Category Archives: Half An Hour From Paris

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

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!

Where two rivers meet

The confluence of the Seine and the Marne at Chinagora, Alfortville

Article first published in Bonjour Paris, 8 October 2021

Confluence of the Seine and the Marne at Chinagora
Chinagora, at the confluence of the Seine and the Marne at Alfortville, © Wikimedia Commons

This is a walk which I discovered by following the Marne from St Maur-Créteil, a continuation of the walk from the islands of Créteil towards Paris, 12 km away. Although the footpath has been tidily ‘aménagé’ so that it presents no difficulty to local walkers, parts of it are still surprisingly rural, with rewarding views of the Marne. It passes a little island painted by Cézanne and ends dramatically at the confluence of the Seine and the Marne at Chinagora, an astonishing Chinese hotel and restaurant complex which overlooks the meeting of the two rivers.

From there you can return a little way along the Marne to take a shortcut through the listed Art Deco façade of the old Suze distillery to the métro at Ecole Vétérinaire de Maisons-Alfort. And to relax after the walk, there is a friendly Italian café-pizzeria with a sunny terrace next to the station.

6 km walk from St Maur-Créteil RER station to métro Ecole Vétérinaire de Maisons-Alfort

Turn right from the station at St Maur-Créteil and take the pedestrian crossing straight ahead, under the railway bridge. Cross the Avenue Ronsard at the next pedestrian crossing and continue into the Avenue Noel on your right. At the end of this quiet street, lined with 19th century villas, turn right into the equally quiet Boulevard du Général Ferrié, with a green space in the middle. At the end of the boulevard you will see a little bandstand. Turn left at this point, past a playground on your right and a station de pompage and you will see the Marne in front of you.

Turn right to follow it along the Quai Schaken. Eventually you will cross a footbridge over a rustic little canal, actually part of a drinking water treatment plant.

Footbridge at the end of the Quai Schaken, St Maur-Créteil

Continue past a few houseboats with little gardens and a convenient bench and take the steps leading up to the Pont de Maisons-Alfort. Cross the bridge and turn right, opposite La Perle du Maroc restaurant, to continue along the Avenue Joffre for a little way. You can see the riverside path below, but it soon comes to an end, so persist along the avenue until you see an opening with steps going down to the path, next to a picnic table.

Steps down to the Promenade Paul Cézanne at Maisons-Alfort

From this point the path is very rustic, with two pontoons over the water from where there is a spacious view of the Marne.

View of the Marne from a pontoon at Maisons-Alfort

On the map the riverside path is called the Promenade Paul Cézanne but you will come across both upper and lower versions of it en route. Generally, I have found that it is more rewarding to take the path closest to the water.

En route you will pass some striking bald cypress trees, with their knotty roots clamped into two sandy little beaches.

Promenade Paul Cézanne, Maisons Alfort

You will soon pass a footbridge to the Ile du Moulin Brûlé, an island painted by Paul Cézanne in 1894.

Footbridge to the Ile du Moulin Brûlé, Maisons-Alfort

The island has been turned into a park, accessed by another bridge further on.  I recommend the less frequented side overlooking the navigable part of the Marne on your right, where you might see some huge working barges sliding silently past.

Not long after the detour to the island you will see that the riverside path ahead is barred by a fence around a petrol station which is being demolished. Turn left at the fence, go up onto the road and follow it round the building site to the right to rejoin the path a little further on.

Soon afterwards you will reach the impressive automated lock and dam of St-Maurice.

Dam and lock at St-Maurice

Although the path is more frequented here, that didn’t bother a cormorant which was methodically drying its wings near the dam.

Cormorant at the St-Maurice dam

Soon after the dam you have the option of taking a non-signposted shortcut to the métro station at Ecole Vétérinaire de Maisons-Alfort, a total walk of 4  km. But I strongly recommend continuing along the Marne to its confluence with the Seine at Chinagora, returning along the river to take the same shortcut to the station, another 1½ km.

To find the shortcut, continue along the river for a little way and then take the wooden walkway uphill, marked with the yellow PR sign and a red and white GR cross. When the wooden walkway ends, turn left, go down steps and take the pedestrianised street opposite, the Allée de l’Amourette. This leads through the listed Art Deco façade, which is all that is left of the old Suze distillery, to the métro station on the left.

Suze is a slightly bitter aperitif made from the roots of the yellow gentian flower which grows in the Jura. It became enormously popular in the 1920s and the family-owned distillery, which originally produced absinthe, was located at Maisons Alfort from 1875 to 1974. Its façade was modernised in 1934, to harmonise with the nearby new church of St Agnès, built mainly at the expense of the dynamic owner of the distillery, Fernand Mouroux (1863-1956). Its curved bell-tower is said to be in the form of the iconic Suze bottle. The façade of the distillery was designed in the same Art Deco style, in the form of a frieze showing the names and coats of arms of all the cities where Suze was produced. It looks rather like the entrance to a proud, old-fashioned railway station.

Façade of the former Suze distillery next to the métro at Maisons-Alfort, Wikimedia Commons

© Wikimedia Commons

To follow the Marne to its confluence with the Seine at Chinagora, continue along the footpath. After the next bridge, the Pont de Charenton, the setting becomes completely urbanised. There are three possible routes along the river at this point, the towpath, the footpath above it and the road, but it is more rewarding to follow the towpath all the way, past ducks and the occasional fisherman, until it ends in steps leading up to Chinagora.

Towards the Passerelle d’Alfortville footbridge and Chinagora
The end of the Marne walk at Chinagora

Continue around the building until you reach the tip of the headland, with the Seine on your left and the Marne on your right.

