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.
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 – and Saint-Germain-en-Laye is twinned with the Scottish town of Ayr.
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)
Update 2018: The tour (in French and English) meets up at the Tourist Office – now renovated and situated in the Jardins des Arts. Before its location was on the ground floor of the Claude Debussy Museum, 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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…
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?
It’s a favourite spot for weekend walks, which leads eventually to the well-guided paths in the forest just outside the gates.
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.
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:
Jardin des Arts
3 rue Henri IV
Tel: 01-30 87 20 63
(Updated 2018, following relocation)