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On a hill overlooking a bend of the Seine to the west of Paris, the vast Parc Saint Cloud, which once surrounded a royal château, is nowadays mainly frequented by locals. This short walk through the eastern part of the park, just 10 km from Notre-Dame de Paris at the end of the line 9 métro, has always offered a real sense of dépaysement on the doorstep of Paris.
You are transported from the stately, 17th-century French formality of the Grande Cascade waterfall with its panoramic views of Paris to the romantic hilltop Jardin de Trocadéro designed à l’anglaise in the early 19th century as a secluded retreat for the children of the royal family.
In post-COVID times you can also visit two interesting and very different museums at opposite ends of the park, which you will pass en route. The walk continues through the quiet little streets of the old hillside town of Saint Cloud with its church containing the relics of the sixth-century saint who gave the town and the park his name. From there you descend by a series of steps to a range of transport options, including the 72 bus which follows the right bank of the Seine in Paris from the Pont Mirabeau to the Ile St Louis, giving you an armchair view of some of the city’s most iconic sights.
3½ km walk from Pont de Sèvres to Saint Cloud
Take métro line 9 to its terminus at Pont de Sèvres and leave by ‘sortie no. 1’ which will bring you out into the bus station. Keep walking straight ahead towards a pedestrian crossing on the right which will take you onto the right-hand side of the Pont de Sèvres.
You can see an egg-shaped glass-covered dome to your left on the Ile Séguin, a useful landmark. It is the auditorium of La Seine Musicale, a music and performing arts center which opened in 2017. The 19th-century building ahead on the other side of the river, surmounted by a clock, is the Musée de Sèvres, Cité de la Céramique, on the edge of the Parc Saint Cloud.
Take the steps down from the bridge, marked ‘Musée de Sèvres’. Turn right along the main road and follow the signs for the Musée de Sèvres across the pedestrian crossing.
The museum tells the story of the art of pottery, with examples drawn from every period and every country, but with pride of place given to the porcelain which has been manufactured in Sèvres since 1759. It is never crowded and worth a look even if you know nothing about ceramics. The more you discover, and you will discover a lot here, the more interesting it becomes.
The museum is currently closed, so turn right past the entrance and continue to a gate which leads into the Parc Saint Cloud, on a path parallel to the Seine but mercifully not too close to the busy road beside it. I have never forgotten the sense of release I felt when I first visited this museum on an impulsive escape from Paris and discovered the entrance to the unsuspected 490-hectare park next door.
The hillside setting with its sweeping views of the Seine is visually more dramatic than Versailles, but without the crowds. Without the château either of course, although since 2012 an association has been lobbying for its reconstruction.
In the 16th century a château stood halfway up the hill with gardens sloping down to the Seine. The setting was so attractive that in 1658 Louis XIV bought the château and its 12 hectares of parkland for his younger brother, the 18 year old Philippe d’Orléans. By the time ‘Monsieur’ died in 1701 the original château had been absorbed into the fabric of a much grander building and the park, redesigned by Le Nôtre, had expanded to a whopping 590 hectares. The finishing touches to the Grande Cascade staircase waterfall were added by Jules Hardouin-Mansart in 1690.
The château was a favourite country retreat with its successive royal and imperial owners, including Marie Antoinette, Napoleon I and Napoleon III. It was the setting for Napoleon’s coup d’état in 1799 and for that of his nephew in 1852. It was from Saint Cloud that Napoleon III made his ill-fated declaration of war on Prussia in 1870. Two months later the château had become the headquarters of the Prussian army besieging Paris and was bombarded by the French from the nearby fort of Mont-Valérien.
One of their shells fell into the Emperor’s apartments and started a fire which burned for two days. It seems that the Prussians were not displeased by this turn of events and did nothing to put it out. Twenty years later the burnt-out ruins, a sad reminder of defeat, were finally dismantled by the French state, which continues to be the owner of the park.
Walk straight on for about a kilometer, past a pompous group of statues (‘France crowning Art and Industry’, 1900) until you come to the 90-meter long Grande Cascade, the most visually dramatic ensemble in the park.
All the fountains and jets in the park are turned on annually every Sunday in June for 25 minutes, at 3, 4 and 5 pm and can be seen here. Free concerts are sometimes held in the park at these times if the weather is fine.
Take the left-hand path to the top and turn left, then right past a square of water, the Bassin du Grand Jet, overlooked by an elegant group of statues (lead photo). Turn right up steps to follow a path which will bring you to the back of the statues overlooking the Grande Cascade, with a plunging view of the Seine and some well-known Paris landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower and the Sacré-Coeur.
