A few must-visit destinations near the City of Light.
Sometimes it can be unimaginable to leave a city as lovely as Paris, but when the winter chills hit, a short escape can be the perfect chance to recharge. These spots make for an ideal weekend trip: just a few hours from the city, they’re full of charm, great places to stay, and plenty of diversions to make you feel you’ve gone much farther away.
This prim, beautiful little town is reachable by either commuter or proper train, though it’s best to go by car, where you pass through the spooky-but-peaceful Chantilly Forest. In that thicket of green, 20 minutes before you arrive at town center, you stumble on the somber 11th century Cistercian Royaumont Abbey (it’s closed for renovations until this summer, but worth a pass-by to see the exterior all the same).
Chantilly is famed as the birthplace of crème de Chantilly, or whipped cream, but the chateau at the heart of the village is a veritable wedding cake, perched magnificently on the edge of a fussy pond flanked by vast, manicured gardens. Its connection to equestrianism began in the early 18th century, when the then-Duc d’Orleans, Louis Henri, built its Great Stables, still the largest in Europe, believing he would be reincarnated as a horse. The Musée de Condé, inside the castle proper, has a massive collection of pre-modern oil paintings, all displayed in the crowded, colorful 19th century style, according to the dictates of the Chateau’s last owner, before he handed it over to France.
Next door to the big house is the Auberge de Jeu de Paume, a sumptuous hotel. If the digs themselves are a little conservative in their taste, Chef Arnaud Fayé’s work at the in-house fine dining restaurant, La Table du Connétable, is anything but (think beets with bergamot, polenta gnocchi and horseradish; roasted turbot with caramelized curried cauliflower; veal sweetbreads with gingerbread and tangy carrots).
Just 45 minutes due south of Paris on a local commuter rail line (or an hour and a half by car) is another dauntingly impressive country castle, the Chateau de Fontainebleau, this one inhabited at one time or other by every royal dynasty in France. (Make sure to stop into Napoleon III’s wife Eugenie’s Orientalist quarters, now a museum-within-the-museum filled with the Empress’s mostly plundered goods from the Far East.)
Most major chateaux abut a beautiful forest; this one is huddled next to the somewhat weird Fontainebleau Forest, where, strung all throughout the conifers, there are lunar landscape-looking outcroppings of small boulders. It’s candy for aspiring rock climbers.
What good is an active winter afternoon à la campagne without a steaming, odiferous fondue to close it out? Right in the middle of the forest is the kitschy, fantastic Savoyard restaurant Le Croix d’Augas, which comes complete with checkered tablecloths, taxidermy barn animals, and many kinds of boozy melted cheese.
With its proximity to Paris, affordable real estate and buckets of charm, the Fontainebleau area is starting to get bought up by commuting Parisians. The tidy little boutique hotel La Demeure du Parc is built to handle the overflow, with of-the-moment, Scandi-style pale tones and exposed wood décor in the guestrooms, and a bistronomic in-house restaurant.
Alexandra Marshall is a contributing editor and the Paris correspondent at Travel + Leisure. Food, design, architecture and fashion are her specialties, which means, living in Paris, that she is very busy. Follow her on Twitter and on Instagram.