Versailles, Fontainebleau, Giverny: you don’t have to have lived in the French capital to know that these are some of the major attractions in the surrounding area. Perpetually over-populated and famous for their long, winding queues, they are all deserving of a visit, although I would advise picking your time and date wisely. But there is more to the Parisian suburbs than Versailles, and now President Hollande has extended public transport passes to include the entire Ile-de-France region at the weekend, there has never been a better time to go exploring.
It’s chilly but in daylight-saving terms, summertime. But an unseasonable chill isn’t the biggest problem facing Parisiens come the summer months: the city has enough green space to accommodate all of its residents standing up but when picnic season starts there’s nowhere to sit down. You’ll never get a chair at the Jardin de Luxembourg and it can even be hard to grab a patch at the vast Buttes Chaumont (at least on the sunny side). Instead, wave goodbye to the centre and head to the 181-hectare Parc de Sceaux, which comes complete with a chateau that houses a museum charting the history of the Ile-de-France. France’s premier (and most eccentric) chocolatier, Patrick Roger, also has a shop in the area if you get peckish.
For a botanical treat further afield, head north to the Opal Coast and the Albert Kahn gardens in Boulogne. The late 19th century banker and humanist built a ‘world garden’ containing plant species from around the world. Its most famous (and it’s owner’s most cherished) corner is the stunning Japanese garden – pagodas, lanterns, cascading azaleas and century-old bonsai surround the famous oriental bridge.
If it’s history you’re after, there is no shortage of fascinating destinations. Saint Denis suffers from a slightly dingy reputation today, but this wasn’t always the case, and its Basilica is testament to its fascinating history. Nearly every monarch from the 10th century onwards was buried in the medieval church, until the tombs were ransacked during the French Revolution. The restored Bourbons later made attempts to extract the corpses from the surrounding mass graves and to return them to the church. Nevertheless, the tombs can still be seen today. Still on the medieval theme, UNESCO world heritage site Provins is also well worth a visit. Ancient remains, half-timbered houses, Caesar’s Tower and the underground galleries all make for a fascinating day out.
Skipping forward several centuries, a short trip to Suresnes will take you to the haunting Mont Valérien – a former fortress which was commandeered by the Nazis during the Second World War and turned into a prison and an execution site. Guided tours allow access to the interior, while the entrance now proudly displays an impressive de Gaulle-inaugurated memorial. If you have the stomach for it, the site of the Drancy deportation camp to the north of Paris serves as a painful reminder of the horrors of the period, as Francois Hollande pointed out when he inaugurated its new memorial in September 2012.
But it’s not all Nazis and royal graves. The towns beyond the périphérique are also home to some seriously good places to eat, not least at the vast Rungis market, which is spread across the small towns of Chevilly-Larue, Rungis and Fresnes, and is a direct descendant of the famous Les Halles market which used to occupy the centre of Paris. Somewhat surprisingly, the Ile-de-France’s has numerous farms – many of which let you gather your own. From mid-April to November, La ferme de Gally and La ferme du Logis allow you to stock up for far less than at your average primeur Parisien. Both west of Paris and easily accessible by train, you’re only limited by how much you can carry.
If your take on food is more haute cuisine than rustic, you need to try suburban fine dining, Paris-style. It is a well-kept secret that you can usually eat better, and for much less, by crossing the périphérique. The best meal of my life was at Les Prémices, in Bourron-Marlotte, where the ‘surprise’ tasting menus and excellent wines proved the equal of anything found in the centre. This fabulous meal would have cost twice the price in Paris (for an undoubtedly less friendly service). Follow your slap-up supper with a night at the lovely Chateau de Bourron which is about 30 seconds walk away.
Walk off the calories at Goussainville, a ‘ghost village’ whose destiny changed dramatically in the 1970s when it fell under the flightpath of the new Charles de Gaulle airport. The noise became unbearable, and after a low-flying plane crashed into the village causing multiple fatalities, the few remaining residents packed up and moved out.The airport was forced to take responsibility for the maintenance of the abandoned houses but although some restoration has taken place very recently, the dilapidated village is largely the same as it was in the late 1970s. It’s an eerie way to round off a tour of Paris beyond the périphérique…