The initial coronavirus lockdown measures in France (March 2020) were some of the strictest in the world, requiring signed paperwork to step outside for specific, critical reasons (a doctor’s appointment, buying groceries), restricted to once a day within one kilometer of your domicile. A two-month quarantine is not easy anywhere, particularly in the tight confines of an urban apartment. Needless to say, as soon as the lockdown was lifted, a flood of Parisians sought a dose of nature and fresh air in the countryside. With the beginning of the déconfinement in May 2020, restrictions were eased, so that residents could then venture a distance of 100 kilometers from their homes. A positive benefit of this difficult period of quarantine was the discovery of cultural sites, awe-inspiring scenery, and natural beauty in the surrounding Paris region. Here are five of our favorite walks within roughly an hour’s drive of the French capital.
Fontainebleau needs no introduction. Once a royal hunting ground, the forest of Fontainebleau has inspired generations of artists, urbanites, and rock climbers (this is one of the world’s bouldering hot spots). An advantage of hiking in Fontainebleau is easy train access from Paris Gare de Lyon. The forest is threaded with miles of trails, but the Promenade des Gorges d’Apremont is a favorite because of the fantastic rocks strewn throughout the fern-filled forest, and the vistas from elevated buttes, stretching out in a sea of trees. Nearby, the artist village of Barbizon is worth a stop after your hike. If you have a car, head to the Pachamama micro brewery in the village of La Genevraye and cool off with a Font & Bleau amber beer. Then, before returning to Paris, stop by Nemours to see the beautifully preserved medieval chateau on the banks of the Loing.
Vexin Regional Park
To the northwest of Paris, not far from Claude Monet’s garden in Giverny, the village of La Roche-Guyon is classified as one of the “plus beaux villages de France.” Its hilltop chateau overlooks the dramatic loops of the River Seine, next to the Vexin regional park. Take a stroll through the Arboretum, then picnic on the cliffs above the Seine, admiring the kayakers plying the currents below. In this area, the rock formations along the river are fantastical, and there’s a long history of troglodyte dwellings in the cliffs.
Situated in the Oise department in the Hauts-de-France region, Compiègne is historically linked to the World Wars, since the Armistice concluding the First World War was signed in a railway carriage in the forest in 1918. In an act of vengeance to humiliate defeated France in 1940, Adolf Hitler ordered that the French surrender be officialized with an Armistice in the very same location. Today there is a museum at the Armistice Clearing. The forest itself has a long history as a royal playground; a favorite hunting ground for the monarchs later became a retreat for Empress Eugénie who loved taking walks amidst the giant beech and oak trees. In fact, Emperor Napoleon III erected a whopping 310 white sign posts in glades throughout the forests so that she would never get lost on her adventures. To find her way to the Palais, she’d just need to locate the red line on the post, turn her back to it, and proceed straight ahead.
Haute Vallée de Chevreuse
South of Paris, this regional park— also encompassing the Rambouillet forest— offers a wealth of hiking trails, some passing by historic hamlets covered in roses, like La Celle-les-Bordes. One of the best walks is the Sentier des 4 dragons in the Fôret de Rochefort. Starting from the village of Rochefort-en-Yvelines (the parking is specifically located on the route de Clairefontaine), the path is ideal for families with kids because of the interactive discovery trail with sign posts related to the dragon legend. The scenery is beautiful– in late spring brimming with ferns, lily of the valley and sandy buttes covered in heather.
Situated between Senlis and Pont-Sainte-Maxence in the Oise department, this forest is an unsung treasure, a tract of old-growth forest with soaring oak and beech trees. There’s an air of magic and mystery here as you explore the paths through a cathedral of trees, to the summit of Mont Pagnotte (222 meters). Indeed, the Fôret d’Halatte was a sacred place for ancient Celts and Gauls who once built an oppidum at this elevated point. Menhirs can still be found in the vicinity.
Lead photo credit : The village of La Celle-les-Bordes in Haute Vallée de Chevreuse