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Saint-Germain-en-Laye: Paris Day Trips

Next time you’re in Paris and want to avoid the typical tourist route, take a day trip to Saint-Germain-en-Laye. The town is only 20 kilometres west of Paris and 15 km from Versailles.

It couldn’t be easier to travel from the City, as it takes only 20 minutes on the RER A line from Paris direct to the terminus of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. As we live five minutes away from this Royal Burgh town, I’m finally proud to present it to start off my new series on interesting day trips out of Paris.

St Germain chateau and park

Saint-Germain-en-Laye

Not to be confused with the quarter of Saint Germain-des-Prés in Paris, the town of Saint-Germain-en-Laye is perched on the edge of a forest of 3500 hectares and today has a population of about 43,000. It’s home to the Paris Saint Germain football (soccer) team but before it was a Royal town, home to the Kings of France. Close to my Scottish roots, it was also where King James VII of Scotland (II of England) died in exile. His shrine to the Franco-Scottish Auld Alliance is in the church opposite the castle. The town even has its own tartan, such is the Auld Alliance with the Scots.
Update: I forgot to mention that the town is twinned with the Scottish town of Ayr!

Chateau and church of Saint Germain-en-Laye

This French Royal Burgh has been a market town since King François I, who decided as of 1526 that there should be two market days.  Today there are THREE legendary MARKET DAYS: on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday mornings (check out my Instagram feed, as you’ll see me regularly shop here!)

I joined Victoria’s weekly guided weekend walk, organised by the Tourist Office, tracing the influence of King François I on the town.  He stayed in Saint-Germain-en-Laye for over a thousand days – the longest for a monarch choosing between a wealthy choice of fairytale French castles. He left the town with its layout, a pentagon-shaped castle and a centre for trade.

Bread Street (Rue au Pain)

The tour (in French and English) meets up on Bread Street, at the Tourist Office which houses the Claude Debussy Museum upstairs, birthplace of the composer in 1826 (the museum is free of charge).

Rue au Pain, the town’s oldest Medieval street, supplied bread to the castle. Today it’s still home to a bakery, chocolate shop, Pâtisserie and fromagerie. As we’re taken along pedestrian-only cobbled streets, passing boutiques and mansion houses from the 17th and 18th centuries, we learn fascinating facts from taxes to the gradual increase in population. The King had put Saint-Germain-en-Laye on the map.

chateau saint Germain

Today the castle is home to the National Archeological Museum and is currently undergoing renovations. Certain parts now look so pristine, it could have been build last year!  The castle dates from Louis IX in 1235, with the oldest part of the castle that’s left, the Royal Chapel, inspired the Saint Chapelle in Paris. Look up and spot numerous reminders of François I’s (F) symbol and the invincible salamander; N for the Napoleon III empire; and R symbol of the third Republic.

The chimney-packed castle roof is open to the public for visits too, on demand, from May-September.  I wasn’t lucky this year but as soon as May appears, let’s go up together when the renovations are finished.

Birthplace of Louis XIV

Saint Germain-en-Laye Pavilon Henri IV

The Pavillion Henri IV Hotel houses the small red-brick pavilion where Louis XIV was born and baptised in 1638. It’s all that’s left of the new castle (Château Neuf) which was demolished in 1776 at the request of Louis XIV’s brother, the Count of Artois. Rather than restore the castle that had run into disrepair while Louis had moved to the new royal residence at Versailles, the Count told the King he much preferred the castle in Maisons-Laffitte. So the people of Saint-Germain-en-Laye re-cycled the “new” bricks for their mansion houses.

It wasn’t just the King that was born here; the hotel is also famous for inventing the Sauce Béarnaise and Pommes de Terre Soufflées (puffed potatoes) after it opened in 1836.

saint-germain-en-laye-park-perspectives

The Park

The Grand Terrace, designed by Louis XIV’s favourite gardener, André Le Nôtre, is over 2km long. He worked on this before Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles.

