Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Top Five Day Trips From Paris

There’s enough to do in Paris to keep a visitor occupied for weeks, but for those who do wish to venture further afield, there are a series of awesome destinations that can easily be checked out in a day trip from the French capital. From cathedrals and palaces to wine tasting and architectural gems, these five pack in an awful lot for the day-tripper.
Château Thierry in Champagne
Château Thierry in Champagne

Versailles

Around 17km (10.6 miles) southwest of Paris, Versailles is to all intents and purposes a suburb of the French capital. It is also the most popular day trip destination from Paris, and that’s due to the famous château. What began as a simple hunting lodge under French king Louis XIII became the most important building in France under his son. Louis XIV had the lodge expanded into an opulent palace, and moved the entire French government there. It was his way of making sure he had absolute control of everything. Nowadays, it is still used for some state functions, but most of the visitors to the château are tourists. They come for a good old gawp at how the other half lived. The apartments of the king and queen are lavishly decorated as they would have been during Louis XIV’s heyday in the 17th century. The highlight for many is the Hall of Mirrors. As the name would suggest, it features 357 mirrors and has been the venue for many historic occasions. These include the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which divided the spoils after World War I.
Although the palace interiors are what most visitors wish to see, it’s the gardens that often leave the biggest impression. They’re extensive, beautifully designed and take considerably more work than mowing your back garden does…
Château de Compiègne
Château de Compiègne

Compiègne

A 50-minute train journey north of Paris, Compiègne also plays home to a royal château. Compiègne’s version is a little more understated than the one in Versailles. The rooms have been restored to how they were in various eras, making the tour around the building a somewhat eclectic experience. Napoleons I and III are heavily represented, and the best story is about one of the bedrooms. It belonged to Napoleon’s second wife, Marie-Louise, but due to cost factors she wasn’t allowed to decorate it as she’d like. So she got to sleep amongst a hideous blaze of pink, chosen personally by Napoleon’s first wife, Joséphine. That must have gone down a treat.The gardens are enormous, disappearing into the forest and accommodating an equestrian cross-country course.
Aside from the château, Compiègne’s highlights are historic in nature. First up comes the spot where French heroine Jean d’Arc was finally captured, but more interesting is a railway carriage in a forest clearing. Unfortunately, the carriage is a replica (the original was burned during World War II), but the site is hugely significant. This was where, in top secret, Germany surrendered to end World War I. In World War II, Hitler insisted on making France surrender in exactly the same carriage, in exactly the same spot. Now the clearing hosts a small-but-fascinating museum and one of France’s major war memorials.

The Champagne region

True bubbly fanatics are probably better off staying overnight in Reims or Epernay, but those just wanting to sample the fun of the fizz can enjoy a whistlestop charge through the Champagne region in a day from Paris. The distance from Paris to Reims is around 145km (90 miles), and a return trip can easily be conquered in a day by hire car or train. It’s a city of churches, public squares and Roman remains, but the obvious draw card is the World Heritage-listed Cathedral de Notre-Dame. It’s an enormous Gothic monster, and easily one of the most impressive in Europe.
However, the real highlights of the Champagne region lie in the vineyards. They’re not adequately served by train, and self-driving provides the slight problem of not being legally able to drink the good stuff. Thus the tour option becomes the best bet. Epernay is the hub of the region, but the major champagne houses are spread out. Amongst the big names that can be visited are Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, Dom Perignon and Mumm. It’s not just the sampling that makes such a trip worthwhile, however – the drive through vineyard scenery is usually enough to bring a contented smile to any face.
Metz Moselle River and Temple Neuf
Metz Moselle River and Temple Neuf

Metz

A few years ago, it would be absurd to suggest Metz as a day trip from Paris. But with the recent installation of a high speed train line, it only takes 82 minutes to get to the eastern city from Paris’ Gare de l’Est. It’s a wonderfully good-looking city, and contains a real hodge-podge of architecture. Some of the more pompous, grandiose buildings in the south of the city date from a period of German rule, while there are Roman remains dotted throughout and a stunning if (slightly sinister-looking) Protestant church in the middle of an island in the Moselle river.
When darkness falls, Metz is brilliantly lit up – big sums have clearly been spent on showing the city’s buildings off in the best possible manner. Therefore, if going on a day trip from Paris, it’s a good idea to go in winter time when days are shorter. Show up in November or December, and you also get the benefit of the awesome Christmas markets. In terms of cultural attractions, the big two are the Musée de la Cour d’Or – which covers everything from fine art to full-sized peasant houses – and the recently-opened Centre Pompidou-Metz. The latter is the first regional branch of Paris’ Pompidou Centre, and it houses a seriously impressive collection.
Nancy Chamber of Commerce
Nancy Chamber of Commerce

Nancy

Nancy is another city that has reaped the extraordinary benefits of the high-speed rail link to Paris. The journey takes just 90 minutes (again from Gare de l’Est), and there’s ample time during a day to cover the city’s highlights. Nancy is mostly famous as an epicentre of Art Nouveau architecture. There are buildings throughout the city decorated with the movement’s trademark flowers and curves. The Chambre du Commerce et d’Industrie is a good example, with its ironwork and stained glass, but the Banque du Crédit Lyonnais on rue St George is the real jaw-dropper. Nip inside and look up – the stained glass ceiling is an enormous work of thoroughly impressive detail.
Real devotees should head to Musée de l’ École de Nancy. It’s a grand villa packed with works by Nancy’s Art Nouveau movers and shakers. It’s utter overkill on the floral and natural influences in many cases, but it’s undoubtedly worth a visit. If just a taste is enough, abandon the Art Nouveau trail and head to Place Stanislas. Ringed with café bars, this huge square is arguably one of the finest public squares in Europe. It’s huge, and acts as the central social hub in this instinctively likeable city.