5 Nature Retreats to escape Paris
As we are halfway through spring, we can now spend some time outside again. If Paris is an endless source of wonder, great for long walks in the sun, you may also find natural sites quite close to the French capital. These will give you a breath of fresh air, all the while being fairly accessible from the city.
Here are five options you might want to consider to spend a quick escape to the countryside.
1. Head West to inland Normandy
To Parisians, Normandy is the ultimate countryside escape. If you drive the A13 highway on a Friday night, you may find yourself in quite a surreal traffic jam of thousands fleeing the city to the beaches and fields of Normandy.
You, yourself, may have considered heading to the English Channel coast to see the infamous sites of the Normandy landing where the Allies invaded occupied France during World War II – which you should absolutely do- or to admire the beautiful Mont-Saint-Michel Bay. You may also follow our article on the Most Beautiful Beaches in Normandy to complete your stay !
However, have you considered that Normandy could also be a wonderful option for a countryside retreat? Normandy is quite a large region that spans all the way from the coastline to the Paris metropolitan area.
If the coast is what Normandy is renowned for, the countryside along the Seine, between Paris and Rouen is nice and peaceful. Many historic sites can be seen or even visited, such as medieval Château Gaillard, and Renaissance Anet Castle.
On your way there, don’t forget to stop at Giverny, a small town where Claude Monet had his house and gardens – which later inspired many of his artworks including the famous Nympheas. The Monet’s House can be visited and the gardens are certainly at their best from May to September.
Further South (which may require a longer travel time), you may spend a great bucolic weekend in one of the two main Natural Regional Parks of Normandy: the Perche Natural Regional Park and the Normandie-Maine Natural Regional Park. The landscapes there are quite scenic and the mix of rivers, woods and villages will really give you the wonderful impression that time has stopped. If you are in Paris for your honeymoon or to spend some time with your significant other, this part of France may have you experience the pinnacle of your stay, by placing you in an absolute tranquility parenthesis.
2. Head North to Picardy
Roughly 40 kilometers (25 miles) North of Paris begins a land of forests, marshlands and fields. Forming part of the Hauts-de-France Region, this area, known as Picardy, is a great place for a week-end escape. The Oise department is one of your best options to spend a cheap weekend, in the countryside, near Paris.
Surrounding the imperial Palace of Compiegne – the town of which is quite nice and elegant – the Compiegne Forest is vast and wild, and a great option for easy hikes, and biking. Lost in the middle of this forest is the fairytale-like castle of Pierrefonds, the vision of which seems taken out of a Disney movie.
Closer to Paris, the beautiful domain of Chantilly with its castle – well worth the visit as it is the second largest collection of paintings in France after the Louvre’s –its imperial stables, its gardens by Le Nôtre, and its race field, is a jewel absolutely not to miss. It is also the birthplace of Crème Chantilly (whipped cream), which you should, of course, try.
For a family outing, the Oise department is also home to two theme parks. Families with young kids should head to La Mer de Sable near Ermenonville. This theme park, the oldest one in France, is located in a surprising land of sand and dunes – the remains of a prehistoric sea. More courageous kids and adults will prefer the nearby Parc Astérix, themed after the iconic Gaul comic character. Asterix’s rides are much more thrilling and are the guarantee to spend a fun family week-end.
History enthusiasts also will not miss the medieval town of Senlis, and the Chaalis abbey.
3. Head East to the Marne Valley
Spanning endlessly to the east, Paris suburbs lie on the banks of a Seine’s affluent, the Marne River. If the area is known to be the home of iconic Disneyland Paris, it is also a wonderful option for a nature retreat.
South of the A4 highway, the Brie region, known for its many cheeses, is a peaceful land of hilly fields and forests. The medieval town of Provins is worth a quick visit, its fortifications and paved streets being quite well preserved.
Further South, the amazing Fontainebleau castle is the gateway to a large forest where hiking, biking and climbing are common activities. Nearby, the Vaux-le-Vicomte castle is also much worth the detour. In summer, most Saturdays, the castle also opens at night and is candle-lit, which gives it a fairytale and historic look.
If you have more time, don’t hesitate to push further East, as then begins Champagne, the famous region that is home to the world renowned bubbly wine. You may visit many vineyards there, and taste some of the best real champagne wines*. If you don’t have such time, worry not, as this article will show you where you can drink Champagne in Paris!
4. Head South to the Loire Valley
When I ask visitors what they want to see in France after they visit Paris, nine times out of ten the answer is “The Loire Valley castles”.
