If you’ve stopped by Jack Straw Lane a time or two you’ve probably caught on that part of my heart never makes it out of France. Every trip across the ocean is a chance to explore someplace previously unknown. The region around Paris, or Île-de-France, is perfect for that.
A short drive or RER ride out of the city proper and traditional village houses pressed around church squares and bustling small towns replace Haussmann-style apartment buildings. Make your way down a lane to a family-run farm that supplies neighbours with eggs and aged cheese or pick up a freshly baked piece of tarte aux pommes for your afternoon goûter.
There are many discoveries waiting a world away from the brilliant lights of Paris and these are as historically significant and dreamy as the capital. Tourists aren’t as thick on the ground and you’re just as likely to rub elbows with a local craftsman enjoying a pousse-café following dinner as cross paths with a Danish family cycling to their next campsite.
Because I like you – I really, really do – I’m sharing some of my favourites.
Moret sur Loing
I first fell in love with the ice cream. Oh sure, the medieval stone bridge flanked by fortifications marking the division between former dukedoms is beautiful. And yes, the tower and portcullis are fine examples of medieval architecture. But it was definitely Les mille et Une Glaces and their wares that wooed me. The creator, Arnaud Delvallée, is an artist. I dare you to prove me wrong.
The town has long drawn artists to its riverbank with its scenes of watermills and towers, and was a favourite of Renoir, Monet, and Sisley. On warm summer nights, local theatre troupes perform plays on the banks. We saw a retelling of The Three Musketeers several years ago where the actors engaged in sword fights all around us. That’ll keep you on the edge of your seat.
If you’re looking for a meal that will leave an impression, La Gavotte is my recommendation. The décor is as atmospheric as the food is delicious.
Once a ruin, it’s now been rebuilt to its former state. While exploring the ruins back when no one noticed 5 people climbing down into the oubliette was fun, the restored medieval fortress is impressive. The chateau is set in the heart of a small town by the same name that traces its roots as far back as the Gallo-Roman era. Across the way is a church with interesting stone carvings that are worth a peek. Bring a picnic because there are pretty spots to break for lunch in the area.
Chateau de Breteuil
There’s been a chateau on this site since the Middle Ages, and the current family (it’s still privately owned) has been in residence since 1712. They were major players in the political landscape of 18th century France and by some shrewd maneuvering retained ownership after the Revolution. When you arrive to tour the building, the Marquis is there to welcome you to discover his family’s home.
Not many chateaux are as well furnished and maintained as Breteuil. Its history, as well as that of some of the key moments in French politics and art, is showcased and explained. You can take the guided tour or visit on your own. I’ve done both and was surprised by how much I enjoyed the anecdotes our guide shared.
The site is relatively quiet all year round and you can easily wander around the grounds, which overlook the Vallée de Chevreuse, without seeing anyone else. During the warmer months the gardens and outbuildings play host to expositions, festivals, and reenactments of fables by La Fontaine and Charles Perrault – think The Tortoise and The Hare and Puss in Boots, among others. Don’t miss the restored dovecote just behind the former stables.
La Ferté-Gaucher and the Vélo-Rail
After eating and drinking your way through the visit to Paris and its surroundings – don’t pretend that’s not what you’ll be doing – time to shake your bonbons, or rather, time to pedal your way down an abandoned train track on a retrofitted rail cart.
If you time your visit to a market day, Thursday and Sunday in La Ferté-Gaucher, you can rustle up a fresh basket of goods to refuel once you find a quiet spot to rest. The town itself is small enough for an easy visit and will charm you.
The departure point for the vélo-rail excursion is reached via a tourist train, which leaves from the town center, and is at the end of a dead-end lane down the hill from a horse farm. It can’t get more pastoral. The 13km round trip is punctuated by rolling countryside, abandoned train stations, and a glimpse of this area not possible if you had stuck to well-trod paths. You must do this. There were 18 in our group, kids and adults, and we all grinned from beginning to end.
There are so many others places I could tell you about. Maybe I will another day if you sweet-talk me. And bribe me with chocolate.
Kat @ jackstrawlane
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