Paris Day Trips the Locals Know

One can enjoy a classic French lunch at the dining room of Maison de Van Gogh, the same restaurant where the great painter used to take his meals.
One can enjoy a classic French lunch at the dining room of Maison de Van Gogh, the same restaurant where the great painter used to take his meals.

Beyond the crowd-pleasing palace of Versailles and Claude Monet’s garden in Giverny, travelers to Paris often seek out alternative sites less frequented by visitors. The surrounding Paris region is rich in fairytale castles, gorgeous landscapes and cultural attractions; you could easily spend a few days exploring. Here are some of Travel Agent’s insider picks for memorable jaunts.

Where do Parisians go for a dose of fresh air and R&R not too far from the city? The forest of Fontainebleau — a UNESCO World Heritage site that was formerly the royal hunting grounds for François I — is a popular spot for walking, rock climbing and plein-air painting. Just an hour’s drive south of Paris, the tranquil town of Fontainebleau is known for its stunning royal chateau, also classified by UNESCO. Both of these impressive sites are in the Seine-et-Marne department.

The Chateau de Fontainebleau was Napoleon’s favorite residence; he called it “the true home of kings.”
La Demeure du Parc has 27 contemporary-style rooms designed with subtle Fontainebleau references.

There is a universal obsession with the Chateau de Versailles, the Sun King’s over-the-top palace, but the Chateau de Fontainebleau boasts a much longer history: it was inhabited by French royalty continuously for seven centuries, and Napoleon Bonaparte also left his mark. (It was here where Napoleon welcomed the pope from Rome for his crowning as Emperor — famously furnishing the then-empty chateau in a matter of days.) The Chateau de Fontainebleau was Napoleon’s favorite residence; he called it “the true home of kings.”

Sprawling across four main courtyards, the chateau’s architecture represents a mélange of styles. The gardens, which are free to the public, attract picnickers to the long canal designed by legendary landscape architect André Le Nôtre. The joy of visiting the chateau is that it’s not nearly as crowded as Versailles (it welcomes 300,000 official visitors a year vs. 7.5 million at Versailles). Another big perk: Visitors can ogle lots of original furnishings, which is rare in France, as most chateaux were emptied by mobs during the French Revolution. The pièce de résistance is the François I Gallery — adorned with Renaissance frescoes by great Italian painters. Also, don’t miss Napoleon’s throne room and Marie Antoinette’s Turkish Boudoir, which was recently reopened to the public after a seven-year restoration project.

Tip: It’s possible to book private tours, events and weddings at the chateau. Reach out to Marguerite de Massé ([email protected]), events manager.

La Demeure du Parc has 27 contemporary-style rooms designed with subtle Fontainebleau references.
The Chateau de Fontainebleau was Napoleon’s favorite residence; he called it “the true home of kings.”

If you’d like to linger in Fontainebleau, a new four-star hotel called La Demeure du Parc is the place to stay. Opened in Fall 2015, the boutique hotel has a picture-perfect location at the edge of the palace. The 27 contemporary-style rooms were designed with subtle Fontainebleau references, and come equipped with luxury beds by Ecus and Fragonard bath amenities. Some rooms have private terraces, like the Jacuzzi Suite, where you can soak outside in the hot tub. Families should book the Suite aux Jeux. Direct any special requests to General Manager Thierry Durand ([email protected]).

The hotel’s gourmet restaurant, La Table du Parc, was conceived by consulting Michelin-starred Chef Fréderic Vardon with a menu celebrating seasonal products. The hotel bar serves craft cocktails by passionate barman Daniel Rodriguez (formerly of Hotel Bel-Ami and Vernet in Paris) and many of the libations contain local ingredients, such as the famous poppies of Nemours. Original concoctions include the Royal Parc Julep.

The forest of Fontainebleau inspired the 19th-century painters of the Barbizon school, like Jean-Francois Millet and landscape artist Camille Corot. At the doorstep to this majestic forest, the picturesque village of Barbizon — packed with art galleries — feels worlds away from Paris. Step inside the former Auberge Ganne, where shopkeeper François Ganne and his wife Edmée hosted many of the period's painters — and you’ll find a small museum called the Musée Départemental des Peintres de Barbizon. You can even see vestiges of the artists’ sketches scribbled on the bedroom walls. On the ground floor, they’ve recreated the original grocery shop and dining room, while upstairs you can ogle priceless original artwork.

There are a few lovely lodgings in town. Travel Agent enjoyed lunch at Les Biches, quite popular among locals, which has seven guest rooms upstairs. Decorated with wit and whimsy, this hotel is owned and run by three generations of women. It’s possible to privatize the hotel-restaurant; contact Elsa Mathonet ([email protected]).

Set on the village’s main street, the Hôtellerie du Bas-Bréau has hosted numerous celebrities, including Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote “Treasure Island” during his stay. This five-star hotel is a member of Alain Ducasse’s Châteaux & Hôtels Collection.

Eleven miles away, you’ll find the most exquisite privately owned castle in France. In fact, the Château Vaux-le-Vicomte was the original inspiration for the palace of Versailles. (Upon her visit in 1948, Princess Elizabeth said, “It’s more beautiful than Versailles!”)

To create his dream home in the 17th century, Nicolas Fouquet, finance minister to Louis XIV, hired the famous “dream team”: architect Louis Le Vau, painter Charles Le Brun and landscape architect André Le Nôtre. Later, the King would poach this same trio to build his pad in Versailles. There’s a human scale to Vaux-le-Vicomte that elicits an emotional response among visitors. This storybook castle has been owned by the de Vogüé family for five generations, and they’ve made it their life’s mission to preserve this important piece of French national heritage.

Throughout the year, the chateau puts on a number of exciting events, theatrical shows and concerts. For the summer’s candlelit evenings, the estate gardens are lit with two thousand candles. The “Palace of Chocolate” takes place in November, when fine chocolatiers are invited to the chateau. And the Christmas season is undeniably magical, with festive decorations, music and gifts for the kids. Note that it’s possible to book the chateau for private events and weddings. Direct queries to Directeur Commercial Jean-Charles de Vogüé ([email protected]).

North of Paris in the Val-d’Oise department, you can follow in the footsteps of the great 19th-century painters. The charming village of Auvers-sur-Oise was where Vincent Van Gogh painted some of his greatest works. Prior to his suicide in 1890, this was a prolific period for the artist, Van Gogh created 80 paintings in 70 days while renting a room at the Auberge Ravoux. Today you can enjoy a classic French lunch in the same restaurant where Van Gogh used to take his meals, and then head upstairs to see his attic room, unchanged since that fateful day. For special bookings and requests, reach out to Stéphanie Piard ([email protected]), executive assistant at the Maison de Van Gogh.

Take a stroll through the hamlet and the surrounding wheat fields to see the scenes Van Gogh captured on canvas. Don’t miss the church, Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, and the cemetery where Vincent Van Gogh lies next to his beloved brother Theo. A big village highlight is the Chateau d’Auvers, which is home to an interactive museum that explores the Impressionism art movement, recreating the era with excellent multi-media exhibits, wide screen projections and special effects.

At one point, visitors “board a train” — the means by which the era’s artists escaped Paris to paint in the countryside — where the passing landscapes are depicted as Impressionist paintings. Melanie Bequet ([email protected]) can help arrange unique packages and transfers for your clients.