In the Upper Chevreuse Valley, when the sun comes out, the tops come down. Of the convertibles, I mean. That’s how you know spring is finally here. Under the dappled sunshine of the newly verdant trees, open-topped red cabriolets, sleek motorbikes and packs of colourful cyclists compete for space on the twisting, turning roads. There are castles and châteaux. Crumbling medieval abbeys and watermills. And a lovely, meandering stroll along the petits ponts of the Yvette river.
It’s a short drive from Paris, only an hour or so to the southeast. Paris is exquisite, but here, the slow-moving river bordered by undulating green hills, dotted with stone houses and church steeples is a fairytale setting. Officially known as the Parc Naturel régional Haute Vallée de Chevreuse, the area encompasses more than 25,000 hectares And there’s a lot to see.
This charming petite cité médiévale, which gives its name to the valley, is home to one of the most recognisable sites in the area – the Château de la Madeleine. The castle fortress casts a protective eye on the village below from its hilltop perch, as it has done for over 1000 years. It was named for the Saint Marie-Madeleine Chapel, built in the 13th century, but unfortunately destroyed prior to the French Revolution.
Chevreuse was considered a prime position. It marked the boundary between the duchy of Normandy and France. Its prosperous tanning industry made it a wealthy town. The castle was constructed in the 11th century to keep the inhabitants safe from pillagers, and later fortified during centuries of war. Only the original stone keep remains. It is free to visit, and the main tourist office of the region, the Maison du Parc, can be found inside the castle grounds.
It’s a steep drive, cycle or climb to the top, up the sharp Chemin Jean Racine. It was named for the 16th century poet who lived in one of the castle’s towers for a while. But there’s a pleasantly shady footpath for your walk back down to the town. After visiting the small centre ville, call in to The Alchemist. At thisformer herbalist shop and now acclaimed sirop (syrup) bar and boutique, they create the most sublime concoctions. Sit outside on the terrace. Soak up the view to the Château de la Madeleine above and sip a revitalising mix of Verveine Gingembre or a sweet and refreshing Fraise à la menthe. Don’t leave without popping inside to choose from the gorgeous selection of artisanal syrups to take with you.
A little Venice in the countryside
Through the village of Chevreuse runs a tiny offshoot of the Yvette river, gently traversing timeworn cottages, ancient wash-houses, and a medieval tannery. There are 22 petits ponts, or little bridges, that span the river, crossing various pathways. A popular walk for locals and visitors, this promenade is hidden behind high fences sandwiched between the backs (or fronts) of perennial houses and a public car park. One of the best times of the year to visit is during the spring. Then blossoms and jonquils perform their brief but beautiful annual display. Or summer, when the hydrangeas cascade over the tiny bridges. It’s not unusual to see amateur painters with their easels and half-finished canvases on the path.
The walk is not long, less than a kilometre and perfect for a Sunday stroll. When you cross the canal there is also a chance to explore the tannery building. It made Chevreuse its fortune for many centuries, and now is used as an exhibition hall. Close to the pretty stone bridge in the centre of the chemin you’ll find a wooden lavoir, or public wash house, long since abandoned.
Abbaye des Vaux de Cernay
the Abbaye des Vaux Cernay was beautifully restored by the outrageously wealthy Rothschild family in the late 19th century. The buildings and extensive grounds are the perfect setting for a peaceful wander on a sunny spring afternoon. Read more about the abbey
Château de Breteuil
The graceful Château de Breteuil has been in the hands of the same family for over 300 years. The grand house itself dates to the 18th century. One hundred years later it was host to a secret meeting between the French government and the future King Edward VII. But it’s the gardens of this lovely locale, classified jardins remarquable, which make it an unmissable stop on your tour of the Haute Vallée de Chevreuse. Read more about the Chateau de Breteuil
If you love to get out and about in nature, there are hundreds of walking trails criss-crossing the Haute Vallée de Chevreuse. They range from a few kilometres to an all-day hike. The valley includes part of the ancient forest of Rambouillet. In this former hunting ground of French kings, you can still see wild sangliers and graceful deer through the whispering trees. Close to the Abbaye des Vaux de Cernay is a large network of paths. Many of them converge on the sparkling green Étang des Cernay, from where the monks replenished their water supply. A little further on, you can view the cascades which powered the Petit Moulin de Cernay. The sandstone under your feet is lucky to be there. In the beginning of the 19th century, much of it was excavated and sent by train to Paris to become its cobblestoned streets.
Eat local produce
You won’t even need to pack your picnic lunch on your day in the valley. Whether you’re in the car, on foot or on your bike, stop in one of the tiny village boulangeries for a warm and fresh baguette. And nip to La Ferme de Coubertin for a round (or two) of cheese. This locally recognised farm raises its own cows and goats and makes award winning cheeses of all varieties. Make sure you pick up some flavoured yoghurt for your dessert.
For something a little bit different, yet completely French, why not visit a snail farm? Snails are not just for the tourist restaurants in Paris. They are a popular dish in their own right all over France, especially at Christmas. The Ferme de Fanon, in Senlisse, emblematic of the Valley region, has been raising their own snails for almost 20 years. The thousands of snails here snack daily on fresh parsley, shallots and garlic for around 14 months, before they are sent off to restaurants or sold in the small boutique store on the farm. It is also possible to take a tour of the farm, before you head home with your chewy snails for dinner.
Other highlights of the Chevreuse Valley region:
Domaine de Dampierre
This magnificent château dominates the small village of Dampierre. The château itself has been under restoration for several years now. But it’s a beautiful walk around the estate with its magical pond and 17th century outbuildings.
Port Royal des Champs
Port Royal des Champs is the sister Abbey to Vaux-de-Cernay. Not a great deal which remains of this 13th century nunnery. Largely destroyed under Louis XIV because of religious conflict, later buildings were used as a school, or to keep the memory of the abbey alive. Located in Magny-les-Hameaux, the ruins are a tranquil place to spend an afternoon. Some of the buildings have been converted to a museum.
This restored château, former royal palace and now one of the official residences of the French President. It has seen the likes of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Napoléon Bonaparte and Josephine, plus Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron. In the sweeping grounds, which include an artificial lake populated with white swans and geese, is a marbled dairy built for Marie Antoinette. There is also an ethereal shell cottage designed for the Princess de Lamballe before she was tragically executed in the French Revolution. Close by is also the Bergerie Nationale. Sheep have been raised here for several hundred years and is a fantastic place for children.
Melissa Barndon lives in an old woodshed in the Yvelines department with her French husband and two children. She thinks there is no better place to be than France for its rich and turbulent past. Her blog MadameMellissane.com is about the delights of French history.
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