You cannot continue much further along this path behind the statues as it has been barred, so retrace your route slightly to go down steps on the right and turn right uphill, past the semi-circular Bassin du Fer à Cheval, which contains some enormous carp, and the rectangular Bassin des Carpes on your right which does not, as far as I could see. Continue past the Bassin des Carpes and then follow the path to the left to join the Avenue de la Grille d’Honneur, with the little Musée Historique on your right.
This building and the larger one opposite, originally servants’ and guards’ quarters, are the only structures belonging to the château to have survived the fire. The under-visited little five-room museum (free admission) displays the history of the château, and contains a helpful scale model of the original structure.
To the right of the museum entrance there is a discreet door leading to a public wc and two vending machines selling coffee, soft drinks and snacks. It was deserted on my recent visit. There is an elegant café called L’Orangerie not far away near La Petite Gerbe which now sells takeaway coffee, beer and crêpes, but with a long queue outside.
Turn left from the museum entrance. The clipped triangular yew trees in front of you mark the outline of the vanished château. Above them, to the right, is a series of steps which lead up to the Jardin de Trocadéro, the high point of the park and of the walk, with spectacular views of Paris en route.
The plateau at the top of the hill was landscaped around a central lake and a stream in 1823 to create a private garden in which the royal children could study and play, with interior views rather than the formal panoramic views in the rest of the park. It contains rare scented flowering trees from Lebanon and China, chosen to give a continuous display of color throughout the year.
It has been open to the public since 1872, but on weekdays remains a delightfully secluded hilltop retreat, with more birds than people. On my recent visit on a sunny Sunday, the park’s busiest day, it was full of people picnicking on the grass but the atmosphere was quiet and peaceful and there was plenty of room for everyone. The grass is dotted with wildflowers.
Go round the lake clockwise to leave the Jardin by the northern corner. Keeping the river on your right and the distinctive church spire of Saint Cloud in front of you, follow a winding path downhill which will take you past a children’s playground on the right to the exit at the Grille des Ecoles.
Continue along the path, now called the Allée des Lilas, which becomes the Rue des Ecoles, and passes some exotic-looking, 19th-century villas.
Continue across the Place de Silly, and turn right downhill along the Rue Dr Desfossez. This older part of town still feels like a village, with steep narrow streets clustered around the church. Turn left down steps to go into the side entrance of the 19th-century church, built on the site of a much earlier one. Its spire appears to have been copied from an earlier version, as it is recognizable in the 1675 painting. I have always found it open.
On the left at the back there is a chapel to Saint Clodoald, the grandson of the first French king, Clovis. An elaborate memorial plaque recounts the story of how he escaped the fate of his royal brothers, murdered by their uncles, and grew up to become a priest, renouncing the throne and the world by symbolically cutting off his long hair. He founded a monastery here, which became a place of pilgrimage after his death in 560 and has given the town its name.
His relics are preserved in a casket under the altar of his chapel. The plaque on the left commemorates the visit of the Bishop of Saint Cloud on the Mississippi to this church in 1922.
Leave the church by the main door next to Saint Clodoald’s chapel. To your right is the Rue de l’Eglise which has a baker selling takeaway coffee. There is an old-fashioned café next door, a good place to stop for a drink in non-Covid times.
Directly in front of you in Place de l’Eglise is a bust of the composer Charles Gounod (1818-1893), a resident of Saint Cloud, with steps leading down through a little park to the tram and bus stops.
Follow the steps down through the Square Gounod and leave by the exit on the right. Turn right down the busy Rue Dailly and cross it at the pedestrian crossing. Look left to find steps leading down through the Rue Audé to the T2 tram stop for Parc de Saint Cloud. Trams from here go to La Défense.
For the 52 and 72 buses to Paris, continue over the footbridge across the tram line and downhill. The terminus for the line 10 métro, Boulogne Pont de St-Cloud, is only 500 meters away across the Pont Saint Cloud, but the walk is so horrible, surrounded by snarling traffic, that I strongly recommend taking either bus there, whichever leaves soonest. Get off two stops later for the métro station, also known as Rhin et Danube.
The 72 bus ride to Paris is by far the most enjoyable route back, taking about 55 minutes to Châtelet. Sit on the right-hand side for close-up views of the Eiffel Tower, Invalides, the Assemblée Nationale, the Musée d’Orsay, the Conciergerie and Notre Dame.
Métro line 9 to Pont de Sèvres or line 10 to Boulogne Pont de St Cloud, 40 minutes from central Paris. Buses 52 or 72 from Parc St Cloud to central Paris, around 55 minutes. T2 tram from Parc St Cloud to La Défense, 13 minutes. Details
Free app using GPS to track your route on IGN maps, IGN Rando
Lead photo credit : Statues overlooking the Bassin du Grand Jet, Parc Saint Cloud. @ Annabel Simms