For lovers of architecture, there are plenty of explanatory signs in English to learn more about the history and designs of the gardens.

Saint-Germain-en-Laye Vineyards

Replanted in 1999, nearly 2000 Pinot Noir vines grow just under the Terrace to make the Vin des Grottes, although this isn’t commercialised. Instead it’s traditionally served at the harvest festival in September.

vines of Saint Germain-en-laye

Just look at this perspective, lined with lime blossom trees. Ready for a walk? Imagine in Louis XIV’s time this wasn’t paved or pathed, there was no grass and no railings with a drop of 13 metres. It was simply sanded so walkers may have felt slightly daunted…

Saint Germain-en-Laye Terrace

From the terrace, the cherry on the cake is this magnificent view of the west of Paris including La Defense: on clear days like this you can spot Sacré Coeur and the Eiffel Tower. Can you see them plus other Parisian landmarks?

view of Paris from Saint Germain-en-Laye

It’s a favourite spot for weekend walks, which leads eventually to the well-guided paths in the forest just outside the gates.

Forest of Saint-Germain-en-Laye

Let’s finish with a partial view of the park in Autumn (taken end of last October).

Add Saint-Germain-en-Laye to your bucket list next time you visit Paris. There’s so much to see just outside the City that’s within easy access. Just to whet your appetite, next up is a sweet tour of the town, including recipes, from gastronomic history to the wealth of award-winning chocolate and pastry boutiques.

saint-germain-en-laye park in autumn or fall

 

François I Tours: 3pm Saturdays (1.5 hrs) 9 April- 15 October
October-April: Various conferences, exhibitions & bigger group tours
For more information, tour reservations & visits, contact:
Tourist Office
Maison Claude Debussy
38 rue au Pain
78100 Saint-Germain-en-Laye

Tel: 01-34 51 05 12

Pink Rhubarb & Ginger Compote

Adding a touch of fruity tea to Parisian rhubarb to give that pretty pink blush.

Palets Bretons Recipe – French Butter Biscuits or Cookies

Slightly sweet & salty French butter biscuits – just irresistible!

A Loire Break in Chinon at the Hotel Diderot

Chinon is the perfect escape with only a 3-hour drive from Paris. It’s over 18 years since we were here last. Don’t ask me why but family life just got in the way. So when Jamie Schler and her husband, Jean-Pierre took over the Hôtel Diderot at the start of the year, it was the best excuse to return to the Loire Valley with Antoine for a few days.

We couldn’t resist, however, a slight detour en route down via the medieval town of Loches. I hadn’t heard of the place but Antoine was right to stop, as the royal town behind the hill’s fortifications is worth seeing.  You must check out the local speciality for a teatime treat: may I tempt you to some Breasts of Agnès?

Breasts of Agnes Cakes in Loches, Loire Valley

Angès Sorel as the first official mistress of the Kings of France. Her liaison with Charles VII was legendary and so her beauty was too, apparently.  Antoine and I bought a couple (of course) and as one of us devoured and another nibbled, this rather heavy cake revealed a shortcrust pastry encasing an amaretti tartlet with hints of candied citrus fruits. Oh-là-là! Not for the faint-hearted, as I did find them rather heavy. I’ll leave you to think of puns on that one, as I contain myself.

Hotel Diderot Chinon

I’ve followed Jamie through her inspiring writings on Life’s A Feast for the past 4 years, thanks to discovering her via the fun MacTweets blog, where macaron lovers would rise to Jamie and Deeba’s monthly insane challenges and post their artistic macaron Mac Attacks.

I miss it but Jamie is forever juggling many other projects on the go: such as Plated Stories, a talented creative duo with photographer Ilva Beretta including workshops, to to mention Jamie’s writing career with books (note the plural) on the near horizon.

