Hiking in Paris? The thought alone may be enough to raise a smile. There appears to be something incongruous about it – something surreal, like skiing on the Copacabana. And indeed: the image of a troop of hardcore hikers – heavy boots, tents on their backs with food enough for a fortnight – marching down the Champs Elysees seems like something straight out of Monty Python.
But hardcore hiking is not the only hiking there is: there is also “easy hiking”, the search for a civilized encounter with nature. And in this respect, Paris and her surrounding countryside have plenty to offer. Here are five recommendations of how to spend a great day in and around Paris, discovering the small outdoors.
The forests of Fontainebleau south of Paris offer everything a hiker can possibly dream of: dramatically scattered boulders, enchanted lakes, slopes with colourful patches of heather and passages between stones so tight that you will be glad having left the second croissant on the breakfast table that morning.
Enter the forest behind the train station and follow the sign posted trail to the Carrefour de Denecourt, an intersection of semi-asphalted forest roads and hiking trails, and further – uphill on a narrow path – to the Denecourt tower. Several circular trails around the area start from there.
Anything else to do in the area? The Chateau de Fontainebleau, a wonderful hodge-podge of architectural styles, is the second most visited castle in France. It is located right in the centre of the town, and buses go there directly from the train station.
Tip: Visit the Chateau first before doing the hike.
Pros and cons: Fontainebleau certainly offers you the perfect blend of culture and nature, but you will have to leave Paris early to pack it all in. And don’t plan too much for your evening either – you’ll be far too knackered to do anything but eat and sleep!
How to get there: SNCF train (“Grandes Lignes”) from Gare de Lyon. Travel time: app. 40 minutes.
On 11 November 1919, the Armistice to end WWI was signed in a train carriage at the crossing of two railway lines in the Forest of Compiègne. A few years later, a war memorial and a museum with a large array of WWI memorabilia was erected on the site and called the Clairière de l’Armistice, and in 1940, after the Third Reich’s victory over France, Hitler forced the French High Command to sign the surrender in the very same spot. That’s lot of history for a single railway junction.
Today, a quiet, almost mournful atmosphere hangs over the Clairière, and studying the exhibition of facsimiled newspaper cuttings from the period will enrich your understanding of the two World Wars.
The Clairière can be reached through the gardens of Compiègne Castle, Napoleon’s favourite residence. The walk will take you app. 2 hours.
Anything else to do in the area? Compiègne is a charming little market town that is well worth a look in its own right. The tour around the town centre will lead you automatically to the Chateau from where you can then continue to the War Memorial, either through the forest or across grass-covered open land.
Tip: get yourself a map of the area from the Tourism Office (at the City Hall). On one side, the map tells you how to get to the Clairière, and on the other, it gives you some useful tips about the town itself.
Pros and cons: The Clairière is a poignant experience, but the walk itself is unspectacular – certainly the section across the grassland – and, at 2 hours each way, a trifle long. If you have no interest whatsoever in history, you’d be better off going somewhere else.
How to get there: SNCF train (“Grandes Lignes”) from Gare du Nord. Travel time: app. 60 minutes.
Chantilly is the centre of French thoroughbred breeding, and its racetrack is the stage for the annual Prix du Jockey Club, the French equivalent of the Derby.
Out of Chantilly station, walk straight into the small forest that surrounds the grandstands and continue on to the track itself – they allow you in once the horses have finished their daily training run, usually at around 11 a.m. – to the historic stables, a horse breeding museum and the outrageously over-the-top Chantilly Castle. (The Montmorency family, the local aristocrats, were also responsible for both Chantilly Cream and Chantilly Lace.) Walk back to the train station on the other side of the track through the forest.
Anything else to do in the area? Practically everything worth seeing in Chantilly can be spotted along the trail. To get to the small town centre (with a few shops and cafes), you would have to make a detour to Avenue Joffre, which lies to the north of the track.
Pros and cons: It certainly helps if you have at least a passing interest in horseracing – or sports events in general, enough to get a thrill from the idea of walking alongside the ghosts of famous winners and losers who were once watched by millions.
How to get there: SNCF train (“Grandes Lignes”) from Gare du Nord. Travel time: app. 30 minutes.
More information: Chantilly trail.
2. Forêt de Verrières
Hiking near Paris can involve long and often convoluted travel arrangements, and before you make the first step on anything softer than asphalt, it can already be past noon.
No such problems with the Foret de Verriere: you step out of the train station, and nature is ready to greet you with open branches. Even though what you see is not yet the forest itself: it is, however, a very attractive way of getting there, alongside a footpath with a tree-lined river that will put you right in the French countryside mood.
Enter the forest through a steep climb on to a clearing where a large display map offers you several routes to choose from. I recommend the Route Forestiere de la Grande Ceinture, a two-hour walk around the forest’s outer edge.
Anything else to do in the area? Nothing of note. Please also be aware that there are no shops anywhere along the way, so you should bring everything you need for your trip (water, food etc.) from Paris.
Pros and cons: A nice and pleasant walk, but with little that specifically says “Paris” or even “France”. Something for people who really long to reconnect with nature, having spent too much time perhaps in the asphalt jungle of Paris.
How to get there: Take line B on the RER suburban rail network in the direction of St Remy les Chevreuse, change to line C at Massy-Palaiseau and leave the train at Igny. (Connections from Massy-Palaiseau are generally good and frequent, although less so on Sundays.)
1.Paris by the Seine
Want to experience the true essence of Paris? Then take a walk by the banks of the River Seine.
Start near Notre Dame Cathedral and proceed westwards (the river on your right hand side) past the Ile de la Cité, underneath the Pont des Arts to the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay. Along the way, you will see lovers, tramps and old men who are fishing in the Seine, as well as many of the most famous Parisian landmarks including the Eiffel Tower – even though you may only be able to glimpse its top in the distance.
If you still have the energy (as you should: the walk will only take you one hour), you can either continue past the Eiffel Tower to the Ile de Cygnes, the oblong “Ile of Swans” with a replica of the Statue of Liberty at its very end, or, better perhaps, experience the city’s other and no less romantic waterway, the Canal du Saint Martin which starts near Place République.
Anything else to do in the area? I can think of one or two, although none better.
Pros and cons: The only walk in this selection you can also do in bad weather. Actually, a gentle drizzle might be exactly what is called for. Particularly if you have somebody to walk next to you under that umbrella.
How to get there: The nearest Metro station to Notre Dame Cathedral is Cité.
Michael Schuermann is author of the guide book Paris Movie Walks and is now blogging about easy hiking, an activity he discovered in his mid-40s but which he undertakes with gusto.