Confluence of the Seine and the Marne at Chinagora
Fisherman at Chinagora, at the confluence of the Seine and the Marne

Chinagora was built for its Chinese owners in 1992, its architecture inspired by the Forbidden City in Beijing. I first went there about 15 years ago and, like some of the French visitors on Tripadvisor, I felt that I was no longer in France but in China. The languages I heard around me were Mandarin and English, although the restaurant had a small sprinkling of French locals.

It is now under new Chinese ownership after having been closed for several years and the first floor restaurant is open daily after 7 pm, but I haven’t yet tried the food. It used to be good, and the views of the Seine on one side and the Marne on the other are unique.

Continue round to the left for a view of the Seine, looking south.

Chinagora overlooking the Seine

The quickest and most scenic route to the métro station from Chinagora is to retrace your steps along the Marne, perhaps taking the footpath this time to make a change.

After the Pont de Charenton you will see two sets of steps on your right. Take the second of these up from the Promenade Paul Cézanne, then go down more steps to follow the Allée de l’Amourette facing you. You emerge through the façade of the old Suze distillery onto a main road, with the Ecole Vétérinaire de Maisons-Alfort métro station on your left and La Nonna pizzeria next to it, open daily.

6.2 km walk from St Maur-Créteil RER to métro Ecole Vétérinaire de Maisons Alfort via Chinagora. OpenStreetMap. D = depart, A = arrive, =2 km

RER A trains to Boissy St Leger from Châtelet-Les Halles run every eight minutes and take 17 minutes to St Maur-Créteil. Details

Métro line 8 trains from Ecole Vétérinaire de Maisons-Alfort leave every few minutes and take 24 minutes to Bastille. Details


A walk of discovery through the Parc Saint Cloud, 10 km from Paris

Article first published in Bonjour Paris, 20 April 2021

Bassin du Grand Jet, Parc St Cloud
Statues overlooking the Bassin du Grand Jet, Parc St Cloud

On a hill overlooking a bend of the Seine to the west of Paris, the vast Parc Saint Cloud, which once surrounded a royal château, is nowadays mainly frequented by locals. This short walk through the eastern part of the park, just 10 km from Notre Dame at the end of the line 9 métro, produces a real sense of dépaysement on the doorstep of Paris.

You are transported from the stately 17th century French formality of the Grande Cascade waterfall with its panoramic views of Paris to the romantic hilltop Jardin de Trocadéro designed à l’anglaise in the early 19th century as a secluded retreat for the children of the royal family.

In post-Covid times you can also visit two interesting and very different museums at opposite ends of the park, which you will pass en route. The walk continues through the quiet little streets of the old hillside town of Saint Cloud with its church containing the relics of the sixth century saint who gave the town and the park his name. From there you descend by a series of steps to a range of transport options, including the 72 bus which follows the right bank of the Seine in Paris from the Pont Mirabeau to the Ile St Louis, giving you an armchair view of some of the city’s most iconic sights.

3½ km walk from Pont de Sèvres to Saint Cloud

Take métro line 9 to its terminus at Pont de Sèvres and leave by ‘sortie no. 1’ which will bring you out into the bus station. Keep walking straight ahead towards a pedestrian crossing on the right which will take you onto the right-hand side of the Pont de Sèvres.

You can see an egg-shaped glass-covered dome to your left on the Ile Séguin, a useful landmark. It is the auditorium of La Seine Musicale, a music and performing arts centre which opened in 2017. The 19th-century building ahead on the other side of the river, surmounted by a clock, is the Musée de Sèvres, Cité de la Céramique, on the edge of the Parc Saint Cloud.

Musée de Sèvres
View of the Musée de Sèvres from the Pont de Sèvres

Take the steps down from the bridge, marked ‘Musée de Sèvres’. Turn right along the main road and follow the signs for the Musée de Sèvres across the pedestrian crossing.

Musée de Sèvres
Musée de Sèvres

The museum tells the story of the art of pottery, with examples drawn from every period and every country, but with pride of place given to the porcelain which has been manufactured in Sèvres since 1759. It is never crowded and worth a look even if you know nothing about ceramics. The more you discover, and you will discover a lot here, the more interesting it becomes.

Sèvres porcelain
Sèvres porcelain, c. 1765

The museum is currently closed, so turn right past the entrance and continue to a gate which leads into the Parc Saint Cloud, on a path parallel to the Seine but mercifully not too close to the busy road beside it. I have never forgotten the sense of release I felt when I first visited this museum on an impulsive escape from Paris and discovered the entrance to the unsuspected 490-hectare park next door.

The hillside setting with its sweeping views of the Seine is visually more dramatic than Versailles, but without the crowds. Without the château either of course, although since 2012 an association has been lobbying for its reconstruction.

In the 16th century a château stood halfway up the hill with gardens sloping down to the Seine. The setting was so attractive that in 1658 Louis XIV bought the château and its 12 hectares of parkland for his younger brother, the 18 year old Philippe d’Orléans. By the time ‘Monsieur’ died in 1701 the original château had been absorbed into the fabric of a much grander building and the park, re-designed by Le Nôtre, had expanded to a whopping 590 hectares. The finishing touches to the Grande Cascade staircase waterfall were added by Jules Hardouin-Mansart in 1690.

Parc St Cloud 1675
The château and park at St Cloud, Etienne Allegrain 1675, Wikimedia Commons

The château was a favourite country retreat with its successive royal and imperial owners, including Marie Antoinette, Napoleon I and Napoleon III. It was the setting for Napoleon’s coup d’état in 1799 and for that of his nephew in 1852. It was from Saint Cloud that Napoleon III made his ill-fated declaration of war on Prussia in 1870. Two months later the château had become the headquarters of the Prussian army besieging Paris and was bombarded by the French from the nearby fort of Mont-Valérien. One of their shells fell into the Emperor’s apartments and started a fire which burned for two days. It seems that the Prussians were not displeased by this turn of events and did nothing to put it out. Twenty years later the burnt-out ruins, a sad reminder of defeat, were finally dismantled by the French state, which continues to be the owner of the park.

