First of an occasional series
Starting today, we’re going to look periodically at some excursions that can take you beyond big cities and major tourist destinations, none of which need take up more than a day. We start with Paris.
Actually, we start by evacuating Paris.
The most visited city in the most visited country in the world. The City of Light. The city of the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Seine and Notre Dame. I love Paris.
So why am I trying to get you out of it?
As wonderful as this city is, the only way to fully appreciate France is to tear yourself away from the gravitational pull of Paris, if only for a day at a time.
The French road net is fine for short jaunts, but France’s fabulous high-speed rail network puts most of France within a three-hour train ride from Paris.
The most common day trip is out to the Chateau de Versailles, about ten miles to the west, built back when French royalty considered Paris too ugly, nasty and rebellious to deal with (and it really was!). The palace itself is sheer visual overload and the equally ornate gardens behind it cover more ground than a lot of French villages.
Don’t even try to see all of Versailles in one day. Even if you succeed, you’ll kill yourself.
You can get there easily by rental car, local RATP bus or trains. I’d recommend the suburban RER-C5 express train that deposits you at Versailles-Rive Gauche, the closest train station to the palace.
TIP: Go early or late — not only in the day, but in the seasons. Versailles draws about 3 million visitors a year. Do the math.
BRIDGE OR PALACE?
Rather skip the tourist crush at Versailles? Head south instead to Chenonceaux in the Loire Valley and check out the Chateau Chenonceau, seen above. Neither as big nor as gaudy as Versailles, but just as mind-blowing.
Is it a bridge built to look like a palace, or a palace disguised as a bridge? The builders of this 600-year-old mansion could’ve taught today’s rich and famous a few things about pimping one’s crib.
From Paris, Chenonceaux is two and half hours south via local trains, less than an hour and a half via the TGV.
If art is your thing, head about 45 miles west of Paris to the village of Giverny, and pay a visit to the garden that Claude Monet immortalized on canvas.
You take a packaged tour there, drive there directly yourself, or take a train to nearby Vernon, then grab a taxi or shuttle bus for a short, pleasant little drive across the Seine to Giverny.
Now, when you return to Paris and see Monet’s works hanging in the Louvre, you’ll see them in a different light — the same light that Monet himself saw when he painted them in. You’ll never look at his art, or anyone else’s, exactly the same way again.
Farther still to the west is Normandy, on the English Chanel, and a little more than an hour from Paris by rail.
The D-Day landings here led to the liberation of Western Europe from the Nazis in World War 2, and the people who live here haven’t forgotten — even if they have a cemetery sitting above the site of Omaha Beach to remind them.
It bears the graves or more than 9,000 Americans soldiers, most of whom died on that one day.
While there, check out the pleasant country towns and villages that you can explore by rental car, to not mention the seafood (I personally can vouch for the oysters) and some of their famous cheeses, including familiar names like Camembert.
Normandy is the one region of France that doesn’t produce a single well-known wine, but what it lacks in grapes, it makes up in apples — including “hard” ciders and a serious apple brandy known as Calvados. You won’t die of thirst.
In nearby Brittany, also on the Channel coast, you can check out Mont St. Michel, the monastery built on the tiny island that you can hike to when the tide is out.
WHERE THE WINES ARE
All told, there are ten major wine-producing regions in France. Within the regions are scores of terroirs, unique French vineyards producing some of the greatest wines in the world.
Many of these vineyards welcome visitors, complete with wine-tasting lessons. Depending on what time of year you arrive, they may even let you get involved in the winemaking process.
From north (nearest to Paris) to south, you’ll find these wine regions in France:
- Loire Valley
- Côtes du Rhone
Any of the first seven are easy day trips. Eight through Eleven may be doable if you manage your time carefully and are prepared to return to Paris fairly late at night.
Only Corsica, being an island in the Mediterranean, is out of the question.
With French wine goes French cheese — somewhere between 350 and 400 different varieties from 17 regions all over France. Road trip!
Speaking of food, the good folks in Lyon would like you to know that their city, not Paris, is the real capital of French cooking.
I’ve been to Lyon. They have a case. Time from Paris via the TGV: two hours and change.
If you’re in Paris around Christmastime, jump on the TGV Est and head to Strasbourg to experience a European Christmas market in the city where the concept was born.
Time: two hours and change.
ESCAPE FROM FRANCE
Want a brief break from France altogether? Head north on the Thalys high-speed train. In less than two hours, you’ll be in Brussels. Less than three and you’re in Amsterdam.
I can’t conclude without a little irony. We’ve been talking about day trips out of Paris, but high-speed rail has turned Paris itself into a day trip…from London.
And that’s perfect, because London — or rather, beyond London — is where we’re headed next.