France Off the Grid: Three Charming City Jaunts

Colmar in the Alsace region is famous for its half-timber houses with bountiful gardens and blooming flowerboxes.

Do you have clients who have visited Paris multiple times and are keen on branching out from the city? We’ve sampled three cities that are all within three hours by train from the City of Light.

Colmar

In the Alsace region, in eastern France bordering Germany, is a very special village — Colmar.

We traveled to Colmar in July — one of the nicest months to visit weather-wise, with comfortable temperatures in the mid-70s during the day.

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A quick two-hour train ride on the TGV from Paris station Gare de l’Est whisked us to Strasbourg. We had a short stopover and boarded a local train to Colmar, which takes 30 minutes. The ride was quite scenic, passing the Vosges mountain range and the Alsace Wine Route, with vineyards specializing in growing grapes for Riesling and Gewürztraminer wines.

Fun Fact: Colmar is sometimes described as the little Venice of France because of its many narrow canals. One of our first activities was a cruise in a flat-bottom boat up one of the canals. The soothing, slow-paced ride gave us an opportunity to view the back of the half-timber houses with bountiful gardens and blooming flowerboxes. Part of the cruise glided by a wooded area with moss and ivy gilding the shoreline, reminiscent of an 18th-century French landscape painting.

After our cruise, we worked up an appetite and went for lunch at the restaurant of the lovely four-star Hôtel Le Maréchal. Restaurant L’Echevin has veteran chef Thierry Chefdeville, who has been with the hotel for more than 20 years and prepares a host of regional dishes of Alsace, such as foie gras accompanied by truffle infused with Gewürztraminer wine, terrine of rabbit and lobster perfumed with Muscat wine and stuffed farm-raised pigeon with mashed peas and apple.

Our table on the shaded veranda overlooked a canal as we dined on delicious daurade fish topped with seasonal, sautéed vegetables. We savored a rich, locally produced Munster cheese, a specialty of the region, accompanied with cumin and jam.

After our meal, we took a tour of the hotel, which has been family-owned for over 40 years. Constructed as a private home in 1565, Le Maréchal has 30 rooms, some with rustic décor, the others romantic and colorful. Room amenities include a Jacuzzi, free Wi-Fi, flat-screen TV, minibar and air-conditioning.

Another hotel option is Quatorze, a four-star boutique in a former pharmacy, hidden in a courtyard on a quiet street away from the tourist area. Decorated in mid-century style, it’s more of a hipster haven for Millennials, with a Zen-like spa offering Ayurvedic massages, modern rooms with up-to-the-minute technology (mirror screens, iPod docking stations, LED TV) and a sexy lounge and bar area.

In Colmar, travelers will get to see a series of Art Nouveau houses and buildings.

We ambled around the narrow streets of Colmar, discovering the half-timber houses painted in richly hues of periwinkle, orange, sunflower gold, soft pink, rust and pale green with shutters in complementary tones. Also in our travels, we found a series of Art Nouveau houses and buildings, along with some 18th-century mansions turned into apartment buildings.

Colmar is the birthplace of Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor and designer of the Statue of Liberty. The Bartholdi Museum, situated in the house where he was born, holds original models of the Statue of Liberty and the Lion of Belfort, along with his living quarters, family furniture and personal possessions.

Another treat was Saint Martin’s Church, a stunning, classic Gothic church constructed in 1234 with beautiful red and green diamond patterned roof tiles, stone flying buttresses and red and golden stones on the outside. Inside, we marveled at the 13th-century stained glass windows depicting tales from the Bible, such as Abraham and Isaac, the Last Supper and the Ascension of Elijah.

For those considering a holiday trip, at Christmas time, Colmar is transformed into a fairy-tale village with oodles of lights and illuminations on the historic buildings, children singing Christmas carols on boats, ice skating rink and five Christmas markets. 

The voyage from Gare de l’Est station, Paris, to Strasbourg station takes two hours, and there are over 18 daily departures. Trains from Strasbourg to Colmar take 30 minutes and run every hour.

Avignon

Just two hours and 45 minutes by TGV train from Paris-Gare de Lyon railroad station, Avignon is the gateway to the blissful Provence region in the south of France.

