Annabel’s Zoom presentation on 20 June 2024

I’ll be giving an illustrated Zoom presentation on both books for Bonjour Paris with particular reference to Half An Hour From Paris

next Thursday 20 June from 5.30-6.30 pm Paris time,
11.30 am-12.30 pm Eastern time, USA.

The event will end with a short Q and A session and is free to Bonjour Paris members. Non-members can buy a ticket for 10 US dollars by registering here. 

Looking forward to answering your questions!

Updating An Hour From Paris in spring

Updating An Hour From Paris in spring
Riverside path, Ile de la Dérivation on the walk to Poissy

I’ve now revisited nearly all of the 20 destinations in the 2019 edition to update it for the 4th edition. Not all the changes have been for the better but I’m pleased to say that so far there have been more good ones than bad.

Walking in the company of friends who see these familiar places with new eyes has also led to new perceptions of my old favourites, literally in the case of Montmorency where we climbed up to the former ramparts for the first time to be rewarded with a spectacular view of the Renaissance church. The buildings on the skyline are the modern quarter of La Défense in western Paris, ten miles and a world away.

Updating An Hour From Paris at Montmorency
View from the ramparts at Montmorency

I had also never seen the park at Rambouillet when the bluebells are out

Parc de Rambouillet in April
Parc de Rambouillet in April

and on going completely round the park at Chateaubriand’s house to satisfy a friend’s curiosity I was thrilled to see Solomon’s Seal growing there, my first ever sighting of this beautifully-named plant.

Solomon's Seal at Chateaubriand's house
Solomon’s Seal, Maison de Chateaubriand

There have also been some experiences too hairy to go into the book: exploring a fascinating abandoned 19th century quarry on the walk to Herblay in the aimiable company of some local teenagers, and having to clutch at brambles to stop ourselves from sliding down a deeply muddy steep path on an experimental detour from Montmorency.

The reason for not including the quarry is that it is on the optional riverside walk from Conflans Sainte Honorine to Herblay, most of which has become disappointingly suburban. New houses have sprung up by the river and the towpath is now tarmacked over and full of people.

But the deletion of this walk led to one of the best experiences of all, as I decided to explore a residential island which I had not revisited for years on the river in the other direction. At the time I had found it not really worth the detour as you can’t see the Seine from its only road. But at the very end of that road we found a deserted riverside footpath bordering residents’ back gardens. Its discovery was crowned for me by the sight of a swan almost hidden from view, only a few feet away from us, peacefully sitting on her eggs. She did not spare us a glance.

Updating An Hour From Paris on the walk to Poissy
Swan’s nest, Ile de la Dérivation on the walk to Poissy

Only five more walks to go…and I’m looking forward to yet more discoveries. I’ll actually be sorry when the updating is finished.








A Champagne Walk an Hour from Paris

First published on 25 March 2024 in Bonjour Paris

Champagne vineyard an hour from Paris at Charly
Champagne vineyard at Charly

The station of Nanteuil-Saâcy is on the north east edge of the Ile de France, close to the River Marne. It is only 50 minutes from the Gare de l’Est by train – but in a very different world. A 20-minute walk across the bridge and along the river will bring you to the old village of Crouttes-sur-Marne in the Aisne département containing nine small ‘maisons de champagne’. Here you can sample different champagnes to your heart’s content and buy an excellent bottle of the stuff direct from the producer for as little as 15€. It also has a 12th century church, locked but with a large grille thoughtfully placed across the open doorway so that you have a good view of the atmospheric interior.

But if you want to make your visit into an even more rewarding day out I suggest you combine the champagne tasting and buying with a leisurely 10 km river and country walk. You can do this by getting off at the next station on the line to Château-Thierry, Nogent l’Artaud-Charly, walking 3½ km along the river to a traditional restaurant for lunch, then going inland and uphill to the old village of Charly, past its 13th century church and maisons de champagne, and then doing a spectacular hilltop walk with views of champagne vineyards and rolling countryside, dropping down to the village of Crouttes-sur-Marne to visit its 12th century church. From there you go through the village and back down to the river to buy your champagne en route to the station at Nanteuil-Saâcy, reached by a short riverside walk.

From the station at Nogent l’Artaud turn left and cross the bridge over the Marne straight ahead.

