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Paris can sometimes come off as a slightly imperious queen, but can you really fault her? After all, the French capital is so loaded with artistic and architectural treasures that it basically demands your attention. And yet even a brief detour from the City of Light can offer a welcome break from the asphalt and tourist crowds, all while shedding a new light on aspects of French history and culture. Autumn is a great time not only to fly to Paris but also to do some day trips that are easily within an hour or so of the city center. Here are eight of our favorites.
1. La Crème de la Crème: Versailles
No place is as synonymous with royal splendor and excess as the Chateau de Versailles. It was on a royal whim that King Louis XIV transformed a hunting lodge into the most ostentatious display of monarchic privilege that has ever existed. The dazzling Hall of Mirrors, designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, offers views of a portion of the chateau’s 250 acres of gardens, the sublime oeuvre of Andre Le Notre. While the Hameau de la Reine — the ersatz farm village where Marie-Antoinette played at being a peasant girl — is under renovation until 2018, you can still see other highlights within the palace grounds, like the Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon, the latter completed in 1768 and another place of respite for France’s last queen.
Try to time your visit for when the chateau opens at 9:00am — closing time is 6:30pm — and avoid weekends and Tuesdays, when the Louvre is closed and the crowds come here instead. To get here by Metro from Paris, take the C line of the RER from the Invalides or St-Michel stations to Versailles-Rive Gauche.
2. Fabulously Floral: Giverny
If you’ve seen the famous Claude Monet water-lily paintings, you already have an inkling of what this place looks like. The Impressionist master’s house and gardens are tucked into the corner of the Normandy region that’s closest to Paris and wins the prize for most deliriously floral day trip. The verdant grounds, with the iconic water garden and Japanese bridge, are bursting with more poppies, peonies and irises than you can count and look pretty much like they did when Monet lived here between 1883 and 1926. Late summer and fall is when you can see all the colors of the painter’s palette — and with thinner crowds than in summer. A short stroll from Monet’s house, you’ll find the Musée des Impressionnismes Giverny, a separate entity that’s worth a stop for its collection of lesser-known Impressionist works. From Paris, trains leave from Gare St-Lazare; take one to Vernon and then a taxi or bus four miles to the Fondation Claude Monet in Giverny.
3. What’s Whipped Cream Got To Do With It?: Chantilly
There are two main parts to the Château de Chantilly: the petite 16th-century château and a bigger one whose construction the Duc d’Aumale oversaw in the 1870s — the earlier grand château was destroyed by angry mobs during the French Revolution. While the architectural ensemble today is lovely — throw in the moat and you’ve got the stuff of fairy tales — it’s most celebrated for housing the Musée Condé, which has the second largest collection of antique paintings in France after the Louvre. Chantilly is also famous for its extensive stables, the Grandes Ecuries. While its status as ground zero for the invention of crème de Chantilly (aka whipped cream) is somewhat apocryphal — the French chef Vatel worked here in the 17th century, hence the legend — if you make the pilgrimage 25 miles north of Paris in the département of the Oise, you may find the whipped cream in these parts to be unusually tasty.
4. France’s Most Beautiful Gothic Cathedral: Chartres
When medieval pilgrims saw the iconic spire of the Gothic cathedral Chartres soaring above the fields of wheat, it meant they had reached one of the five major holy places on the path to heaven. For you, it means you’ve dodged the touristy spots of Paris just long enough to inspect one of Europe’s most inspiring cultural landmarks up close. The 12th- and 13th-century stained-glass windows, of which there are 176, are so exquisite that many visitors in the Middle Ages were convinced they were composed of ground-up gemstones. After visiting the cathedral, take some time to stroll the lanes of the old town and along the banks of the River Eure. From Paris, trains leave regularly from Gare Montparnasse.
5. From Big Nose to Napoleon: Fontainebleau
It was King François I au Grand Nez — aka. Big-Nosed Francis, who reigned from 1515 to 1547 — who had a small hunting lodge in the Fontainebleau forest 41 miles southeast of Paris and transformed it into a veritable “new Rome.” But the site owes its everlasting fame to Napoleon, who abdicated the throne here in 1814 prior to his exile in Elba. The sprawling château demands at least a few hours to properly explore, and that’s not counting the surrounding forest with its towering trees and dramatic promontories, where you can ride, climb rocks or just go for a stroll. The village of Barbizon, a hub of the pre-Impressionist movement, is at the forest’s edge. From Gare de Lyon, take a train to Fontainebleau station, where you can hop on a bus to the palace.
6. Roman History in Northern France: Senlis
Classified as a historical monument, the village of Senlis is encircled by Roman walls 23 feet high and 13 feet thick, punctuated by 28 Gallo-Roman watchtowers and massive gates. Its cathedral predates both Notre Dame de Paris and Chartres and boasts a lacy spire considered among the most beautiful in France. Explore the walls and ruins of the royal castle or check out the thousand-seat Roman amphitheater just outside the village. Winding stone streets like Rue du Châtel and Rue de la Treille are easily as Instagrammable as some of those not-so-secret lanes back in Paris. Trains for Senlis, which is 30 miles northeast of the capital, leave from Gare du Nord.
7. The Pre-Versailles: Vaux-le-Vicomte
Rarely in France do history and beauty intersect to such head-spinning effect as at Vaux-le-Vicomte, 36 miles southeast of Paris and the biggest private property in the country. When Nicolas Fouquet, the superintendent of finance under Louis XIV, had a fête in 1661 to celebrate the completion of his château, he spared no expense to give his guests a memorable time, neglecting only one thing: to offer the property to the king. Louis was furious, had Fouquet thrown in jail for life and commandeered his team of artisans to build what would eventually become the royal palace at Versailles. The magnificent gardens cover 125 acres. Take a Line P train in the direction of Provins from Gare de l’Est stopping at the Verneuil l’Etang station, then, take the Châteaubus from there to the château.
8. It Ought to Be in Pictures: Auvers-sur-Oise
It may be fewer than 17 miles from the center of Paris, but pretty little Auvers-sur-Oise is still worlds away from the hustle and bustle of the capital. Breezy and green, the village was popular with a slew of famous painters in the 19th century, including Pissarro, Corot and Cézanne but most famously — or rather infamously — Vincent van Gogh, who died here in 1890. You can see Van Gogh’s grave here as well as the village church he made famous in his painting L’Église d’Auvers-sur-Oise, on display in the Musée d’Orsay. Trains depart from the Gare du Nord station in Paris.
What are your favorite day trips outside the City of Lights? Sound off, below.
Featured image by Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images.
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