During trips to Paris, we often enjoy making overnight excursions into the surrounding region of Ile-de-France. Besides being green and exquisitely pretty, the area also contains a host of spectacular monuments (including the Château de Versailles).
Our recent outing proved to be one of the most memorable we've ever undertaken. Rising early on a sunny spring morning, we stopped for a quick breakfast on the nearly empty terrace of the Café de Flore in Saint-Germain-des-Prés and were long past the Porte d'Orléans at the southern edge of the city before the weekend traffic had thickened.
Our first stop was 25 miles southeast of Paris at Vaux-le-Vicomte, the magnificent 17th-century cháteau built for Nicolas Fouquet, the powerful finance minister of King Louis XIV. Although the cháteau itself rivals many of the larger and more famous ones in the Loire Valley, its real glory is its superb fountain-dotted gardens by André le Nôtre.
After a delightful couple of hours ambling through the grounds, we stopped for lunch at La Table Saint Just (Tel. 33-1-64-52-09-09) in nearby Vaux-le-Pénil. Situated within a beautifully renovated old stone house, this friendly, well-run restaurant more than merits its single Michelin star. We enjoyed a reasonably priced meal of foie gras with duck ham, an excellent steak in a red-wine sauce with petits pois and a gratin dauphinois, and a delicious mandarin orange dessert.
From Vaux-le-Pénil, it was a pleasant 40-minute drive deeper into the woods to charming Barbizon. In France, the town is best known for an eponymous school of 19th-century painters that included Théodore Rousseau, Jean-François Millet and Camille Corot. A modest technological innovation — oil paints in screw-top tubes that didn't dry up and hence allowed artists to escape the confines of their studios — coincided with an artistic impulse to express the homely natural beauty of everyday rural life, a trend exemplified by Millet's famous painting "The Gleaners" (today on exhibit in the Musée d'Orsay).
Since Barbizon is a very popular destination, we recommend a visit out of high season, in spring or fall, when you're most likely to have the village Grande Rue (main street) to yourself. In May or October, it is a pleasure to visit the ateliers of Rousseau (No. 55) and Millet (No. 27) and the small but fascinating Musée Départemental de l'Ecole de Barbizon (No. 92) without the crowds. And if you undertake this excursion from a holiday rental apartment in Paris, don't miss the Boucherie de l'Angélus (No. 64), one of the best old-fashioned grocers in France, offering a superb selection of meat, cheese, charcuterie, vegetables and wine.
Also located on the cobbled main street in Barbizon is Les Pléiades, a recently remodeled hotel that opened in its new guise in July 2009. The charming 20-room auberge made its debut in 1830 and has been attracting a sophisticated crowd of artists and art lovers since. After a cordial welcome, we settled into our spacious Junior Suite.
This came with a parquet floor, a cathedral ceiling and a roomy sitting area furnished with a sofa upholstered in stone-gray Sea Island cotton, a teak veneered desk and a plasma-screen television. The modern bath was appointed with a stall shower and whirlpool tub. Although the muted decorating style is perhaps a tad corporate, the property provides a commendable level of comfort, complemented by excellent service.
It also offers two fine restaurants: Les Pléiades is a cozy Michelin one-star establishment with massive overhead beams, serving contemporary French gourmet cuisine by chef Philippe Geneletti. The menu's only failing is a tendency to be excessively fanciful and overwrought. For example, a first course of "escargots" was exasperatingly misnamed, since the snails were accompanied by a strange concoction of squid and ham.
A more relaxed brasserie, L'Atelier, serves fresh and inventive dishes in the exceptionally attractive setting of an old house that once belonged to painter Charles-Franois Daubigny. There, more vintage beams and a large log fire are complemented by appealing contemporary furniture. A summer terrace seats 20 and is surrounded by wisteria and boxwood. Other amenities include a small spa, a gym and heated indoor and outdoor swimming pools. Overall, Les Pléiades provides a fine base from which to explore the area's numerous attractions.
Les Pléiades 89 Deluxe Room, from $340; Junior Suite, $515. 21 Grande Rue, Barbizon. Tel. 33-1-60-66-40-25.
Following an excellent breakfast, we set off for Fontainebleau, an affluent town just 10 minutes' drive from Barbizon. Its main draw is, of course, the 1,500-room Château de Fontainebleau, one of the most fascinating and historic royal residences in France. The original structure dates to 1137, but the palace was repeatedly remodeled and expanded, notably during the Renaissance and the reigns of Napoleon Bonaparte and Napoleon III (who added the beautiful horseshoe-shaped stone stairs at the main entrance).
Though opulent and immense, Fontainebleau also has a strangely homey aspect to its character. If Versailles was meant to overwhelm visitors with the power and wealth of the French monarchy, this much-loved palace was where successive generations sought relief from the pressures of court life and came to indulge in the pleasures of the hunt.
After visiting the château, we stopped for Sunday lunch at Le Pouilly (1 rue de la Fontaine, Pouilly-le-Fort, Tel. 33-1-64-09-56-64), a one-star restaurant in a beautifully restored stone farmhouse near the town of Melun. On a sunny afternoon, we sat on the terrace under a large umbrella and enjoyed a delicious starter of pigeon breast sautéed in rum with green asparagus, followed by baked sea bass served with an herbal pesto sauce and wheat risotto. We concluded our meal with cheese, as this corner of the Ile-de-France is famous for both its excellent Brie and soft, creamy Fontainebleau, a blend of whipped cream and fromage frais shaped by a gauze-lined container.
Returning to Paris via the back roads, we contrived to avoid the evening traffic and arrived in plenty of time for a stroll along the Seine, followed by a free concert at the Church of Saint-Sulpice in the 6th arrondissement. Weekend perfection!
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