Paris is a city filled with beautiful architecture, stylish people, and that big city buzz that gets this city girl excited. But a few straight days of pushing through crowds, long queues, and sensory overload and my excitement had turned toward the chirping birds and quiet streets of anywhere outside the city. Cue the city break! Destination: Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Why Saint-Germain-en-Laye, you ask? It was the site of my photographer sister’s photography workshop so a double dip seemed appropriate for me, with two days all to myself. So while she honed her skills, I set out on foot to take it all in: country, castle, and quiet.
I tried doing a bit of research before heading out to the suburb west of Paris, and quickly discovered that Saint-Germain is home to the Paris FC (cool), the birthplace of Louis XIV and Claude Debussy (cooler), and has a full blown château (coolest – and right up my alley!). We hopped a quick 30-minute train ride on the RER A line from the central Châtelet/Les Halles station and arrived in the picturesque town just as sunset bathed the château and surroundings in a golden light. This, my friends, is not your average suburb.
The following morning, I set out to explore the town. I opened the door and was greeted by a town that was buzzing with activity! I thought I had left the buzz behind, but unlike Paris, the Saint-Germain hubbub was faintly reminiscent of the opening village scene in Beauty & the Beast (except, you know, it was the affluent provincial town instead of the poor one). People were milling around the streets carrying fresh meats and produce bought from the outdoor farmer’s market in one hand, and the de rigueur baguette in the other. (Confession: I wanted to walk around singing Bonjour! at everyone I encountered) I walked around the market checking out the merchants’ wares, letting my senses guide me around the maze of stalls. With some 800 stalls, this place was clearly popular, and even attracts people from neighbouring towns. The market is located in the town’s central square and is very conveniently (for me) surrounded by patisseries and boulangeries galore. So of course, I bought some yummy pastries to start the day.
The nice thing about Saint-Germain is that the streets are wide enough to have some foot traffic but narrow enough to get that labyrinthine feel that are ripe for exploration. Starting from the market, I stepped onto one of the streets and started zigging and zagging through the town. Buildings and businesses are tidy and pretty in Saint-Germain, hinting at its fairly upscale roots. Posh stores sit next to flower shops, butchers sit next to bakers. It was fun to be around the masses, basically feeling like a local. That was until the narrow streets opened up into the wide expanse of the Château de Saint-Germain’s gardens.
A stroll with a view
I crossed the street and left the cheerful hubbub behind for the haven of quiet in the manicured gardens. It was lunchtime, and the Saint-Germanois and I were functioning on the same wavelength. They were picnicking on the grounds, in between the neat rows of trees, around the fountain, and near the château’s moat. (Picnicking is my preferred way of lunching) I took advantage of the dry weather to walk through the pretty gardens, down the gravel path all the way to the edge of the property, where the skyscrapers of La Défense stand stall, and even the Eiffel Tower makes a faint but unmistakable appearance. The Pavillon Henri IV sits on the edge of the property, looking over the Paris in the distance, boasting its famous native son (Louis XIV) on its walls, and generally looking exactly what a house in the French country (however dense it has become) should look like (in my head anyway!). The lunch crowds were accompanied by joggers and dog walkers all taking advantage of the really magnificent grounds at their disposal. If I was looking for a place to slow down a bit, I had unknowingly landed in the right place.
Kicking it Breton style
One thing I love about travelling in groups is that one member will always bring their own research and view to the gang. Our friend Christina had mapped out the best crêperies, so we happily set out to taste test our way through town. The first, Crêperie Moulerie Larcher, we had tackled as soon as we arrived the first night. Their menu focuses on the traditional Breton style crepe, using a buckwheat base for salty and a wheat base for sweet. We kept things salty at Larcher, opting for the potato and Rocquefort filled Alsacienne, the seafood-stuffed Bretonne, and the mustardy Dijonnaise. You know when you return from a trip and you can conjure up the taste of a meal you had while travelling? The Alsacienne is my food memory from Saint-Germain-en-Laye, with a faint hint of meaty lardon.
We didn’t forget about those sweet (sweet) crêpes though. (I mean, come on) A few blocks down from Larcher is the very popular Phare Saint-Louis, where we took our surprisingly dessert-craving bellies to end the night. The lineup was out the door, reservations were definitely recommended, but we managed to squeeze into the bar, and it was on. They’re known for their salted caramel crêpes, and who am I to question popular opinion? I ordered the dish with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and proceeded to enter food nirvana. (Incidentally, we discovered that the maximum number of meals of crêpes you can consume is four.)
Bonus tip: There are a few locations of Le Phare Saint-Louis outside Paris (namely Versailles), so if you can’t make it to Saint-Germain-en-Laye check them out elsewhere!
The relaxed pace in Saint-Germain-en-Laye reminded me to slow down a bit from the frenzy I had willingly gone on while visiting every arrondissement and every attraction possible. While I stayed there the weekend, I think a day trip is the perfect span of time that will allow you to step away from the city, slow down, and enjoy the quiet of a Parisian pause.