By Gary Phillips
Having now visited central Paris many times, mostly through my work I might add, my curiosity turned to the suburbs of Paris and what they offer. The quick answer is that they offer a great deal, as I found in my recent visit to the Yvelines Region, or Ile de France, better known for Versailles, and the wealthy Paris suburb of St. Germain-en-Laye.
You really need a car to look around the Yvelines region so ferry is the best option, and in fact the shortest route for most of us is the Portsmouth to Le Havre route with LD Lines. The journey on the Norman Arrow, (the largest diesel powered catamaran in the world) takes just over 3 hours getting you into Le Havre at around midday. This allows you plenty of time to drive the 2 hours to Versailles. If you are travelling from London the Portsmouth route avoids a lot of driving and peage tolls so consider this before planning your trip. You can always get to Paris on Eurostar but this involves crossing Paris (about 30 minutes) and taking the RER out to Versailles (45 minutes) and probably a taxi journey at Versailles (pricey) preventing you from visiting more of the region.
What to see
The obvious first stop is the Palace of Versailles if you have not yet visited it, and as Versailles is a pretty good place to stay while visiting the Yvelines region you can at least visit the gardens and the park beside it if you want to avoid the huge queues and crowds inside. Versailles offers great nightlife too with busy bars and restaurants in the market area a big draw. Versailles is just 45 minutes from the centre of Paris so if you do want to venture in then you always have that option from Versailles.
The Chateau at Rambouillet is just 30 minutes from Versailles, a Palace built by Louis XVI for the Count of Angeviller, his governor of the Rambouillet estate. It was later bought by Napoleon for his son, who spent literally a few hours there before being marched off to Austria under captivity. In recent years it has been used by the Prime Minister of France, and has been accommodation to President Putin of Russia and Nelson Mandela while on state visits. The estate surrounding the Chateau is well worth the visit with its landscaped gardens in both the French and English styles. You will also find a typically excessive remnant of Louis XVI’s reign in the “Queens Dairy” a folly built specifically for the use of Marie Antoinette to taste milk and cheese products. The town of Rambouillet is worth looking around with its impressive town hall, The Toulouse Pavilion, the church and the Rue du Charles de Gaulle if you fancy a wander around the shops.
Highly recommended is a visit to the Chateau de Breteuil, a private estate owned by the current Marquis de Breteuil and open to the public. The Breteuils were administrators under King Louis XIV and were ennobled around that time. Since then the family’s
history and that of France has been closely related as the Marquis’ ancestors have work in successive regimes since. The current marquis is a friend of former President Jaques Chirac, and British Royalty have been frequent visitors to the Chateau. Most notably the “Entente Cordiale” was thought up here in the early 20th century, an event marked in the very room where it happened. The Gardens at the Chateau are quite exquisite, hence the demand for the property as a venue for various meetings, events, parties and weddings, and with it being just 35 km from the centre of Paris, it’s just ideal. Coach groups of gardening ladies from the home-counties would be in their element here.
A potential stop-over and definitely worth a look is the Paris suburb of St Germain en Laye. Just 20 km from the centre of Paris and 20 minutes by RER, it’s very popular with the wealthy professional class of Paris, attracted by the large park, the Seine frontage, the agreeable period architecture and the very good market square, where a market takes place every Sunday. Prior to the French
Revolution it was a Royal town and the residence of a number of French Royal monarchs. The old château was constructed in 1348 by King Charles V on the foundations of an old castle (château-fort) dating from 1238 in the time of Saint Louis. In 1862, Napoleon III set up the Musée des Antiquités Nationales in the former Royal Château. The museum has exhibits ranging from Paleolithic
to Celtic times. The “Dame de Brassempouy” sculpted on a mammoth’s ivory tusk around 23,000 years ago is the most famous exhibit in the museum.
For those who like to walk you can go to the park next to the château and walk along the 2.4 km long terrace that follows the Seine and offers panoramic views over the whole of Paris.
Where to Stay
If you have a shiny new car and want to take it for a ride, then you might want to consider the Trianon Palace Hotel in Versailles, next to the Palace grounds, where you can park for free. It is a former Palace itself and now owned by Waldorf Astoria Hotels and has a Gordon Ramsay restaurants. I would also recommend staying at the Pavilion Henri IV in St. Germain en Laye, which is the only remaining wing of the old palace, now a classy hotel on the edge of the park with superb views over Paris. Failing that, you could always try the Relais & Châteaux-Hotel Cazaudehore – La Forestière, as the name implies, is right on the edge of the St. Germain Forest. If you are looking for something of a lower budget the Ermitage des Loges offers three-star facilities at less than 100 Euros without compromising on a good position close to the park.