Walk straight on for about a kilometre, past a pompous group of statues (‘France crowning Art and Industry’, 1900) until you come to the 90-metre long Grande Cascade, the most visually dramatic ensemble in the park.

Grande Cascade, Parc St Cloud
The Grande Cascade, Parc St Cloud

 All the fountains and jets in the park are turned on annually every Sunday in June for 25 minutes, at 3, 4 and 5 pm and can be seen here. Free concerts are sometimes held in the park at these times if the weather is fine.

Take the left-hand path to the top and turn left, then right past a square of water, the Bassin du Grand Jet, overlooked by an elegant group of statues (lead photo). Turn right up steps to follow a path which will bring you to the back of the statues overlooking the Grande Cascade, with a plunging view of the Seine and some well-known Paris landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower and the Sacré-Coeur.

Top of Grande Cascade, Parc St Cloud
View from the top of the Grande Cascade
Eiffel Tower from top of the Grande Cascade, Parc St Cloud
View of the Eiffel Tower from the top of the Grande Cascade

You cannot continue much further along this path behind the statues as it has been barred, so retrace your route slightly to go down steps on the right and turn right uphill, past the semi-circular Bassin du Fer à Cheval, which contains some enormous carp, and the rectangular Bassin des Carpes on your right which does not, as far as I could see. Continue past the Bassin des Carpes and then follow the path to the left to join the Avenue de la Grille d’Honneur, with the little Musée Historique on your right.

This building and the larger one opposite, originally servants’ and guards’ quarters, are the only structures belonging to the château to have survived the fire. The under-visited little five-room museum (free admission) displays the history of the château, and contains a helpful scale model of the original structure.

To the right of the museum entrance there is a discreet door leading to a public wc and two vending machines selling coffee, soft drinks and snacks. It was deserted on my recent visit. There is an elegant café called L’Orangerie not far away near La Petite Gerbe which now sells takeaway coffee, beer and crêpes, but with a long queue outside.

Turn left from the museum entrance. The clipped triangular yew trees in front of you mark the outline of the vanished château. Above them, to the right, is a series of steps which lead up to the Jardin de Trocadéro, the high point of the park and of the walk, with spectacular views of Paris en route.

Terrasse du Château, Parc St Cloud
Steps leading up to the Jardin du Trocadéro from the Terrasse du Château

The plateau at the top of the hill was landscaped around a central lake and a stream in 1823 to create a private garden in which the royal children could study and play, with interior views rather than the formal panoramic views in the rest of the park. It contains rare scented flowering trees from Lebanon and China, chosen to give a continuous display of colour throughout the year. It has been open to the public since 1872, but on weekdays remains a delightfully secluded hilltop retreat, with more birds than people. On my recent visit on a sunny Sunday, the park’s busiest day, it was full of people picnicking on the grass but the atmosphere was quiet and peaceful and there was plenty of room for everyone. The grass is dotted with wild flowers.

Jardin de Trocadéro, Parc St Cloud
Jardin de Trocadéro

Jardin de Trocadéro, Parc St Cloud

Go round the lake clockwise to leave the Jardin by the northern corner. Keeping the river on your right and the distinctive church spire of Saint Cloud in front of you, follow a winding path downhill which will take you past a children’s playground on the right to the exit at the Grille des Ecoles.

Continue along the path, now called the Allée des Lilas, which becomes the Rue des Ecoles, and passes some exotic-looking 19th century villas.

rue des Ecoles, St Cloud
House in Rue des Ecoles, St Cloud

Continue across the Place de Silly, and turn right downhill along the Rue Dr Desfossez. This older part of town still feels like a village, with steep narrow streets clustered around the church. Turn left down steps to go into the side entrance of the 19th-century church, built on the site of a much earlier one. Its spire appears to have been copied from an earlier version, as it is recognisable in the 1675 painting. I have always found it open.

On the left at the back there is a chapel to Saint Clodoald, the grandson of the first French king, Clovis. An elaborate memorial plaque recounts the story of how he escaped the fate of his royal brothers, murdered by their uncles, and grew up to become a priest, renouncing the throne and the world by symbolically cutting off his long hair. He founded a monastery here, which became a place of pilgrimage after his death in 560 and has given the town its name.

St Clodoald, St Cloud
Memorial plaque to St Clodoald, Eglise St Clodoald

His relics are preserved in a casket under the altar of his chapel. The plaque on the left commemorates the visit of the Bishop of Saint Cloud on the Mississippi to this church in 1922.

relics of St Clodoald, St Cloud
Relics of St Clodoald, Eglise St Clodoald

Leave the church by the main door next to Saint Clodoald’s chapel. To your right is the Rue de l’Eglise which has a baker selling takeaway coffee. There is an old-fashioned café next door, a good place to stop for a drink in non-Covid times.

Rue de l'Eglise, St Cloud
Rue de l’Eglise, St Cloud

Directly in front of you in Place de l’Eglise is a bust of the composer Charles Gounod 1818-1893, a resident of Saint Cloud, with steps leading down through a little park to the tram and bus stops.

Square Gounod, St Cloud
Entrance to the Square Gounod, with a bust of the composer top left

Follow the steps down through the Square Gounod and leave by the exit on the right. Turn right down the busy Rue Dailly and cross it at the pedestrian crossing. Look left to find steps leading down through the Rue Audé to the T2 tram stop for Parc de Saint Cloud. Trams from here go to La Défense.