4

How Jamie manages to do all of this and run a hotel with 26 rooms beats me. And she’s so relaxed and welcoming with all of her guests, stopping to chat outside under the shade of the banana tree. So what does she do in her spare time?

“I make jam”, she says. Proof for starters is layer upon layer of jam classics and intriguing combinations stacked to the brim in her confiture dresser in the dining room, ready to serve at breakfast.

Jamie Schler Hotel Diderot Chinon

I thought foolishly that I could try them all during our stay: fig, pear & grape; banana & mango; strawberry & rosemary; greengage; 3 plums; banana; raisin & rum; confiture pour les Soeurs Tournet (rhubarb and raspberry for a couple of regulars); orange marmalade with cocoa; warm kisses (strawberry, cherry & cinnamon).

The list goes on but who couldn’t also try the fresh local goat’s cheese with walnuts and honey and chives from the neighbour’s garden?

selection of homemade jams hotel diderot

With such a start to the day what is there to do around the medieval town of Chinon? The beauty of the Hôtel Diderot is it’s so central and within easy walking distance to the castle on the hill (there’s now even a lift!), museums, churches and restaurants (we particularly loved La Part des Anges in rue Rabelais).

On Thursday mornings, the market is just next door in the square of Joan of Arc. References to Jean d’Arc are all around the town, as is the Renaissance writer, doctor and humanist, François Rabelais, born in Chinon. In our room were a few fun quotations like

Half of the world doesn’t know how the other half live“.

Christ statue in Chinon Loire

A surprisingly familiar Art Deco statue was looking down on us from the hillside just above the hotel. Known as the Sacred Heart of Chinon, this 7.4m statue has been watching over the town since 1943 thanks to the local priest, Archpriest Vivien.

He intended that this statue provide divine protection during the war. Sculpted by Paule Richon, it was influenced by the Christ the Redeemer (Corcovado) statue in Rio. Coincidence on our return from our family holiday in Rio de Janeiro?

French medieval town of Chinon Loire France

Can you imagine living in the Royal Fortress dominating the Vienne River just before it joins the Loire, the longest river in France?

We headed to Candes-St-Martin, one of France’s “Most Beautiful Villages”. I’ve shared a few views of the town on social media, complete with a stunning panorama point where the sandy banks of both the Loire and the Indre rivers merge.

Geranium decorated house on the Loire

Cyclist tours are popular here – it’s largely flat and there are so many attractions to visit, including wineries. That’s another of our hobbies.  Just saying.  That would take another post!

This region around Chinon is the Touraine, also known as the Garden of France. Driving from Candes-St-Martin along the l’Indre river, I’d recommend a stop at the Château at Rigny-Ussé.

Le Notre Gardens at Chateau Usse Loire Valley

The gardens at Ussé were designed by Lenotre, just as with Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles.

Over the past 20 years the castle has been renovated and it’s quite an achievement. This castle is perfect for family outings, as the tower includes many rooms devoted to the Sleeping Beauty, as Charles Perault on coming here was inspired to write his famous classic. Like the Belle au Bois Dormant tower, there are life-size models all around the castle, which makes it all rather charming.

Chateau Usse Touraine Region

In the bigger castles like this one, the owners were obliged to prepare a room for their Roi, the King of France – even if they slept in them or not. Just for the record, the other nearby fairytale castle, Azay-le-Rideau (see my blog post on this), is currently being renovated but worth a visit to see how it’s being done.

Another must visit in the area around Chinon is Villandry Castle. More famous for their gardens we appreciated having a guide to take us around inside the castle. The parquet flooring also echoes the love garden theme below.  The higher you climb the stairs in the tower, the more you can appreciate the gardens’ grandeur and symmetry.

Gardens of Villandry Loire

Our guide told us the good news, “Now enjoy the stroll through the gardens and don’t forget that to pick the grapes and taste them if you think they’re perfectly ripe”.

Decadence indeed.

