Just away from the hustle of Capital Paris many pleasant surprises await in Ile-de-France, writes Uday k Chakraborty
I have found with some dismay that Indian tourists, even repeat visitors, often go to places and sites that are restricted to what many European calls, “foreign tourist circuit”. They usually do not visit where Europeans themselves visit during their holidays. So while a visitor from India or China, visit Paris or Nice in France they are mostly restricted by the city limits. However, I have found that just beyond such cities lies a lot of interesting areas frequented by locals, which are beautiful with varied attractions. One such beautiful area is Ile-de-France.
Heritage from history
The first thing you should know about the “island of France” (Ile-de-France) is that it is not an island. It is, in fact, the region surrounding Paris, and the name Ile comes from the rivers that form its boundaries: the Epte, the Aisne, the Marne, the Yonne, and the Eure, with the Seine and the Oise also running through the territory.
The Ile-de-France, extending around the city to a radius of roughly 80 kms offers something for every visitor. Through this area traveled Charlemagne, St. Louis, Joan of Arc, Louis XIV and al the kings of France, not to mention Napoleon, leaving lasting memorials of their passing. The art lover is drawn to the magnificent cathedrals, medieval abbeys, sumptuous palaces and chateaux – architecture and design unparalleled anywhere else in France. For the nature enthusiast or the weary city dweller, the Ile-de-France has peaceful valleys, forests, and wildlife. It is the perfect weekend retreat from the frenetic activity of the capital. I suggest you make Paris your base for forays into the region, using car, regional train and local bus to explore the area.
Visiting Versailles and beyond
Without a doubt, Versailles is the most visited site in this area. The building of this incredibly lavish palace nearly bankrupted the French monarchy and helped cause the French Revolution, yet Versailles remains with all its grandeur. Its vast formal French gardens are spread out over 250 acres. A river was diverted to keep the 600 fountains flowing. Today, you can see the fountains illuminated in a splendid son-et-lumiere (sound and light show).
There is so much to see in Versailles. The highlights include the Royal Apartments, the Chapel, and the Hall of Mirrors, the Grand Trinion and the Petit Trinion and for the children, there is Le Hameau, Marie Antoinette’s model farm, where she and her companions pretended to be peasants. Just south of Versailles via D91 highway, is an area that many Frenchmen consider the prettiest countryside in the Ile de France, the Vallee de Chervreuse, where picturesque villages abound.
About 50 km southwest of Paris via D988 and N10, the cathedral of Chartres is without doubt the jewel of the medieval cathedrals. The Portrait Royal, portraying Christ in triumph, is one of the finest examples of French religious art. The Cathedral is also known for its stained glass windows, which are considered most beautiful in France, a country where exquisite stained glass has been preserved in remarkable quantity. The city of Cartres, dotted with ancient gabled houses and charming corners, live up to the beauty of the cathedral.
From here, we drove ahead to the region of Fontainebleau, where surrounding the fabulous Renaissance palace is a ground with holiday facilities for family and a forest of 50,000 acres. This was second home of many French king and Napoleon lived here during most of his reign. Many people find Fontainebleau more beautiful than Versailles and certainly it is more intimate, full of surprising little corners. Just 40 km away from Paris, Chantilly is famous for its Chateau and its parks. Looking like an island rising out of the surrounding moat, the chateau is small by French standards but exceptional elegant. A few kilometers southwest is Royaumont, one of the best-preserved medieval abbeys in France.
On the banks of the Oise, the Compiegne is justly famous for its palace. The palace’s exterior is somewhat austere, but the rich and exquisite interior decoration is beautifully preserved. Against a small ticket fee, you can take the guided tour through the Throne Room, the Queen’s bedroom, which was redone for Marie-Antoinette, the splendid Royal Apartments with their Gobelin tapestries, the Council Room, and the Red Room where Napoleon abdicated in 1814.
Just at the edge of the forest is Barbizon, made famous as an artist’s colony in the nineteenth century. You can visit Rousseau’s house on the Grand Rue and you can stop for a drink at the celebrated Bas-Breau, an elegant second home to many Parisians.
Taking N5 from Fontainebleau, you will pass by the ruins of the ancient Abbaye-du-Lys. The next important landmark is Vaux-le-Vicomte, whose seventeenth century Chateau and gardens are among the most beautiful in Europe. The Chateau was commissioned by a high-level government official under King Louis XIV, who had to access state funds to finish this grand Chateau, which took 18,000 labourers to complete in 5 years.
Naturally, this raised jealousy of king as well as curiosity, and in no time the owner’s embezzlement was exposed. While the owner was thrown in to prison, the chateau sparked king’s imagination, and Louis XIV employed the same team to build his own dream palace at Versailles, the site of his father’s hunting lodge. where our exploration of Ile-de-France originally started!
Photo: Uday K Chakraborty / Other sources/ Public domain (So No credit required)