For the 52 and 72 buses to Paris, continue over the footbridge across the tram line and downhill. The terminus for the line 10 métro, Boulogne Pont de St-Cloud, is only 500 metres away across the Pont Saint Cloud, but the walk is so horrible, surrounded by snarling traffic, that I strongly recommend taking either bus there, whichever leaves soonest. Get off two stops later for the métro station, also known as Rhin et Danube.

The 72 bus ride to Paris is by far the most enjoyable route back, taking about 55 minutes to Châtelet. Sit on the right-hand side for close-up views of the Eiffel Tower, Invalides, the Assemblée Nationale, the Musée d’Orsay, the Conciergerie and Notre Dame.

Map of walk through Parc St Cloud
3.5 km walk through the Parc St Cloud, IGN TOP 25,
D = Depart, A = Arrive, = 2 km

Métro line 9 to Pont de Sèvres or line 10 to Boulogne Pont de St Cloud, 40 minutes from central Paris. Buses 52 or 72 from Parc St Cloud to central Paris, around 55 minutes. T2 tram from Parc St Cloud to La Défense, 13 minutes. Details

Free app using GPS to track your route on IGN maps, IGN Rando

Following the Morbras River around Sucy-en-Brie

Here is the full text of the article which was first published in Bonjour Paris on 23 March 2021

Coypu at the Lac du Grand Val, Sucy-en-Brie
Coypu at the Lac du Grand Val

The great attraction of this little-known walk around Sucy-en-Brie is that it combines some  unexpected glimpses of wildlife with buildings of historic interest, just 29 minutes from Châtelet les Halles with trains every 10 minutes.

Sucy-en-Brie is between the River Marne and the edge of the Forêt de Notre Dame, partly encircled by two streams which flow into the Marne. The canons of Notre Dame de Paris were the seigneurs of Sucy and the surrounding land from the seventh century until the Revolution and until the late 19th century it remained an agricultural village with a small population. In the 17th century a few Parisian families built châteaux de plaisance there, attracted by this bucolic spot only 22 km from the capital. Madame de Sévigné spent part of a happy childhood in one of them. It was the coming of the railway in the 1870s which led to a population explosion and eventually transformed Sucy-en-Brie a century later into a suburb of Paris on the RER A train line.

But the old village with its narrow streets clustered around the 12th century church is the heart of the modern town and there is a new appreciation of its historic value, visible in its recent restoration and partial pedestrianisation. Four of the original six châteaux are still standing, although put to other uses, and many green spaces have been preserved as public parks. The 19th century fort on the edge of town is accessible to anyone who cares to wander inside. When normal times return I will be trying out the Bistrot du Fort nearby. This restaurant and the café next to the station are open on Sundays, which is another plus as far as I am concerned.

8½ km walk around Sucy en Brie

This walk mostly follows the GR route.

On leaving the train take ‘Sortie 1, Place de la Gare’. Cross the road diagonally to the left towards the pharmacy with its green cross on the corner of Rue Montaleau. A baker and a small grocery store in between the café and the pharmacy are useful sources for picnic supplies, open on Sundays.

Follow Rue Montaleau uphill and take the third left into the Rue de Sévigné, past a distinctive house with a cupola.

House at the corner of Rue Montaleau and Rue de Sevigné
House at the corner of Rue Montaleau and Rue de Sevigné

Madame de Sévigné was orphaned at the age of seven and spent part of her childhood in the Château de Montaleau, the home of her grandfather, Philippe de Coulanges. The château is on the hill at the end of Rue Montaleau and you will pass it on the way back. It now houses the Tribunal d’Instance, the magistrate’s court.

Turn left into the Rue de Sévigné and then right into the Rue des Fontaines. Take the first left onto a rustic little GR footpath, the Sentier du Vieux Val, which winds around people’s back gardens, one of them containing a few inquisitive hens.

At the end of the path turn right onto the Rue Maurice Berteaux and continue uphill to the traffic lights. Cross at the pedestrian crossing and take the first left into the Rue Raspail. At the end of this street cross the Rue Thiers onto another little GR footpath straight ahead and continue to the Rue Chevreuil. Turn right and keep straight on down the Rue Pasteur until you see a pond with a bench, overlooking an islet accessed by a footbridge, a favourite place for ducks. The pond is grandly named the Lac du Grand Val and is fed by the Morbras. A bras mort, literally ‘dead arm’, means a backwater.

Le Lac du Grand Val, Sucy-en-Brie
Le Lac du Grand Val

After a while if you look hard at the islet you will probably spot a coypu or two, camouflaged by their colour to blend into the water’s edge. In fact on my recent visit we saw so many that we named the islet Coypu Central. A coypu looks like a cross between a beaver and a large water vole. Originally brought to Europe from South America to be bred for their fur, coypu are now considered an invasic species and have been eliminated in England, although not yet in France where the word for them is ragondin. The ones in Sucy were absolutely fearless and came out of the water to nibble the grass only a few feet away from us and some passersby.

Coypu washing its face at Coypu Central, Sucy-en-Brie
Coypu washing its face at Coypu Central

Turn left from the bench and follow the water right round to its end on the opposite bank, where you will see a pedestrian crossing. Cross it and look up to see steps above you. Climb these and turn left, over a small bridge across the Morbras which cascades noisily here over a little weir. The entrance to the Parc du Morbras is a little further, on your right.

The Morbras flows through the bottom of this park, which feels beautifully untamed although it has a children’s playground, two picnic tables and is overlooked by some houses. I first visited it in November, when it was deserted and covered with colchiques, wild autumn crocuses, a rare sight in urban areas.