Stopping in Tours on Saturday morning, returning home to Paris, the market at Les Halles is legendary.  Especially the cheese counters, including a Meilleur Ouvrier de France‘s gigantic selection of the local goat cheeses. As I turned to leave, one last wink came from Agnès with these beautiful ashen-coated specimens, perfect with the local white wine of either Sauvignon blanc or Chenin.

Goats cheese French market

Cheers to you from Chinon, readers, and thanks again to our lovely hostess, Jamie at the Hôtel Diderot! Well done Jamie in finding such an idyllic setting. Antoine and I have found yet more excuses to return again very soon.

Thoumieux Pâtisserie Paris, Where “Everything’s Better”

If you have a copy straight off the press of Teatime in Paris! you’ll discover that there are not only pâtisseries and Parisian street names mentioned throughout the recipes but there’s also a sweet bonus in the book’s Annex. One of my favourite sweet streets is Rue Saint-Dominique, near the Eiffel Tower. Antoine and I lived just around the corner from here for 5 years in our quaint petit studio.

Street Sign Paris of Rue St Dominique

You may remember me talking on le blog about the Thoumieux Brasserie, where I was most impressed with oh-so-chic classic but fun twists on the brasserie-style food served by French celebrity chef, Jean-François Piège.  Well, truth be told, Antoine and I returned with friends and it was disappointing. Mais non! Not for the food but they seriously dimmed the lights at 8.30pm.

OK, in a romantic sense (or if your poor shady-looking partner has just finished a hard day at work, is unshaved and has serious eye baggage from jet-lag), but when your neighbours beg to borrow your night lights on the table so they can attempt to read the menu, that can be frustrating.  We could hardly even see the food. Since we’ve been I’ve heard they’ve put more light on the subject but when we were there and the crème de la crème signature “chou-chou” desserts arrived, I had to use my telephone torch. The ultimate punishment.

Thoumieux Patisserie in Rue St Dominique Paris

There was only one thing for it: to return to the City of Light’s Rue St Dominique and pop in to N°58, at Gâteaux Thoumieux Pâtisserie for a picnic teatime. There the light shone on the fraisiers, showing off fresh strawberries in season but my eyes were still fixed on these incredible bright green apple choux with speculoos (cinnamon biscuit) cream by pastry chef, Ludovic Chaussard: le chou-chou pomme spéculoos.

Parisian choux puffs from Thoumieux patisserie

I took a Pina Colada version, too – but my favourite is still the chou-chou pomme speculoos, with its apple compôte and bits of Granny Smith apples hidden inside and topped with a chocolate “apple stalk”.

For the sweet clue in the book’s annex, here it is near the Eiffel Tower: as the word “Thoumieux” implies with its play on words – everything’s better!

playing boules at the Esplanade des Invalides

Pastry box in hand, pick a bench and watch the world go by. Right in the middle of Rue St Dominique, the vast park at the Esplanade des Invalides is a great playground for boules and picnics.

Les Invalides, Springtime Paris

Now that Springtime is in full blast with its heady pollens and summer is around the corner, what better time is it to find an even quieter spot, away from the crowds?

park at les Invalides

I adore this little hidden gem of a park located at the top right corner of the Hôtel des Invalides/Army museum, right on the corner opposite the Varenne metro and the Rodin museum.

Paris map of Rue Saint Dominique

It’s a quiet spot that’s ideal to watch the leaves turning green, to listen to the birds singing, and to look at the Eiffel Tower in the distance as you’re tucking in to the best pastries from Rue Saint Dominique.

Thoumieux Patisserie Rue St Dominique

There are plenty more sweet temptations in Rue Saint Dominique which I’ll show you soon.  Meanwhile, let me show you a snippet from the book: choux with that famous crumble topping, called craquelin, about to puff up beautifully in the oven.  Here I added green colouring to the craquelin then, when they were baked, simply filled them with speculoos ice cream, another recipe from Teatime in Paris!

choux crumble craquelin topping green

Maple Granola – Homemade Breakfast Cereal

This maple granola has turned me into a cereal blogger (pun totally intended). Why not make this for Mother’s Day?

