Monday, Nov. 09, 2009


A crowning achievement of civilization, or proof of the excess of unchecked monarchs? Few who visit the Château de Versailles leave ambivalent on this question. The transformation of the chateau from hunting lodge to ostentatious summer palace was only the start. The Bourbons, the royals who ruled France from the mid-16th century, built successively more surreal retreats at Versailles, from the private mini-palace of the Grand Trianon, to the Petit Trianon, which was built for Louis XIV's consort, Madame de Pompadour, to the rustic fantasy of Marie-Antoinette's estate. Your visit to Paris would be incomplete without an opportunity to marvel here.

The interior of the main palace is all flourish and festoonery, epitomizing a high Baroque showiness. Among the blockbuster attractions are La Grande Galerie, or Hall of Mirrors, recently restored to its full glory, and the apartments of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette — her explosively floral bedroom contains the door to the concealed corridor through which the beleaguered Queen escaped from the mob in 1789. The grounds descend in a stately series of formal gardens to a cross-shaped canal, beyond which lie the Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon and an idealized farming hamlet created by the royals. Look out for the giant sequoia trees — of an age and girth rarely seen outside California — and the corpulent carp jostling for food beneath the footbridge.

To get to Versailles, take an RER line C5 train to Versailles-Rive Gauche station (about 40 mins.). The round trip costs €5.60; for €21 you can buy train fare plus a Château entrance ticket from the RER station. Entry to the Château costs €20 on weekdays and €25 on weekends and public holidays, in high season (July 4 to October 31). In low season, entry is €16; in winter, the Château has limited access and is closed Monday and holidays. Check for closures (as well as fireworks and fountain shows) before you go. Most visitors make Versailles a day trip, but an overnight stay offers a much more leisurely excursion. Either way, be ready for tourist hordes, especially on weekends, and wear walking shoes — doing justice to the improbably vast estate can be tiring. There are several eateries on premises, but you can self-cater a picnic at the market at Place du Marché Notre-Dame nearby; the market is open Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.


The product of a more individual obsession than the royal folly of Versailles — but no less recognizable — is Claude Monet's House and Gardens in Giverny. Monet toiled for more than a decade to create the gardens he wanted to paint, crafted after those portrayed in the Japanese prints he prized. The resulting scenery was the subject of so many of the artist's great late paintings that few who visit will fail to recognize the vivid water lilies and trailing willows.

After the artist's death in 1926, the property was unused and, after World War II, it was left ravaged by bombings and neglect — three trees were found growing in Monet's studio. After 10 years of restorations, which included completely rehabilitating the house, re-digging the original pond, rebuilding the Japanese bridge and replanting original species of flowers, the gardens were opened to the public in 1980. Today, the house and gardens are open daily from April 1 to November 1. Beautiful in every season, the gardens' colors take on a distinct intensity in the fall.

Take a Rouen-bound train from Paris's Saint-Lazare station (another subject of Monet's) and alight at Vernon — the fastest train takes less than 45 mins. From there, take the Giverny shuttle bus that runs from spring through autumn (a round trip is about $6). Otherwise, it's a fairly flat 5 km walk or cycle along a wide path that traces an old railroad — bicycles can be rented from Cyclo News. If you go on a Saturday, get to Vernon before 1 pm to pick up the makings of a picnic at the market. The Monet gardens do not permit picnicking, unfortunately, but there are other good spots nearby.

Mont Saint Michel and Cancale

For an overnight foray from Paris, strike eastward to the sea. A four-hour drive delivers you to the Norman coast, and the sight of one of medieval Europe's most exquisite jewels, the UNESCO World Heritage site Mont Saint Michel. The Gothic-style Benedictine abbey is perched on a rocky outcrop that rises from shining tidal flats on a vast bay between the Cotentin peninsula and Brittany, appearing, as Victor Hugo wrote, "a sublime thing, a marvelous pyramid."

Within the structure's fortifications, medieval structures line a steep ascent to the Mont. St. Aubert, the Bishop of Avranches, built the Mont's first church in 709, reputedly at St. Michael's suggestion (the archangel having burned a hole in the Bishop's skull with his finger for initially ignoring the instruction). The Mont had a star part in the next millennium: a magnet for pilgrims, backer of William of Normandy's claim to the English throne (it appears in the majestic Bayeux Tapestry which commemorates the conquest), unvanquished bastion in the Hundred Years' War; and, in the Revolution, a prison for the republican regime's clerical and political opponents.

The 400-km drive from Paris is mostly on motorways, so take plenty of cash for tolls, which are frequent and steep. The Mont's crowds are as prodigious as its beauty (three million people visit each year), but thin in the late afternoon. A leisurely start from Paris will have you reach the abbey in time to see the afternoon light stream through its stained glass windows, and the sunset from its high terraces. You needn't worry about tides — a causeway connects the Mont's islet to the mainland (the causeway is due soon to be replaced with a light bridge). Leave the squeeze of hotels on the Mont and find one in nearby Brittany — like the captivating Chateau de La Ballue at Bazouges-la-Pérouse.

Devote the next day to Brittany (or Breizh in Breton). Fiercely Celtic, the peninsula is a place of pirate coves and salt-bitten seafarers — with their striped sweaters, the very image of sailors. It's also the home of the crêpe, a good many apple orchards and a glut of seafood. For the ultimate lunch, head to the village of Cancale. World famous for its oysters — some deem it Europe's oyster capital — it has some 7 sq km of oyster beds, fed by tidal flows. Pacific oysters (or Creuses) predominate — a translucent, briny variety that tastes like a sliver of ocean. Procure a bottle of wine and fresh baguette, pass the strip of restaurants and continue along rue de Parcs to the main jetty, where you can buy a dozen local beauties — shucked on the spot by a practiced Cancalaise hand, and served on a platter with cut lemon — for a paltry €5. Dine there on the shore, tossing the shells to your feet and gazing across to the Mont's faint shape.