Indeed, the Loire Valley is a great getaway when you are in Paris. The drive to the nearest castles is less than two-hour long, the landscapes are incredibly scenic, the castles are unrivaled and the wine is good*. What else would you need?
So indeed, if you want a great weekend nature retreat, the Loire valley may be a great option. Of course, the whole valley is huge, as the Loire is the longest river in France. The majestic river has its source in Ardèche, 50 kilometers South of Lyon, and runs all the way to the Atlantic Coast.
For a weekend retreat from Paris, you should focus on a much smaller portion, located between Blois and Nantes, where most major castles are located. And even then, the whole tour of sites would take you several weeks. For a weekend, you’ll need to be very selective. On average, you may expect to visit two or three castles in two days.
Among the most famous Loire castles are those of Amboise on its cliff, Azay-le-Rideau by its pool, Chenonceau and its elegant bridge-shape across the River Cher, Blois in its city center, Cheverny which inspired Tintin’s Moulinsart Castle, Villandry and its gardens, the grandiose and fairytale-like Ussé castle, Saumur on its hilltop, and of course the most majestic of all, Chambord and its hundreds of chimneys.
Of course, you’ll have to pick among these! Don’t miss our article on how to get to the Loire Valley to learn more.
If you have some time left, bear in mind that the Loire Valley is also a great region for winetasting*. Among the most renowned ones are the wines of Anjou, Saumur, Touraine, Chinon and Pouilly.
At last, I recommend you visit the Clos-Lucé, a manor in Amboise, which was home to genious Leonardo Da Vinci. The manor is now a museum where you can see the works of Da Vinci, and even see models of his inventions. 2019 marks the 500 years of Da Vinci’s death and multiple celebrations take place all across France, and of course more especially at Clos-Lucé.
5. Head South-West to the Chevreuse Valley
Closer to Paris is the Chevreuse Valley. More especially, you may spend the weekend in the Haute Vallée de Chevreuse Regional Park. Mostly composed of plains or small plateaus, the land is partly covered by the Rambouillet Forest and is a great getaway for having a natural break as well as discovering castles and nice villages.
The Valley is located South of Versailles, so you may totally couple your stay there with a detour by Louis XIV’s architectural masterpiece. Bear in mind, however, that a proper visit at Versailles Palace takes at least half a day, if not a full day. If you’d rather go to Chevreuse without overloading your weekend with a tour of Versailles, you may book your visit at Versailles separately, and benefit from a guided tour with us, by clicking here.
If you really wish to spend some time in nature, it is possible to walk all the way from Paris to the Vallée de Chevreuse Regional Park. The walk is long (roughly 11 hours), so you will probably want to sleep halfway through, if you wish to enjoy the landscape! If you want to try this nice hike, you need to start West of Paris in the Saint-Cloud Park. From there, a very hilly path takes you to Versailles, and from Versailles, you may hit the road to the Regional Park and the Chevreuse Valley.
Don’t worry if you don’t like to hike, the Vallée de Chevreuse Regional Park is also very accessible from the road and by train.
An additional note
I hope you liked these five ideas for a weekend retreat away from the Paris city frenzy. I just named a few and there are many more options of course. The best way to discover the French countryside is to hit the road and lose yourself. You will always end up in nice small towns, in beautiful country areas, or near a site of interest.
If, however, you would prefer easier options, less driving and yet, benefit from the refreshing air of natural spaces, you may find some nice green areas much closer to the French capital.
I already mentioned most of them in my article on Where to See Wildlife around Paris, which you may find here. Among them were most notably the two main parks within the Paris city limits: the Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes. These won’t replace the natural scenery options I suggested above, but if you have a limited amount of time, or no means of transportation, the two Parks are already good solutions. Just be careful and avoid them after sundown.
I also just listed options near Paris, which are easily accessible. However, as the French railroad system opens to competition, cheaper tickets allow you to travel much further for not so much money. If you want to experience another climate for the duration of a weekend, consider Ouigo tickets, which can take you in high-speed trains for roughly 30 € and three hours to the Mediterranean coast or to the Bordeaux area. If you consider these options, you open yourself to whole new getaways!
At last, you may always consider staying in Paris as there is nothing comparable to a summer in Paris. Take the time to wander the winding streets in the sun, have a drink on the riverbanks, eat your diner at a Brasserie’s terrace, chill in a small park, and find out that you can also relax in this large city. If you dislike the crowds, try enjoying Paris before ten o’clock in the mornings, I promise you will see a peaceful city!
And of course, never forget that we, at DiscoverWalks, offer many guided tours of Paris, so you can see the French capital from another point of view, and fully enjoy your sunny weekend!
*please drink responsibly