting of them all, La Danse à Bougival.

La danse à Bougival
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La Danse à Bougival, 1883, Wikimedia Commons

Get off the bus about 10 minutes and seven stops later at ‘La Chaussée – Musée Tourgueniev’, and continue walking for a few meters in the direction of the bus until you see the start of the footpath by the Seine. There is a reproduction here of Monet’s atmospheric 1867 painting of the Seine at Bougival in winter.

Turn right to follow the riverside path past some 19th century villas. You will soon pass the tall house briefly rented by Georges Bizet (1838-1875) in which he worked furiously to finish Carmen, an opera which initially shocked the public and critics alike. He died there of an aneurism at the age of 36, three months after its disastrous première. There is a small plaque put up in 1912 but it is easy to miss unless you are walking in the opposite direction.

Georges Bizet's house at Bougival
Georges Bizet’s house at Bougival, courtesy of Wendy Sweetser

You will eventually pass a tennis club with a garden and a cosy bar furnished with a log fire and armchairs, open to the public as well as club members. ‘Le Fruit Défendu’ (Forbidden Fruit) next door is an upmarket riverside restaurant, part of the same establishment.

Continue along the river, passing a pony club and a golf course en route, until you see a railway bridge ahead with a sign for the RER, with some huge barges moored nearby. Turn right along the Avenue de la Seine, following the railway line overhead on your left. At the end of the Avenue turn left to find steps leading up to a handy footbridge over the busy main road, taking you straight to the entrance to Rueil-Malmaison station and the 25-minute train ride to Châtelet-Les Halles.

walk from Bougival to Rueil-Malmaison
2½ km walk to the Château de Malmaison and through the Parc de Bois-Préau to Rueil
walk from Bougival to Rueil-Malmaison
3 km walk from Bougival to Rueil-Malmaison station

This walk is a preview from the new updated edition of Half An Hour From Paris, to be published in January 2023

(NB all photos are by Annabel Simms unless otherwise stated)

 

Kayaking on the Canal de l’Ourcq, 21 minutes from Paris by train

kayaking on the Canal de l'Ourcq
Annabel getting into the rhythm of kayaking on the Canal de l’Ourcq

 I’ve been interested in kayaking ever since I first tried it 20 years ago on the little River Thérain, 70 km north of Paris. On that memorable occasion I experienced the challenges and joys of paddling à deux (we capsized within five minutes), of silently gliding along the dappled lush riverbank sharing the same viewpoint as the moorhens and ducks, and the adrenalin rush of successfully shooting the rapids with eyes tight shut.

Since then I’ve made several further attempts, on the Seine, the Marne and on rivers in Chile and Turkey. But none of them ever came close to the thrills and spills of that first experience, and now I know why. I enjoy kayaking most when I am paddling with someone who synchronises their movements to mine at the front of the boat, is happy to do the lion’s share of the work and will slow down and drift tranquilly with the current when the mood takes us.

All this became clear to me last Sunday on one of the hottest days of the year when a friend and I hired a kayak from a little-known club close to the Parc de la Poudrerie on the Canal de l’Ourcq, 21 minutes from Paris by train. I have written about the Parc de la Poudrerie, named after a former gunpowder factory situated in a woodland park, in Half An Hour From Paris, so thought I knew the terrain quite well. But I had no idea of the existence of the canoe-kayak base half a kilometre downstream. It is a delightfully modest club, run by a relaxed group of people and presided over by a retired sports teacher who is also President of the Comité Départemental 93, part of the local authority. With no fuss, we were shown the changing room, given life-jackets, shown how to use the paddles, helped into the two-seater boat and then left happily alone to explore the canal.

After about ten minutes we developed a working rhythm and steered a more or less straight course upstream towards the park, even managing to wave to other boats without bumping into them. For the first time I had a close-up view of the inaccessible bank opposite the towpath where on previous walks I had seen water-voles scampering and wild orchids growing. Within minutes we spotted blackberries, fully ripe a month earlier than usual, growing at the water’s edge. With one accord we stopped paddling and each gingerly grasped a prickly blackberry stem to steady the boat while we filled the other hand with berries and stuffed our faces. Every few minutes we paddled on to find fresh pickings, sweet, juicy and impossible to resist.

