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Where to go near Paris

Five places to visit near Paris

Paris may be lovely in the spring, but in the heat of summer even the residents flee. Adam Roberts reveals five gems within easy reach of the city of lights

Paris may be lovely in the spring, but in the heat of summer even the residents flee. Adam Roberts reveals five gems within easy reach of the city of lights

Adam Roberts | June/July 2018

1 CHANTILLY
25 MINS 
BY TRAIN

Barely 40km north of Paris, Chantilly is the epitome of French provincial elegance. Plunge into the 6,300-hectare Chantilly forest, a shady treat in summertime much favoured by locals; some 4m visit each year, leaving foreign tourists to sweat among the crowds in Versailles. Paths in the woods are well marked, though some are set aside each morning for horse-riders. In the 19th century Chantilly was favoured by the rich and artistic, both French and English, especially those fond of racing. The town is home to more than 2,600 thoroughbreds (the Aga Khan has stables here), with frequent race meetings at its hippodrome. Visit the Grandes Écuries, the great stables, within the sprawling Domaine of Chantilly, which also houses a castle, museums and a park. Stroll through the gardens to Le Hameau (March to November), for delicious local cuisine; dessert, inevitably, is topped with Chantilly cream.
      For a different vibe head south to Parc Asterix, a theme park based on the comic books, where you can get a fix of rollercoaster action but avoid queues at Disneyland Paris. If you’re too tired to make it back to Paris, climb into the treetops to sleep it off at the Cabanes des Grands Chênes.

2 REIMS
45 MINS 
BY TRAIN

Any trip to the heart of champagne country must involve the wineries. Get the classic cru by visiting famous names such as Tattinger, whose cool cellars were once Roman chalk mines. Or pick a smaller vintner such as Janisson, based nearby at Verzenay. You can see vines in every direction from its avant-garde headquarters.
      Once suitably full of fizz, scour the city for the work of Christian Lapie, a local sculptor famed for his looming figures carved from stone, wood and other materials. There may be an exhibition of his work at the Musée des Beaux Artes, in an 18th-century abbey – or visit his studios at Val-de-Vesle.
      Reims has excellent restaurants, notably the Michelin-starred and self-consciously stylish Le Millénaire. Even more fun is Café du Palais, where you can munch on ham, quail or hefty salads amid a hodgepodge of sculptures, drawings and paintings, bathed in light from a dazzling Art Deco stained-glass ceiling.
      The city’s grandest attraction, the Gothic Notre Dame cathedral, was the site of the coronation of all but seven French kings; its circular stained-glass windows are unmissable. Be sure to hunt for three by Marc Chagall, installed in 1974.

3 GIVERNY
1 HOUR AND 15 MINUTES 
BY CAR

Some 80km downstream of Paris, on a hillside by the River Seine, Giverny draws devotees of Claude Monet, the emperor of Impressionism, who lived there for over 40 years. He bought a house there for his family in 1883 and gradually transformed a nearby water meadow into the landscaped garden, lily ponds and arched footbridge so familiar from his paintings. Monet’s house and gardens are open to visitors from late March to late November. The best way to see them is as part of a cycling tour: you leave the city in a minibus, then transfer onto two wheels for the final kilometres, stopping en route for a riverside picnic.
      The village also houses the Musée des Impressionnismes, which has a small permanent collection and excellent temporary exhibitions, as well as a café. It is surrounded by a field of poppies, cornflowers and daisies pretty enough to inspire even the most determined un-impressionists to pick up their palette and brush. Although it’s close enough for a daytrip from Paris, consider staying overnight at the 12th-century Château de La Roche-Guyon, a few kilometres upstream of Giverny. Partly dug into a chalk hillside, it offers grand views from the hilltop and a fascinating history: it was in active use as recently as the 1940s when it was requisitioned as the headquarters for Field-Marshal Rommel.

4 NANTES
2 HOURS AND 10 MINUTES 
BY CAR

Leave Paris after breakfast and the TGV will whisk you to Nantes, near the Atlantic coast, in time for an early lunch. As you’re in Brittany, try a savoury Breton galette of dark, buckwheat flour, or a sweet crêpe, washed down with local cider. Fine crêperies abound, but it’s worth booking the central Crêperie Ker Breizh.
      At Les Machines de L’île, a steampunk amusement park, visitors can ride on a 12-metre high, 48-tonne mechanical wooden elephant, the centrepiece of an eclectic project by performance artists and inventors who bring to life Jules Verne’s fantasies. Other outsized machines include a mechanical spider and a heron.
      After that excitement come back to earth at Passage Pommeraye, a tiny shopping mall crammed with boutiques, chocolatiers and art galleries, which opened in 1843 – an auspicious date. But behind Nantes’ architectural elegance lurks a dubious history of growing rich from the Atlantic slave trade. Learn about it at the museum in the medieval Château des Ducs de Bretagne before crowning off the day with a seafood feast in the higgledy port of Le Croisic and a night in the friendly Hotel Pommeraye where the best rooms are decorated by local artists.

5 THE NORMANDY COAST
2 HOURS-PLUS 
BY CAR

Leave Paris after breakfast and the TGV will whisk you to Nantes, near the Atlantic coast, in time for an early lunch. As you’re in France’s north coast offers a string of treasures best discovered on a road trip. Start at Honfleur (left), a picturesque port town beloved of the Impressionists. Wander the narrow streets, then linger in the vieux bassin, drinking in the maritime bustle while guzzling moules with crispy frites. After lunch, follow the coast west to the neighbouring resorts of Deauville and Trouville-sur-Mer, where the grand, 19th-century villas and glittering casino gave rise to the soubriquet of the Parisian Riviera. Deauville is the grander twin, with its splendid Hôtel Barrière Le Normandy Deauville. Both towns have sweeping beaches ideal for promenading, bathing or scooting along on land yachts.
     For culture and history, head inland to Bayeaux to see the tapestry in its glorious detail before taking in the memorials marking the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. The museum at Caen gives an overview but the most moving spot to understand the horrors of the D-Day landings is the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. On a clifftop above “Omaha” beach, it is exquisitely maintained and contains the graves of more than 9,000 American soldiers who fought, and died, on sands nearby.