Messing about on the river

So fresh and so green, green

So fresh and so green, green

‘No man is an island’ philosophised John Donne. Well I’m hardly the best candidate to verify his musings (what with my giveaway lady lumps), but I have learned recently, that if that man’s an artist, then he may or not be an island, but he certainly needs one for inspiration. The Île-de-France may lay claim to inspiring, housing and incubating some of the world’s greatest talent, but that’s just cheating – an area that includes Paris, its famous winding river and numerous sprawling suburbs can no doubt lay claim in some way or another to most things (yes, even Kim and Kanye have been here. Shudder).

Kim Chatou 2Zoom in to the city further and you hit the creative ‘islands’ of Montmartre and Montparnasse, the pavements of both practically sagging with the weight of history that surrounds them, not to mention the footfall of eager art tourists making sure they hit all the right spots. But for some of France’s great painters, it wasn’t the hedonism of Paris’ central districts that acted as muse, but some of the greener spots a few kilometres away from all of the gaiety. Monet’s legacy will forever be wedded to Giverny, but if it’s impressionism that gets you stroking your brush, then a trip out to Chatou and the Île des Impressionnistes is well overdue.

You thought the Seine fizzled out into a sorry little trickle the minute it crossed the périphérique? Oh no my dear, naive explorer; head out into the wider, leafier parts of the Île-de-France and you’ll find it flowing serenely out into the unknown (according to Parisians anyway, but no, actual people really live this far out). The very same river, just not quite as brown, without bobbing crisp packets clinging to the banks and sans an endless procession of tourist boats pootling up and down.

THAT famous balcony

THAT famous balcony

Paris proper may have its islands Cité and St Louis, but out in the Yvelines, the Île des Impressionnistes is the only mid-Seine sanctuary worth talking about. Renoir and his fellow impressionist chums thought so, and he and his entourage (from time to time including Monet and Degas) spent a great deal of time on a this tiny green patch, discussing ideas, socialising and dining to their bellies’ content in the local restaurant La Fournaise, taking in the views on its river-facing balcony.

So good were the happy times spent boating on the water and relaxing with lunch when the rowing was finished, Renoir was moved to create one of his most famous works Le déjeuner des canotiers (Luncheon of the Boating Party), featuring a collection of his friends typically kicking back with food and wine in that very spot. Remember the film Amélie and the old neighbour who keeps painting the same picture again and again but can’t recreate the same expression on the face of the girl in the middle? That’s the one. The less famous Le Déjeuner des rameurs (The Rowers’ Lunch) and Les canotiers à Chatou (The Boaters at Chatou) were born from the inspiration of the same place.

Les canotiers à Chatou (1879)

Les canotiers à Chatou (1879)

Lunch spent absorbing impressionist vibes on that now-canonised balcony is a bit of a stretch (the restaurant prices are as lofty as you’d expect), but the views from the bank alongside it are as charming as you’d imagine from a place that inspired one of France’s most treasured artists. A stroll along the bank on a weekend (when the Navigo is dezoned, hooray!) is as pleasantly refined as it probably was back in Auguste’s day (that’s Mr Renoir to us humble folk). Plus Chatou’s nearby town centre has some charming independent shops and an open square begging for an afternoon glass of wine on a café terrace. You never know, maybe that doodle on your napkin could be the start of a wonderful career.

Take RER A to Chatou-Croissy, zone 4, follow your feet to the island via a map inside the station, near the main exit.




Navi-gone: #1: Fontainebleau

The free metro for a weekend was AWESOME no? In the 2nd most expensive city in the world (as Paris was recently declared), doing anything can be fairly pricey, so a few days of free public transport, phew, that’s like getting the keys to the city or something.

For those who are in possession of a Navigo card though (monthly public transport pass similar to the Oyster in London for the uninitiated), it didn’t really make too much of a difference to us given that we’re paid up and ready to go for the whole month anyway, but the gesture is still a wonderful thing to appreciate.

But in non-polluted, normal times, the weekends for Navigo pass holders is a bit like the pesky-pollution-solution-open-barrier policy that we’ve all been privy to for the last couple of days, given that at weekends and a WHOLE MONTH over the summer, Paris becomes entirely zone-less. For folk already living in the outlying areas of Paris, then it might not mean too much, but for those of us living in Paris proper, in possession of a Navigo pass zones 1-2, that means we get to jump on a train and explore the weird and wonderful parts of the Ile-de-France for absolutely FREE.

Now looking at the RER map and deciding on where exactly to head can be riddled with problems, given that the French language makes even the grimiest parts of the outlying suburbs sound like quaint little French villages. Doesn’t Sevran-Beaudottes sound simply charming? It really, really isn’t.

A bit of research and guidance if you’re wanting to head out on a pleasant day trip into the country is extremely useful. So here I am. Now that we’ve exited the cold tunnel of winter misery and entered into a happy, sunny Disney-style spring, then the time for exploring the green fringes of the city is nigh. And the first stop in this balmy March weather you should head for is Fontainebleau, just over an hour away from the city.


For Navigo holders, you can take the transilien out there and jump on a bus from stop Fontainebleau-Avon direct to the Chateau (the palace and the park are on the UNESCO world heritage list), and spend the day either taking in the history and walking around the vast grounds, or head to the delightful town for a spot of sunday market shopping (they even sell kale!). For those who have a more active adventure in mind can explore the vast forest and give your lungs a break from the airborne ills of the big city.

It’s a very popular spot, so even car drivers might want to consider using the public transport option as the queues back into Paris after a sunny day can be a nightmare. More delights to be found along the RER network perfect for a day trip out of the city, coming soon.

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