Blackberrying on the Canal de l'Ourcq
Blackberrying on the Canal de l’Ourcq

In what seemed no time we had reached the Pont du Vert Galant three kilometres away and reluctantly turned the boat around. On the way back we hardly used the paddles as the current carried us gently past some blackberries we had overlooked – but not for long – and we arrived back at the base replete and relaxed, in just under two hours.

A handful of staff were sitting around a table finishing lunch and cordially invited us to help ourselves to salad and a big bowl of Mirabelle plums fresh from the garden, ripe a month early. We changed out of our wet clothes and joined them at the table, adding to it the picnic lunches we had brought. We spent a leisurely enjoyable hour sitting in the shade drinking their coffee and exchanging views on the cultural differences between Britain and France, with we Anglophones extolling the virtues of France and the French taking the opposite view. When my friend made an observation on the reluctance of some French to give up their privileges in spite of subscribing to republican values I saw a rare sight – French heads all silently nodding in agreement. After offering to wash up we left to explore the Parc de la Poudrerie to a chorus of good wishes and a glow of mutual appreciation.

Unlike my first trip we did not capsize, but it would not have mattered much if we had, as now I know that I need to bring a change of clothes. I wore swimming things under a t-shirt and an old pair of rolled up trousers – your bottom gets soaked in a kayak – closed water shoes and a sunhat. The clubhouse facilities are simple but unlike some more prestigious clubs include everything you might need, even a hairdryer. It was a less thrilling but more quietly satisfying experience than that mythical first kayaking trip and we have already made plans to return. And to bring a container for the blackberries.

Ourcq Can’ohe Club Sevranais, 31 Boulevard de la République, Sevran 93270, tel 06 30 79 18 66 or 06 17 45 81 39, http://occs.clubeo.com
Gare RER B Sevran-Livry and 600m walk along the canal.
Open to the public during weekends in July and August from 10.30 am to 5 pm, 10€ for around 1½ hours, 5€ for under 16s. Equipment provided, no need to book.

Pont de la Poudrerie, Canal de l'Ourcq
Pont de la Poudrerie, Canal de l’Ourcq

Iris escapade at Parc de Bagatelle

Iris garden, Parc de Bagatelle
Parc de Bagatelle iris garden, 27 May 2022

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 16th arrondissement 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

Sign in rue de Longchamp
Sign in rue de Longchamp

followed by a plaque with the history of the house, which had belonged to the Victorian writer, Théophile Gautier.

Maison Théophile Gautier
Maison Théophile Gautier, 32 rue de Longchamp

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.

New edition of Half An Hour From Paris in 2022

New edition of Half An Hour From Paris
Heron fishing in the River Bièvre near Igny

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.

With warm wishes for Christmas and 2022!

An autumn walk along the Marne with two surprising detours

Article first published in Bonjour Paris, 29 November 2021

Champigny to Nogent via the Ile Fanac and the Jardin Tropical
Maison Fanac on the Ile Fanac
Maison Fanac, former guinguette on the Ile Fanac, now the Ecole Municipale des Arts

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.

Champigny towards Joinville
The Marne from Champigny towards Joinville

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.

Marne near Joinville
Seagulls and cormorants perched across the Marne near 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.

Pathé studios, Joinville
The former Pathé cinema studios at Joinville

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.

Ile Fanac
Map of the Ile Fanac

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.

Ile Fanac east bank
Footpath along the east bank of the Ile Fanac

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.

Ile Fanac, west bank
House on the west bank of the Ile Fanac

Leave the island by the steps from which you arrived, and continue to the other side of the bridge.

West bank of the Ile Fanac at the Pont de Joinville

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.

Bandstand, Nogent sur Marne
Bandstand, Nogent sur Marne

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.

Château Royal de Beauté, Nogent
Sign marking the site of the Château Royal de Beauté, built c. 1375

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.

Jardin Tropical, Nogent
Entrance to the Jardin Tropical

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.

Jardin Tropical
Pavillon du Maroc, Jardin Tropical

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.

Jardin Tropical, Nogent
Memorial to soldiers from Madagascar, 1918

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.

Jardin Tropical, Nogent
Memorial to soldiers from Indo-China, 1918

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.

walk from Champigny to Nogent
8 km walk from Champigny to Nogent via Ile Fanac and the Jardin Tropical. OpenStreetMap © Annabel Simms D = Depart, A = Arrive, ②= 2 km

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