Destination: France: Paris
The cathedral of Chartres, the largest one in France and about an hour by train from the Gare Montparnasse, is a fine example of Gothic architecture, with magnificent 12th- and 13th-century stained glass. It’s worth joining a tour given by Englishman Malcolm Miller, the seventy-three-year-old resident expert and author of a book on the cathedral; they start daily (except Sunday) at noon and 2:45 p.m. from inside the main portal (no reservations needed). Private tours with Miller can be arranged by contacting him in advance at 33 (0)-2-37-28-15-58 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Open daily.
Chateau de Saint-Germain-en-Laye
Less than fifteen miles outside of Paris is the great Chateau where Louis XIV was born. The building now houses the National Museum of Archaeology but it is also provides a wonderful overview of French history since it featured prominently during many reigns and the Revolution. Half-day visits can easily be arranged with one of our preferred guides.
Château de Chantilly
This lovely château north of Paris is the centerpiece of the town of Chantilly, home to the princes of Condé, cousins of the king, for centuries. The château contains the charming Musée Condé, which possesses the second largest collection in France (after the Louvre) of 16th- to 19th-century French and Italian painting, and the Musée Vivant du Cheval houses a dozen breeds of horses and is fun for kids. Bring a picnic and enjoy the castle’s park, which was designed by André Le Nôtre, the future landscape designer of Versailles. Trains leave the Gare du Nord for Chantilly-Gouvieux (the ride takes 30 to 45 minutes), but a rental car is even more convenient. Closed Tuesday.
Château de Versailles
There’s no other palace in Europe as dazzling as Versailles, and this, of course, was the point of Sun King Louis XIV, who ordered the lavish remodeling of the château in order to project his wealth and power. Plan to spend a day at Versailles, as you don’t want to miss a tour of the royal apartments and the gardens. In addition to the well-known rooms, including the Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors), and others like the Grand Appartement, where the king held court, consider one of the tours that look at the royals’ private life, including the Salle de Bains (bathroom) of Louis XV, and the Belvedere Pavilion, Marie Antoinette’s music room. Its boiseries were considered avant-garde for their day, and they’re the work of Richard Mique, who drew inspiration from the discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum—when all of Europe was in the early throes of a fascination with the ancient world.
Take the mini-train to Marie Antoinette’s estate, the Grand Trianon and the Petit Trianon, where you shouldn’t miss the exquisite Rococo theater where the queen often performed. If you have more time, don’t miss the Potager du Roi, a walled garden that supplied the palace with fruit and vegetables, and the Royal Stables, completed in 1682 to house the king’s six hundred horses. Today, the stables are home to Bartabas and his Académie du Spectacle Équestre, and the shows they perform are huge crowd pleasers. Take the RER C or train from the Gare St.-Lazare to Versailles–Rive Droit. Closed Monday.
Deauville and Trouville
These twin beach resorts on the English Channel are popular with Parisians.
Yes, it’s often packed with tourists, but even crowds can’t diminish the pleasure of wandering in the gardens Claude Monet planted around his house in bucolic Giverny. A frequent subject for the artist, the gardens are de rigueur for Monet enthusiasts—and it’s fun to visit before going to see the water-lily paintings at L’Orangerie in the Tuileries. The prime months to see the gardens are May through July, when the flowers are at their peak. Take the train, from the Gare St.-Lazare to Vernon (it takes 50 minutes), and then a taxi to the gardens. Or go by rental car: Giverny is about 75 minutes from central Paris by car depending on traffic. Open Tuesday–Sunday April through October.
La Vallée Village Outlet Shopping
In this era of a weak dollar, Americans can still shop for fashion finds at a discount that they won’t find back home. They just have to make a pilgrimage to the outlet shopping village that is a thirty-minute train or car ride outside of Paris. La Vallée Village houses more than seventy-five boutiques from famous French and international labels, which promise all products are marked down by at least 33%. Among the French brands that you will find: Agnès b., Antik Batik, Apostrophe, Bonpoint, Cacharel, Café Coton, Chantal Thomass, Givenchy, Lancel and Robert Clergie. Other brands include Armani, Dolce & Gabbana and Salvatore Ferragamo. See the website for a complete list.
Getting there: Cityrama buses leave from Paris every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday at 10:15 and return at 4:00. For details, go to www.pariscityrama.com
For driving directions, see the web site or take the R.E.R. A4 to the Val d’Europe – Serris-Montévrain station. Open seven days a week until 7 p.m.
A city on the Belgian border, Lille has one of the best fine arts museums in France and some fantastic architecture; book lunch at L’Huitrière (3 Rue des Chats Bossus; 33-3-20-55-43-41), or stay overnight at L’Hermitage Gantois, an old convent converted to a hotel (224 Rue de Paris; 33-3-20-85-30-30).
The Champagne capital is easily reached by train from the Gare de l’Est.
A little-known but enchanting small city of half-timbered houses southeast of Paris, Troyes (pronounced like the number trois) also has a number of museums, notably the Musée d’Art Moderne, and a romantic hotel, Le Champs des Oiseaux (20 Rue Linard Gonthier; 33-3-25-80-58-50; www.champsdesoiseaux.com).
Just an hour from Paris, this château is a wonderfully well-kept secret. Commissioned in the mid-17th-century by Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIV’s finance minister, the castle was the work of architect Louis Le Vau, landscape designer André Le Nôtre and decorator Charles Le Brun. Unfortunately, the beauty of Vaux-le-Vicomte inspired Louis XIV not only to completely remodel Versailles but also to throw Fouquet in prison in a fit of jealous pique. Wear walking shoes: the gardens, a masterpiece of classical French design take several hours to thoroughly explore (though you can also visit by golf cart). For something really special, visit on Saturdays nights from May to October and Fridays in July and August, when the château is candlelit. There is a shuttle service between the castle and the train station in Melun, and trains for Melun depart from Paris’ Gare de Lyon. Buy your ticket on-line to save time at: www.sncf.com. Open March 24–November 11.
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