Wild autumn crocuses, Parc du Morbras, Sucy-en-Brie

Wild autumn crocuses, Parc du Morbras, Sucy-en-Brie
Wild autumn crocuses, Parc du Morbras

On my February visit it was full of planted spring crocuses and local people enjoying the sunshine but the parts near the river still felt more like the countryside than like a park. Take the lower path close to the Morbras and follow it for the length of the park and through the inevitable car park to the exit.

Le Morbras, Parc du Morbras, Sucy-en-Brie
Le Morbras, Parc du Morbras

Turn right and follow the road downhill, cross at the pedestrian crossing on the left and turn right into a busy road, the Avenue Maurice Schumann. Follow it across the Morbras and left into the Rue de Noiseau. Cross the road here and take the GR footpath on your right into a wood bordering a little stream, the Rû de la Fontaine Villiers. Follow the stream on your left for just over a kilometre, through a kind of straggling park, frequented by locals. The footpath forks at the end, from where you can see the D136 ahead.

Take the righthand fork and follow the path until it ends at a small road, the Avenue de la Fontaine de Villiers. Continue along the road for a few metres to a pedestrian crossing. Cross and follow the footpath straight ahead under pine trees, parallel to the busy main road, Avenue Charles de Gaulle. You will eventually come to a roundabout and a restaurant on your right, Le Bistrot du Fort. I have never tried this restaurant which is of course closed at the moment but its terrace and traditional French menu look promising.

Continue along the main road and take the first right, an unmarked footpath which follows the moat around the Fort de Sucy on your right and leads straight to the entrance. The fort was one of a series constructed to defend the capital between 1879 and 1881 after the disastrous siege of Paris by the Prussians in 1870. It did not play an active part in the First World War and was occupied by the Germans for most of World War Two.

Fort de Sucy, Sucy-en-Brie
Fort de Sucy

They blew up their munitions and part of the fort before their retreat in August 1944, but enough is left to give you an interesting glimpse into late 19th century French defensive architecture. It is managed by a voluntary association who dress up in military uniforms of the period for the free guided tour at 3 pm on the first Sunday of each month. I happened to arrive at the right time on my first visit and found the little museum inside rather touching. It is closed at the moment but you can always wander round the fort on your own. On my recent visit one of the courtyards was being used for practice by a local archery club, which seemed fitting.

Volunteer in 19C military uniform at the Fort de Sucy
Volunteer in 19C military uniform at the Fort de Sucy

Turn left from the fort entrance and return along the Allée des Douves towards the main road, Rue Ludovic Halévy. Take the GR woodland footpath on your right which parallels the main road and continues past some attractive old buildings. This walk is used by local people walking their dogs and astonishingly, given the busy road close by, we heard an even noisier woodpecker which was attracting everyone’s attention above our heads.

Woodpecker near the Château de Haute Maison
Woodpecker near the Château de Haute Maison

The footpath leads to a car park and passes a handsome 17th century building now used as the salle de mariage for civic weddings. It was formerly the Château de Haute Maison. After 1893 it was the home of Ludovic Halévy, the librettist of Carmen, and his family who entertained many distinguished visitors there.

Château de Haute Maison, Sucy-en-Brie
Château de Haute Maison

Cross the main road ahead of you, the Avenue Winston Churchill, at the pedestrian crossing into a quiet little street straight ahead, still the Rue Ludovic Halévy, into the heart of the old village. Turn left into the Rue Guy Mocquet, follow it round to the right into Rue de la Porte, whose name recalls the town’s former ramparts, and turn left into the Rue de Boissy. The Eglise St Martin is on your right. Go round it to your right to find the entrance.

Eglise Saint Martin, Sucy-en-Brie
Eglise Saint Martin

I have always found this church open and it has a very peaceful atmosphere, perhaps because it has stood here for so many centuries. There seems to have been a church dedicated to St Martin on this spot since 811 although the earliest parts of the present church date from the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1793 three of its four bells were melted down by the revolutionaries to make cannon but they left the biggest one, called Martine, which dates from 1658. Three more have been added since 1997.

Turn right from the church into the Rue du Moutier. At the end turn left downhill into the busy Rue Pierre Semard. Continue downhill past the Tribunal de Proximité on the right, the former Château de Montaleau owned by Madame de Sévigné’s grandfather, which dominates the hill.

Château de Montaleau
Château de Montaleau

Cross at the pedestrian crossing and take a path straight ahead, indicated by a sign for the car park reading  ‘P Montaleau (sous-sol)’.  Follow it past the château on your right and turn left to go through the park along a straight path leading downhill. You will eventually pass a stretch of water on your right and soon afterwards the path becomes the Rue Montaleau. Continue downhill, past the house with the cupola on the corner of Rue de Sévigné which you passed earlier, to return to the station.

Map of walk around Sucy en Brie
Sucy-en-Brie, IGN TOP 25, 2415 OT. 1 cm : 250 metres
D = Depart, A = Arrive, ⑧ = 8 km

RER A trains to Boissy St Léger run every 10 minutes from Châtelet les Halles, taking 29 minutes to Sucy-Bonneuil. Details on

Free app using GPS to track your route on IGN maps, IGN Rando

Exploring the River Oise in the footsteps of the Impressionists

Here is the full text of the article which was first published in Bonjour Paris on 11 February 2021

Exploring the River Oise in the footsteps of the Impressionists
Exploring the River Oise
Eragny sur Oise opposite O Châlet

It was the coming of the railway that made the sleepy agricultural villages and towns along the River Oise so attractive to the Impressionists. They were dedicated to painting in the open air and mostly short of cash because their new style of painting did not sell. The region offered varied landscapes which were just beginning to be affected by industrialisation but had not yet become suburban and it was within easy reach of Paris, with lower rents.

