By Michael Schuermann aka Easy Hiker – a German born journalist who started travelling at age 7. An itinerant walker, he has tramped the streets of Paris in search of famous Hollywood movie sites, compiled his finds and got an American publisher to print his guide book Paris Movie Walks – 10 Guided Walking Tours in the City of Lights! Camera! Action!
Is A Parisian Banlieue Worth A Visit? Hiking In Paris
The Parisian banlieue has a bad reputation, not all of it undeserved. The word banlieue is normally translated into English as “suburbs”, but while this is technically correct, it is also misleading.
In English, the most common attribute for suburbs is “leafy”, evoking a place for barbecue parties and newspaper boys on bicycles.
The French banlieue, conversely, is a bitter word like “divorce” or “exile”, which suggests that nobody in his right mind who could afford otherwise would want to live there.
It is equally true that guidebooks on Paris rarely mention the banlieue, and that most visitors never get to experience it. Which is a pity, because there are certainly good reasons to go there.
Three, to be precise.
Firstly: most people you will meet in the streets of Paris – while you visit the place – actually live there. Five out of six, as a matter of fact. (Greater Paris has 12 million inhabitants of which only 2 million live in one of the 20 central Parisian districts inside the périphérique ring road.) Which makes the Parisian banlieue, with a population of 10 million people, by far the biggest city in France.
A Parisian tourist river boat passing by the Cathedral of Notre Dame
The interest that you as a traveller obviously have in France should extend to the present and not stop at the death of Marie Antoinette or some other such arbitrary point in history.
Secondly: the banlieue has, in abundance, what Paris so desperately lacks: open spaces, reminders that human beings cannot thrive on stones and concrete alone and need parkland, fields and forests to survive. In fact, it is hard to believe how deep you can get into la France profonde, the “rural heart of the nation”, on a train journey that takes little more than one hour.
Crouy sur Ourq, less than an hour away from Paris by the river Ourq.
And thirdly: the banlieue is not the cultural wasteland many believe it to be.
The white house, one of Le Corbusier’s earliest masterpieces, built in Poissy near Paris
Who says, for example, that Paris has a monopoly on great architecture? Two of the most important buildings in France lie at two opposite ends of the St. Germain forest west of Paris: Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye in Poissy, a manifesto of modernist architecture written in concrete, and the royal castle of Saint Germain en Laye, main residence of the French kings up to and including the Sun King Louis XIV who was born here. For a great day trip, connect the two with a walk that will lead you through the forest but also through suburban side streets that give you a pretty good idea of what (the bourgeois) life is like in today’s France.
Chateau de Saint Germain en Laye was the main residence of the Sun King Louis XIV
The only part of the banlieue most overseas visitors will ever see is Versailles, more precisely: the palace and the couple of blocks that separate it from the train station. But 15 minutes away from the palace, a pretty nature trail winds its way through the former royal hunting grounds. The walk takes you from the chateau through the outskirts of Versailles – a handsome town in its own right, by the way – to the near-by village of St. Cyr from where you can take a train back to the Gare Montparnasse. And what’s more: with a duration of roughly four hours, the walk leaves you time to explore the palace and to be back in Paris for dinner.
Finally art: Although Paris is said to be the “capital” of it (whatever that means), what is now the banlieue has provided motives for some of the world’s greatest painters through the centuries.
The island of La Grande Jatte was immortalized by Seurat. The lakes around Ville d’Avray were painted by Corot so often that they now bear his name, and the 19th century artists’ colony of Barbizon has carried the name of that small town around the world.
For sheer poignancy, however, it is difficult to beat a trip to Auvers-sur-Oise where you can search for motives painted by van Gogh in the last months of his life, visit the pension where he died and say a brief prayer at his grave on the local cemetery where Vincent is buried next to his brother Theo, one of art history’s great unsung heroes.
If this post has made you curious and you want to find out more about day hikes in the Greater Paris area, visit easyhiker.co.uk, which has an entire section of those – alongside much else.