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Paris environs, France

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Did You Know … ?

  • Disneyland Paris covers nearly 5,000 acres, one-fifth the area of Paris.
  • Chartres Cathedral’s stained-glass windows, including 150-plus early 13th century works, cover 27,000 square feet.
  • Versailles debuted with gushing outdoor fountains but no indoor plumbing for toilets or bathing.
  • Forty-two kings, 32 queens and 63 princes and princesses are buried at Saint-Denis Cathedral.
  • For a short while, sculptor Auguste Rodin decorated vases at the Sevres porcelain factory.

Paris extended

The region around the French capital would stand on its own as a tourist destination even if Paris weren’t at its center. The area, about the size of Connecticut, has long and deep connections with French royalty and hence, with the country’s history. It is dotted with chateaux, fortresses and other royal leavings including woods where kings once hunted.

Then, there are the historic Gothic churches and the villages too numerous to count with centuries-old houses, businesses and public buildings that boost the area’s charm quotient significantly. Artists and other prominent figures of means have lived in the region, too.

In sum, there is plenty to occupy the interested visitor. The following only skims the surface.

  • The 17th century Versailles, built by Louis XIV southwest of Paris, is the largest and grandest of all French palaces. It epitomizes ostentatious living indoors and out, which is what it was meant to do.
  • Fontainebleau, still surrounded by woods, originated as a 10th century hunting lodge. Starting in 1537, Francis I rebuilt it as the chateau seen today. The nearby town, Barbizon, is famed for the 19th century artists who pursued landscape painting there.
  • Saint-Denis Cathedral, in the northern Paris suburb of the same name, is the mausoleum for France’s kings and queens. It’s worth a visit for the ambitious funeral monuments and for the church itself, which was Europe’s first Gothic church (dedicated 1144).
  • Chartres Cathedral, southwest of Paris, is a masterpiece. UNESCO calls it a “high point of French Gothic art,” also distinguished by “magnificent 12th and 13th century stained-glass windows, all in remarkable condition.”
  • Giverny, northwest of Paris, is the town where Claude Monet lived and painted from 1883 to 1926. Visiting his house and gardens is seeing his paintings in real life.
  • Sevres, a Paris suburb to the southwest, has a different royal connection. Its porcelain factory was royal property. Tourists visit the next-door National Ceramic Museum, with 5,000 Sevres items among its 50,000 pieces.
  • Disneyland Paris, east of the city, is a copy of the U.S. Disney parks with a French twist (wine with meals anyone?). It is France’s most popular tourist attraction.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Take the train to Vernon, then bicycle or walk to Giverny to visit the Monet home and gardens. Also, visit the adjacent Musee des Impressionnismes, which tells the story of Impressionism with changing exhibits.
  • Take advantage of opportunities for hiking and rock climbing in the woods at Fontainebleau. Cycling and horseback riding are options, too.
  • Design a self-drive itinerary to include the less-visited sites such as St. Germain en Laye with a fortress used by royals from Francis I to Louis XIV; the 17th century Chateau de Malmaison, last home of Napoleon’s Empress Josephine, and the 14th to 18th century Chateau de Rambouillet, where Rambouillet sheep were bred. The latter, now the presidential summer residence, is open to the public when the president is away.
  • Make the strenuous climb up 378 steps in the Gothic spire on Chartres Cathedral for great views of the medieval village where it sits.
  • Walk the Versailles palace gardens. Also, rent a rowboat for a little time on a small lake there, called Grand Canal.
  • Devote time to the town of Versailles. Hop on a bicycle for your self-guided tour of historic neighborhoods and visit to one of its several weekly markets.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Visit the home of artist Jean-Francois Millet in Barbizon, on the edge of Fontainebleau Forest. He painted “Gleaners” (1857) while living here.
  • Visit famous men’s houses. Just in one small area west of Paris, choices include Alexandre Dumas’ Chateau de Monte-Cristo, named for his famous novel, in Port-Marly; the home of composer Maurice Ravel in Montfort-l’Amaury; the villa of Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev in Bougival, and the home of novelist Emile Zola in Medan.
  • Time your Saturday or Sunday Versailles visit so you can see the Grandes Eaux Musicales, a water show provided by the king’s fountains with accompanying music. Or in July, see the Sunday evening sound and light show.
  • Have lunch on the terrace of the Maison Fournaise in Chatou, the very terrace that appears in Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s painting, “Les Dejeuners des Canotiers.”
  • Call on dozens of French kings and queens at Saint-Denis, the Paris suburb where they are interred in the 12th century cathedral. There are  70 sculpted recumbent statues, some very elaborate.
  • Stroll the town of Chartres, which charms with its half-timbered houses, old bridges, shops, crafts workshops and, for a relaxing repast, its restaurants.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Entertain the kids at Disneyland Paris. Enjoy wine with your lunch.
  • In spring or summer, see Claude Monet paintings in Paris museums, then join a day trip to Giverny to see his home and the gardens he painted so often.
  • Join a day excursion from Paris that includes Vaux le Vicomte Chateau (the inspiration for Versailles) along with Fontainebleau.
  • At Versailles, make your way to the 230-foot Hall of Mirrors and imagine its history: In this space, Louis XIV entertained lavishly; Kaiser Wilhelm I was crowned Emperor of Germany after the Franco-Prussian War, and combatants signed the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I.
  • In Sevres, site of an 18th century royal porcelain factory, tour the associated ceramics museum and then visit a house once occupied by novelist Honore Balzac.
  • Come to Chartres Cathedral as a pilgrim and walk the labyrinth marked out in stone on the floor of the sanctuary.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult Atout France-France Tourism Development Agency at http://us.rendezvousenfrance.com