I’ve been visiting friends in Paris for more than 20 years. Well, I always say they’re in Paris, but they actually live in a little town called Ballancourt about an hour south of the city on the RER D commuter line.
After crossing the Seine, the train clangs through suburb after suburb—and then, suddenly, the crowds in the cars disperse and, outside the window, the endless blocks of concrete apartments give way to verdant fields, copses of trees, picturesque country houses, and royal-blue sky.
There’s plenty to see and do in Paris proper, bien sûr. But should you have the time—and initiative—to take your adventure a step further, you will discover amazing things within a beret’s throw of the French capital.
Here are some of the best day trip destinations—admittedly, with an artistic bent—that I’ve discovered through the years. But we’re in France, n’est-ce pas?
It’s like walking into an Impressionist painting in this adorable little village just outside Paris.
Quiet country lanes, rose-draped cottages, fields of wheat—almost nothing has changed since Paul Cézanne, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, and—perhaps the most famous of all—Vincent van Gogh lived and painted here.
I met someone special in Auvers once. I was rushing to escape a rain shower and almost ran into him, an elderly monsieur in a long brown coat slowly making his way down the road. I had every intention of skirting on by, but his face creased into a friendly smile. “Have you seen the maison of Dr. Gachet?” he asked.
No, I had not.
The man signaled for me to follow him and, as we walked, he told me about Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, an eccentric doctor and amateur artist who had been an early patron of the Impressionists. Abruptly, he stopped and pointed to a flash of white peering from a tree-covered hillside.
“That’s it,” he said, eyes gleaming. He crouched in the middle of the road, holding up an invisible paintbrush in front of an invisible easel. “Cézanne stood here to paint his canvas,” he intoned reverently. “See, the scene is almost the same—the curve in the road, the shade trees.”
A plaque installed by the tourism office depicting Cézanne’s “Dr. Gachet’s House,” painted on this very spot, proved the helpful stranger’s point. I whipped out my iPhone and, just as I was about to snap a picture, I heard: “Slowly, just as the artists work.”
Then, with a terse “Bonne promenade,” he disappeared down a tree-lined street. That’s just the sort of town Auvers is.
Tip: Explore the town by following the plaques of paintings throughout town that mark exactly where the artists stood to paint them.
- Getting there: Auvers is located about an hour’s train ride northeast of Paris. From the Gare du Nord, take the RER C train in the direction of Pontoise; change trains at St.-Ouen l’Aumône, boarding the train heading toward Creil. Or, from the Gare du Nord, take the RER H.
About an hour south of Paris, near the famous Forest of Fontainebleau, this hamlet flourished as an artist colony in the early 1800s, when the likes of Thomas Rousseau, Camille Corot, Jean-François Millet, and Charles Daubigny settled here.
Their body of work, which collectively became known as the Barbizon school, moved the artistic needle from Romanticism to Realism, thereby paving the way for Impressionism to take root in the region.
The tiny town remains ridiculously romantic, albeit on the renovated-chic side, with its one main road edged with millstone houses full of shops, restaurants, and cafés.
I love exploring the little museums here—especially Musée Départemental de l’Ecole de Barbizon (Museum of the Barbican School), where one can admire paintings by Millet and Coignet that depict familiar village scenes. There are plenty of galleries as well, showcasing inspired new artists—red poppies appear to be a rite to passage, given the plethora of them on offer (don’t get me wrong—I love them!).
Tip: Have lunch at Le Relais de Barbizon, rustic and charming with a large open fire and a menu extoling country fare; the four-course weekday menu is good value.
- Getting there: Take the RER D from Paris’s Gare du Lyon to Melun, about a 25-minute ride. From there, take a bus or taxi the rest of the way to Barbizon.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
> Vaux le Vicomte
I’ve been to this opulent château south of Paris several times, and each time I walk around shaking my head. Why is no one here?
After all, Vaux reigned as one of the world’s most beautiful palaces at a time when Versailles was a mere hunting lodge (that is, back in the 17th century).
Indeed, this very place served as the inspiration for Versailles. Its owner, Nicolas Fouquet, hired dream-team designers of the day—Le Vau, Le Nôtre, and Le Brun—and, upon the property’s completion, held the most extravagant party France had ever seen to flaunt his fairy-tale masterpiece to Louis XIV.
Huge mistake. The covetous king promptly found an excuse to arrest Fouquet and imprison him life. He then hired the Vaux design team to enhance his hunting lodge, turning it into, well, everyone knows what Versailles looks like today. To add insult to injury, he filled his opulent residence with furnishings and decorations he had extricated from Vaux (he had even seized the orange trees).
Today, standing in Vaux’s marble-arched great gallery, with its ornate ceiling fresco, you could very well be in the heart of Versailles. Even the elaborate gardens peeking through the windows—designed by Le Nôtre of Versailles fame, and full of parterres, fountains, and canals—are worthy of a roi. It’s one of Paris’s greatest secrets—and, besting Versailles, it’s one you’ll virtually have to yourself.
- Getting there: Take the RER D from Paris’s Gare du Lyon to Melun. From there, a “Chateaubus” shuttle transports visitors to the château between March and November; check the website for details.
Barbara A. Noe is a freelance writer and the former senior editor at National Geographic Travel Books.