So, how do you often start the day?

I’m an easy camper, happy with a slice of multigrain toast; or a tartine of toasted baguette with a scraping of good Normandy butter; or sometimes my favourite homemade brioche and jam. If we have more time together as a family on Sundays, the ultimate treat are the flakiest, buttery croissants from the local boulangerie.

healthy oat fruit maple breakfast cereal

Breakfast cereal somehow dropped down the shopping list since I moved to France. Why? The answer is simply Paris; wouldn’t you also be tempted, surrounded by all those amazing bakeries with croissants, pain au chocolats and pain aux raisins, just for morning starters?

It’s confession time: each time I saw homemade granola on friends’ blogs, such as Kim of LivLife’s lovely cinnamon and coconut cereal, I should have picked up on it like a good cereal blogger.

homemade breakfast cereal maple granola

My final “Just-do-it” push came via an old thumbed Elle magazine at the orthodontist’s waiting room. One of the only recipes that wasn’t ripped out was for a maple granola, so I tried it. Boy was it overly sweet! Read ridiculously sweet.

Cutting out the Sugar

It took many experiments to come to this to suit our Antoine’s taste – not too many nuts, more oats please, oh I love the graines de courges (pepitas or roasted pumpkin seeds) for that crunch but not too crunchy. The magazine’s recipe has, as a result, changed beyond recognition and its original whopping 140g sugar has now been omitted entirely. You don’t need it; the dried fruits and the maple syrup are naturally sweet.  You could use the coconut oil but I honestly prefer it with the neutral oil.  So here is our favourite cereal, totally subjective, of course: adapt the quantities and ingredients to your own liking but try this first!

Warning: you’ll discover that this has to be made at least once a week. The good news is, by going to our local organic health food store (La Vie Claire), I’m cutting down costs on bigger packs of oats and seeds and they’re better quality too.  Ensure that your ingredients are organic. Your body will thank you.

 

Maple Granola – Homemade Breakfast Cereal

Preparation Time: 10 minutes
Cooking Time: 25 minutes

300g oats
100g pepitas (roasted pumpkin seeds)
75g walnuts, broken
25g linseeds

pinch salt (fleur de sel)
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
(optional)
2 tbsp vegetable oil (neutral tasting oil or coconut oil, melted if solid)
5 tbsp maple syrup
10g flaked/slivered almonds
100g dried cranberries, blueberries, or raisins

1. Preheat the oven to 170°C (150°C fan).

2. Measure* all the ingredients (except the almonds and dried fruits) in a large bowl and stir to mix them all well together.

3. Grease a large rimmed baking tray with more oil or use a baking tray covered with baking paper (or a Silpat) and spread out the oat mixture by shaking the tray gently from side to side.

4. Bake in the oven for about 15 minutes, turn over the mixture and sprinkle on the slivered almonds and bake for a further 10 minutes.

5. Leave to cool then add the dried fruits.

Serve with milk or yogurt and fresh berries. I love to sprinkle on a teaspoon of bee pollen, which is not only natural tasting of honey but it’s good for boosting the body’s immune and digestive system a couple of times a year.

* I use digital scales.  If you’re used to using ounces, then just switch over to grams. 

oat and maple healthy breakfast granola cereal

I just about forgot that it’s Mother’s Day in the UK this weekend.  As I have a French diary where Mother’s Day is highlighted for 25 May, I had it in my mind that the UK was at the end of the month!

That’s a great excuse to make macarons again. What favourite flavours do you think would be ideal for Mother’s Day?


 

Update!   

Brazil nut homemade granola recipe

After our visit to Brazil, I’ve replaced this maple granola dried fruit with pineapple and guava, replaced the walnuts with broken brazil nuts, and added a touch of ground cinnamon and cloves.  Try it!