What was true for the Impressionists is still true for today’s Parisians looking for a rewarding day out in the country. The creation of the new town of Cergy Pontoise in the 1960s led to the building of a second railway line, the RER A, but development and population expansion have been mainly inland. The banks of the river have changed remarkably little in over a hundred years. They are still lined with 19th century villas and often the only sound is that of birdsong as huge working barges slide silently past. Even in winter, in the rain and with restaurants closed because of the current restrictions, you can be sure of spacious views, not many people, most of them local, and a railway station within easy reach.

Dr Gachet, the doctor and friend of many Impressionist painters, moved to Auvers sur Oise in 1872. His friend Camille Pissarro settled in Pontoise in the same year. Known affectionately as ‘the father of Impressionism’, he invited his younger painter friends, Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh among others, to paint with him there. The railway also turned obscure villages such as Eragny into popular destinations for weekend visitors from Paris, who came to fish along the banks of the Oise. The fondue restaurant O Châlet was once a guinguette from where a ferry took fishermen across the river, and something of the guinguette holiday atmosphere still lingers in its cosy interior, packed with local families at the weekend.

Exploring the River Oise
O Châlet © O Châlet

The suggested 7½ km walk along the left bank of the Oise starts at St Ouen l’Aumône station with a detour to the 13th century Abbaye de Maubuisson, then follows the river past Pontoise and the views painted by Pissarro and his friends to the fondue restaurant at Eragny, ending at the SNCF station of Eragny Neuville, with an alternative walk to the RER station of Neuville Université. But you could skip the Abbey and Pontoise and start the walk at St Ouen l’Aumône Quartier de l’Eglise station instead, ending at either of the two stations at Eragny (4½ km) or just walk to the restaurant for lunch from either station and back (3 km). You could also prolong the walk along the Oise from the restaurant, crossing the bridge to Cergy Port for the RER stations at Cergy Préfecture (5 km) or Cergy St Christophe (7 km).

7½ km walk from St Ouen l’Aumône to Eragny Neuville

From the station take the exit marked ‘Rue du 8 mai 1945’ and turn left, under the railway bridge. Take the pedestrian crossing into the Rue Guy Sourcis opposite on your right and follow the railway line until you reach a level crossing. Cross the line and turn left, following the sign for ‘Abbaye de Maubuisson’ into Avenue Richard de la Tour.

Follow the path right round to the park entrance, from where you will see a long low building, the former chapter house which now functions as an arts centre.

Abbaye de Maubuisson
Abbaye de Maubuisson

This building is all that remains of the once extensive Abbey which covered 79 acres, but it is impressive enough to make the visit worthwhile, even though the current restrictions mean that you cannot go inside. With the little stream of the Liesse flowing through its grounds and even fewer visitors than usual, the Abbey is a good place for a picnic.

It was founded in 1236 by Blanche of Castille, the pious wife of Louis VIII and the mother of Louis IX, Saint Louis, close to her château in Pontoise. It was both a Cistercian convent for up to 120 young women of royal or noble birth and an occasional royal residence. It was from here that Philippe le Bel issued the infamous order to arrest the Knights Templar in 1307. But by the end of the 18th century it had fallen into decline, with only a few nuns left when it was closed on the order of Louis XVI in 1786.

Abbaye de Maubuisson, early 17th century
Abbaye de Maubuisson, early 17th century, © Wikimedia Commons

Retrace your steps to the level crossing and continue downhill to the very end of the Chaussée de Maubuisson. Cross the main road and take the footpath opposite, marked ‘Chemin de Pothuis’ which leads to the Oise.

Turn left along the towpath. Across the river you will soon see the gracious silhouette of the 12th century cathedral at Pontoise. Eventually you will pass some concrete bases with an information panel beside them explaining that they were part of the ‘Ligne Chauvineau’, a line of military anti-tank defences put up along the Oise in 1939 to protect Paris from invasion.

A little further on you will pass reproductions of eleven paintings done between 1872 and 1908, nine of them by Pissarro in the 1870s, placed at the spot where they were painted.

Exploring the River Oise
Quai du Pothuis 1876, Camille Pissarro

Pissarro lived across the river in Pontoise at 85 Quai du Pothuis. The views have not changed as much as you might expect, although some of the factories shown in the paintings have disappeared. The sight of the bridge and the ramparts at Pontoise, in the Middle Ages a frontier town defending the borders of the kingdom of France, immediately explains the appeal of this spot to a painter.

Exploring the River Oise
Pontoise from the Quai du Halage, St Ouen l’Aumône

Continue along the towpath, past the lock and another bridge. About 250 metres after the bridge you will pass a former inn, Le Goujon d’Eragny, with a worn stone memorial tucked under a side window, facing the direction in which you are walking.

Exploring the River Oise

RAF memorial at the Goujon d'Eragny, Chemin du Halage, Eragny
RAF memorial at the Goujon d’Eragny, Chemin du Halage, Eragny

It was put up by the inhabitants of Eragny in memory of one of the seven crew of an RAF Lancaster bomber whose body was recovered here after the plane crashed on 6 June 1944. It was on a mission to destroy the station at Achères to hamper German communications during the D-Day landings but was brought down by anti-aircraft fire. It exploded over the 11th century church at Eragny, which was completely destroyed, although no civilians were killed. Six of the airmen are buried together in the new cemetery at Eragny; the body of the seventh was never recovered and must have fallen into the Oise.

Soon afterwards you will pass O Châlet, with a row of skis outside and the red and white flag of Haute Savoie, a reminder of the regional dishes of raclette and fondue in which the restaurant specialises.

