With its first-class restaurants and fantastic museums, Paris is a world capital of culture and epicurean delights, but the nearby regions have their own charm and culinary surprises worth exploring. Thanks to France’s high-speed trains, well-marked motorways and international airport hubs, Paris has a number of easy ways – many in less than two hours – to escape the City of Light and find a French adventure of your own.
Before writing off the former royal residence of Versailles as another tourist trap, bear in mind that most visitors stick to the Royal Palace and Chateau and never venture to the grounds beyond. The comparatively less-crowded outer gardens and paths along the 1,670m-long Grand Canal were once traversed on horseback, so a bicycle makes the perfect modern substitute for exploring the great outdoor expanse. The gardens and parks also open an hour earlier and stay open two hours later than the palace from April to October, making it even easier to beat the tourist rush.
The spectacular formal gardens were first developed in the 1630s, but in the 1660s, Louis XIV expanded them significantly to include the canal (where boat parties were often held) and added the garden’s numerous fountains, many relying on images of Greek god Apollo to reinforce the king’s image as a god on Earth.
The grounds underwent another expansion in 1773, when Marie Antoinette’s makeshift farm house Hameau de la Reine was built, about 3km northwest of the Grand Palace. Here, the queen would often dress in simple clothes and pretend to live as a peasant (a fact that did not endear her to the local population). To get there, cycle from the palace down the Avenue de Trianon until hitting Avenue Petit Trianon to enter near the Petit Trianon, a small chateau also frequently used by the queen.
Cyclists can refuel at the covered Marché Notre Dame outdoor market, located just 1km northeast of the palace, where fresh fruit, cheese and pastries can be purchased from local farmers and artisans on Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday from 7 am to 2 pm. If you visit during an off-day, the indoor Halles Notre Dame is open daily from 7 am to 7:30 pm.
Versailles is a 20km ride from Paris, but groups like Fat Tire Bike Tours and Bike About Tours begin in downtown Paris with a 10-minute metro ride before embarking on the bike part of the tour. The 75 to 80 euros trip includes bike rental, tour guide, train tickets and admission to the chateau and hamlet; the gardens and grounds are free, except during fountain shows.
Normandy’s coastal retreat of Le Havre, the largest city in the region, can be reached in less than two hours thanks to France’s high speed trains. Since the city is lesser known than many of its Normandy neighbours, the museums and beaches can be enjoyed without competing with hordes of other tourists. Explore the city’s 2km-long sand-and- pebble beach or stroll along the 4km promenade that includes France’s largest open-air skate park along with volleyball courts and playgrounds. The city has also recently expanded its marina, and visitors can book a 90-minute boat tour with TLM Beateau Ville de Fécamp to view La Havre from the sea.
See the English Channel from a different perspective at the Musée Malraux (MuMa for short), a glass and steel building that faces the sea and is home to the largest collection of Impressionist art in France after the Musee d’Orsee in Paris. The museum houses the world’s largest collection of works by Eugène Boudin, a marine landscape painter from nearby Honfleur who was one of the first to paint outdoors in the mid-1800s, and coastal paintings by Claude Monet, including Fécamp, bord de mer.
SNCF offers frequent direct trips from Paris to La Havre for 33.50 euros one-way. The city is easily covered on foot, but buses also frequent the train stations and major roads.
Learn the difference between La Champagne (the region) and le Champagne (the bubbly) by driving 140km northeast of Paris. The famous Champagne tourist routes cover more than 500km of twisting roads, but one of the main arteries runs for 70km between the cities of Reims in the north and Epernay in the south around the Montagne de Reims regional park, taking drivers past wineries large and small, as well as ancient churches and pastoral landscapes.
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