Bridge at Nogent l'Artaud
Bridge at Nogent l’Artaud

On the other side take the GR towpath along the river on your left. You probably won’t meet a soul on this lovely riverside walk although you can see the steeples of a village church or two uphill on your right. After 3½ km you will come to the ‘Guinguette le Bac’ at Charly, a former guinguette (riverside restaurant where working people went to dance at weekends).  The bac (ferry) no longer exists but the restaurant is an authentic survival of the guinguette tradition of having a good time by the water.

Ginguette le Bac at Charly, an hour from Paris
Guinguette le Bac at Charly

The clientèle is local, with a family birthday celebration in full swing when we arrived. The food is modest and so are the prices. I had an excellent kir for 3€ and a galette (savoury pancake) of ham and cheese for 14.50€. Main dishes are around 18€ and a 50cl pichet of drinkable red wine is 7€ or you can order cider at 9.80€ a bottle. Our waiter (owner?) was charmed by our accents, as he had worked in London for a year. I was even more charmed to find a traditional place like this still functioning, especially on a Sunday in November.

Turn left from the restaurant and go uphill through the quiet old village of Charly, where there are several maisons de champagne. I lit a candle in the 13th century church which we passed en route.

Eglise St Martin, Charly, an hour from Paris
Eglise St Martin, Charly

After the church turn left into the Rue Emile Morlot which eventually becomes the Route de Monthuys and then turns into a footpath with spacious views of fields and vineyards. On my first visit in late October some of the small sweet black grapes were still hanging there and we gorged ourselves on them, but they had withered by the time of my next visit in November. If you go in autumn I recommend taking a penknife with you to cut the tough little stalks.

The footpath eventually crosses an unmarked path at the crest of a hill. Continue straight on at this point.

Footpath from Charly to Crouttes-sur-Marne, an hour from Paris
Footpath from Charly to Crouttes-sur-Marne

It had rained the night before so the soft soil of this path had preserved various animal footprints and one of us stopped to take photos of them. Later she looked them up online and identified them as the prints of lynx (wild cat), boar, deer and dog. I knew there were lynx in the Ile de France but to this day have never seen one, so I was particularly thrilled by this information.

Continue downhill past more spectacular views until you reach the D842 (Route de Villiers) and follow it to the left, turning left into Rue de la Couarde when the road forks. Take the first left steeply downhill (Rue de l’Eglise). The 12th century church of St Quiriace is hidden at the end of the street.

Eglise St Quiriace at Crouttes sur Marne
Eglise St Quiriace at Crouttes-sur-Marne

The entrance is locked but you can see the lovely interior through the grille.

Interior of St Quiriace at Crouttes-sur-Marne, an hour from Paris
Interior of St Quiriace

Go round the back of the church, past the cemetery and continue downhill along the Rue de l’Eglise until it joins a road, the Grande Rue which is the main street through Crouttes-sur- Marne. Turn right along this long street and continue, past more maisons de champagne, until you see the Rue du Calvaire on your right.

Take the next left, Rue de la Marne, and follow it downhill until you reach no. 13, Champagne Leclère Torrens, which is owned by Nathalie and her husband.

Advertisement for champagne from Le Monde
Advertisement for champagne from Le Monde

I knew she was called Nathalie because I had phoned ahead to check that her maison de champagne would be open when we passed by, as it is the only one in Crouttes-sur-Marne open on Sunday afternoon and also the one nearest to the station. She assured me that her daughter would be there to let us in and that arriving after the official closing time of 5 pm would not be a problem. It was a complete coincidence that one of our group was carrying a rather crumpled copy of Le Monde in which Nathalie features in a full page advertisement. Her voice did not at all match the rather formidable image in the photo, which is part of a national publicity campaign for champagne.

Her daughter showed us round the champagne cellars of the family home and then took us into the tasting room to try out some of the champagnes on offer. We all bought a bottle and I can attest that my 15€ bottle of brut was as good as my favourite, the much more expensive Deutz. The card machine wasn’t working but luckily we had enough cheques and cash between us to cover our purchases, hastily made as it was getting dark and we had to get to the station for the hourly train to Paris.

Our hostess assured us that we would easily make the train, which turned out to be the case as it was much closer than I thought, and saw us to the gate to point out the riverside path.

Entrance to Champagne Leclère Torrens, Crouttes-sur-Marne, an hour from Paris
Nathalie’s daughter at the entrance to Champagne Leclère Torrens
10 km walk fro Nogent l'Artaud to Nanteuil-Saâcy station
10 km walk from Nogent l’Artaud station to Nanteuil-Saâcy station

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.

Bell-tower of Notre Dame on the footpath to 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.

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

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,
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