Exploring the River Oise
O Châlet fondue restaurant, Eragny

I first passed it on a Sunday walk along the Oise last February and went inside to ask for their card. It was like stepping into a 1950s time-warp, packed with local multi-generational families in festive mood and pervaded by the delicious smell of melting cheese. Modest family-owned places like this are fast disappearing in the Ile de France and I made a mental note to go back and try it out. I did go back on a rainy Sunday several weeks later, with my family who were over on a visit from England. The six of us were the only foreigners but we immediately felt at home. The kir was made of rosé wine flavoured with griotte cherries and it was generous and good. So was the fondue and the very reasonably-priced house wine. When the owners discovered that we had come all the way from Paris by train in non-stop rain they offered us a lift back to the station, which we gratefully accepted. I have not been able to return because lockdown intervened but they assure me that they will be re-opening as soon as it ends. My 24 year old niece later told me that the trip to ‘the restaurant by the river’ was the highlight of her Paris visit.

O Châlet is on the corner of  Rue de la Fontaine, which leads to La Carrière à Pépin, a former quarry a few metres away. The information panel there reproduces a photo of Débussy and his wife posing in front of the quarry on a visit to Eragny in 1902.

To reach the SNCF station at Eragny Neuville follow the Rue de la Fontaine uphill, past the quarry. The street is named for a local spring which never freezes in winter, making it a valued resource in the days before piped water was supplied to every house. A lavoir (wash house) was built around it in the 19th century, and until the 1950s professional washerwomen came from other villages to do the washing for Paris weekend visitors to Eragny. It is located just after the bend in the road, down steps on the left, with an information panel showing a rare photo of a lavoir in use.

Lavoir de la Fontaine, Eragny

Lavoir de la Fontaine, Eragny
Lavoir, rue de la Fontaine, Eragny

Continue to the end of Rue de la Fontaine and turn sharp right uphill into Rue de la Gare. At the little roundabout take the first right into Rue de Neuville. There is a good view of the Oise from here just before you turn left into the little Rue des Belles Hâtes, which leads to steps down to the station. Cross to the other side for trains to Paris.

NB: If you are heading for the RER station at Neuville Université, continue from O Châlet to the next bridge. Take the road under the bridge, the Chemin de la Carrière à Pépin, follow it uphill and round to the left and go up steps on your right onto a main road. Cross at the pedestrian crossing on your left and turn left past the Parc Relais car park, then take the first right which will lead you through the bus station to the RER station.

Exploring the River Oise
Walk from St Ouen l’Aumône to Eragny-Neuville, IGN Carte TOP 25, 2313 OT, scale 1cm to 250m

Trains from Gare du Nord to Pontoise run twice an hour, stopping at St Ouen l’Aumône 38 minutes later. Trains from Eragny-Neuville to St Lazare run two to three times an hour, taking 35 minutes.

RER A trains from Neuville Université to Châtelet-Les Halles run three times an hour, taking 34 minutes.

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Discovering the River Yerres

Here is the full text of the article which was first published in Bonjour Paris on 27 November 2020

Discovering the River Yerres: mills, menhirs and the Maison Caillebotte
L'Yerres, effet de pluie, Gustave Caillebotte 1875
L’Yerres, effet de pluie, Gustave Caillebotte 1875, Wikimedia Commons

In between confinements this year, I began following the tributaries of the Seine and the Marne in search of new walks near Paris. These minor rivers are generally not far from a railway station, stations which I had always assumed served faceless built up suburbs. Wrong. Yes, suburbs have sprung up around the medieval villages and hamlets on these little rivers but at the heart of them you will find traces of a many-layered past, existing side by side with modern infrastructure. And usually the closer you get to the river, the further back you journey in time and the more surprising and picturesque the walk becomes.

Brunoy on the River Yerres, a tributary of the Seine 21 km south east of Paris, is a good example. In the seventh century it was mentioned as a royal possession, prized for the good hunting to be had in the nearby Forêt de Sénart. Its famous château was demolished in the Revolution but Brunoy continued to attract successful Parisians who built several imposing country residences there, some still standing although put to other uses. It is still essentially a residential town.

5 km walk along the River Yerres from Brunoy to Yerres

From Brunoy station take the Place de la Gare exit marked ‘Bus’ which will bring you to the Rue de la Gare with a big brasserie/tabac on the corner. Follow it round to the right, past the modern Mediathèque and a small war memorial. You will see the spire of the church above the skyline on your left. Turn left to face the grandiose Mairie (1898) set in a little square with an imposing plane tree in front of it and the Tabac de la Mairie beside it in the Grande Rue on your right. This is a good place to stop for a drink, savouring the relaxed, almost provincial feel of the scene in front of you. In the Middle Ages this part of Brunoy with its 12th century church, built on the site of an earlier one, was surrounded by a rampart along what is now the Grande Rue, and it is still the heart of the modern town.

Café de la Mairie, Brunoy
Café de la Mairie, Brunoy

With your back to the Tabac de la Mairie turn into the first street on the left, the little Rue Pasteur, then take the first right, the tiny Rue St Nicolas. Turn left into a narrow un-named cobbled street, more like a passage, which will bring you to the back entrance of the Eglise St Médard, built in the 12th, 13th and 16th centuries, embellished in the 18th century and restored in 2005. Turn right and go down steps into the Place St Médard. The main entrance to the church is up the steps on your left.

Eglise St Médard, Brunoy
Eglise St Médard, Brunoy

From the church main entrance turn left and follow the Rue Montmartel round to the left. At the crossroads turn right downhill onto the Rue du Pont Perronet. You will pass a picturesque old mill which is now a hotel, on the site of an earlier mill belonging to the château.

Discovering the River Yerres: Mill at Brunoy
Mill at Brunoy

Continue across the bridge and take the pedestrian crossing onto the Ile de Brunoy, passing a restaurant called Le Pavillon de l’Ile on your right. It would be a good place to have lunch as it is in a beautiful setting and modestly priced. I have only had coffee here but the food has enthusiastic reviews on French TripAdvisor. Its terrace has an excellent view of the Neolithic menhir, La Pierre Fritte, on the opposite bank of the River Yerres. Continue along the path a little way and walk down to the river on your right, opposite the children’s playground, to see the menhir.

Discovering the River Yerres: La Pierre Fritte, Brunoy
La Pierre Fritte, Brunoy

La Pierre Fritte dates from around 3000 BC but its function remains a mystery. The name derives from la pierre fichée (figée) en terre, literally ‘stone stuck in the ground’. At 2.5 metres high, with another metre buried in the soil, it is the tallest stone visible of a group of three There is a much smaller one next to it and a bigger one submerged in the river beneath it.

Further along the path you will see a wooden barn, La Grange de l’Ile, which dates from the 19th century and has been recently restored. You could continue for a little wander along the island, which is an attractive public park with two picnic tables and paths along the Yerres on both sides, crossed by an impressive viaduct built in 1849.

Railway viaduct, Ile de Brunoy
Railway viaduct, Ile de Brunoy

Retrace your steps to the Pavillon de l’Ile and cross the bridge to the other side of the river. The Pont Perronet, built around 1784, is named after its engineer who also designed  the Pont de la Concorde in Paris. It has a tasteful Greek border running along its parapet. Take the steps down from the bridge and follow the path with the river on your right.

The entire walk is waymarked with the red and yellow GRP stripes. See

You will pass quite a few locals en route but the walk feels rural rather than suburban, with towering trees, leaf-strewn paths and the sound of ducks and moorhens.

You will soon have another view of the mill with the church at Brunoy behind it. There is a heron visible in the photo if you zoom, down from the church spire.

Discovering the River Yerres: Mill at Brunoy
Mill at Brunoy

The path ends at the picturesque Pont de Soulins, built in 1745 and painted by Caillebotte in 1874.

Discovering the River Yerres: Pont de Soulins, Brunoy
Pont de Soulins, Brunoy

Cross the road and turn right onto this bridge, which has a footpath on the left leading to a gateway into the Parc de la Maison des Arts. The Maison is a villa, Le Réveillon, built in 1870 and now an arts centre, which you will eventually pass on your right.

Villa Le Réveillon, Brunoy
Villa Le Réveillon, Brunoy

The path soon goes under another impressive viaduct. Continue following the river, watching out for a discreet GRP left turn sign which will take you across a footbridge and up an embankment onto a main road. Cross the road straight ahead of you, if you can (the pedestrian crossing is further away) to a small road directly opposite showing a height restriction of 1.90 metres for cars. This is the unmarked continuation of the river footpath, next to a children’s playground in the Parc des Deux Rivières at Yerres.

Cross the next little footbridge over a dam and turn right to follow the Yerres onto the Ile Panchout. There are extracts from poems along the path which I personally found rather irritating, although well-intentioned. You may glimpse a fenced-off herd of Highland cattle, introduced here for ‘l’éco-pâturage’ i.e. to crop the grass in a sustainable way.

Turn right across the next footbridge and continue to follow the river. When you see a roadbridge ahead leave the path and take the steps on your right up to the bridge and a bus stop. Cross the road and turn left, over the river. The Maison Caillebotte is the white building straight ahead on the right.

Maison Caillebotte, Yerres
Maison Caillebotte, Yerres

Admission to the grounds, which contain some remarkable trees, is free. I have not visited the house but the grounds alone are worth the trip.

La propriété Caillebotte, Caillebotte 1875
Le parc, propriété Caillebotte, Caillebotte 1875 Wikimedia Commons

The Caillebotte family bought the property in 1860 and spent their summers there until they sold it in 1879. It had been transformed by a previous owner in 1824 who turned the extensive grounds into a landscaped jardin à l’anglaise, complete with orangery, ice-house and other fashionable fabriques. The former ‘chalet Suisse’ now houses the restaurant and tea-room and the walled kitchen garden, where I helped myself to some raspberries,  has been beautifully restored and is run by volunteers.

Le jardin potager, Yerres 1877, Caillebotte Wikimedia Commons
Le jardin potager, propriété Caillebotte, Caillebotte 1877, Wikimedia Commons

Like most of the owners of elegant villas in Brunoy and Yerres, Caillebotte père had made his fortune in Paris, in his case by supplying the French army with sheets and blankets. His second son, Gustave (1848-1894) became a talented painter of independent means, champion and patron of the Impressionists. The bucolic river and garden setting at Yerres inspired several of his early paintings. His outstanding collection of Impressionist paintings now forms the heart of the collection at the Musée d’Orsay.

To return to Paris turn right from the Maison Caillebotte onto the main road and continue on the right past La Grange au Bois, a 19th century villa in the fashionable ‘rustic’ style, now a music and dance conservatory, along the long Rue de Concy. When you come to a roundabout, turn left into Rue de la Gare and continue uphill. Cross the road and take steps up on the right to the RER station at Yerres.

Discovering the River Yerres: walk from Brunoy to Yerres
IGN carte Top 25, 2415 OT Evry-Melun, scale 1:25 000 (1 cm = 250m)

RER D trains from Gare de Lyon to Melun run two to three times an hour, stopping at Brunoy 28 minutes later. Trains from Yerres run every 15 minutes, taking 24 minutes to Gare de Lyon.

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