Avignon has ancient roots as far back as 600 B.C., and in 120 A.D., the Romans arrived and ruled. The most important historical structure is the Palais de Papes (“Popes’ Palace”), the seat of Roman Papacy from 1309 to 1348, where seven successive popes resided. The city was then owned by Joanna I of Naples, and still under Papal control, till 1791, during the French Revolution. Today the Palais de Papes is the main attraction of the old quarter of Avignon and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Palais de Papes, the seat of Roman Papacy from 1309 to 1348, is the most important structure of Avignon.

Our late-September visit brought us magnificent weather, with unusually warm temperatures in the high 70s (expect it to be in the mid-60s). We strolled the ancient cobblestone streets and passageways of Avignon bordered by the towering walls of the Palais de Papes. Hungry for lunch, we dined at L’Epicerie, a café nestled in the corner of a quiet square, where we enjoyed Provencal specialties and chilled, local white wine.

After lunch, we strolled over to Collection Lambert, an art foundation located in two converted 18th-century mansions. Yvon Lambert ran a highly successful contemporary gallery in the Marais area of Paris for over 40 years, representing a stable of international, renowned artists. Collection Lambert opened in 2000 with over 500 works from Lambert’s private collection from artists such as Cy Twombly, Sol LeWitt, Anselm Kiefer, Nan Goldin, Jean Michel Basquiat and Donald Judd. Today it hosts temporary exhibits along with pieces from the permanent collection. Good to know: The outdoor café in the courtyard is a lovely, tranquil spot for lunch or a drink.

Another UNESCO World Heritage site we visited was Pont Saint-Bénézet, a bridge connecting Avignon to Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, constructed between 1177 and 1185. The story of the bridge is based on a legend: a young shepherd from Villard in the Ardèche, while herding his sheep, was said to have had a calling from Jesus Christ to build a bridge in order to cross the Rhone River. Mocked and shamed by the townspeople for his futile dream, the shepherd miraculously lifted a huge block of stone by himself to start the bridge. Now, receiving unwavering support by the town, he formed a Bridge Brotherhood to oversee the construction. A chapel was later built into the bridge in his name.

The big cultural event in Avignon is the international Avignon Festival in July. One of the most important and prestigious performance festivals in Europe, it attracts major artists, performers and dance and theater companies from around the world, many of which perform in multiple languages. The festival, founded in 1947 by actor and theater director Jean Vilar, only had one show in its first year and has now expanded to include over 1,000 shows.

Our stay at La Mirande Hotel was the highlight of our trip. A five-star hotel with high standards, La Mirande is privately owned by the Stein family. We were fortunate to have Mr. Stein give us a detailed historic tour of the hotel. Located directly across from the Palais de Papes, La Mirande was originally built in the early 1300s as an annex for the palace to house religious figures of the time. Parts of the initial building were destroyed in 1410, and in the late 1600s, it was reconstructed as a private palace. The Stein family purchased the property in 1987, taking three years to transform it into a luxury hotel.

In Avignon, a 3-D sound-and-light show tells the story of the Palais des Papes in 360 degrees, projected on the medieval walls of the palace's Honour Courtyard.

La Mirande has the rare combination of elements only a handful of hotels contain: an impressive historic building, lavishly appointed rooms and furnishings, flawless service and a sublime restaurant.

Our delightful room was decorated in the local Provencal style with floral design wallpaper, starched white cotton bed covers with natural linen bed skirts, gold framed portraits and landscapes, a handsome dark wood writing desk and a marble bathroom outfitted with old-fashioned faucets.

The next day we were invited to lunch on the terrace overlooking the lush garden filled with late summer flowers, vines, greenery and blooming fruit trees. Starting with three amuse-bouches, even before we ordered our meal, we knew we were in for a special experience. Twenty-nine-year-old chef Florent Pietravalle astounded us in the next two hours with his intricate but not fussy flavors, tastes, textures and knock-out presentation.

Note: The train from Gare de Lyon stops at the Avignon TGV station, which is not in Avignon. You must board a local train from the same station, which takes about seven minutes to Avignon center. You can also take an Uber or taxi, approximately €20. Trains run almost every hour.

Barbizon

Only 40 minutes from the Gare de Lyon train station in the center of Paris is Barbizon. To get there, we took the train to Fontainebleau, where the famed Chateau de Fontainebleau, a royal palace rivaling Versailles and inhabited by King Louis XIII and XVI, is located. Once in Fontainebleau, we took a 15-minute taxi ride to Barbizon. 

Barbizon is a tiny, idyllic village in the middle of thousands of acres of dense forestland. The bucolic area surrounding Barbizon has open meadows of grass surrounded by the forest and was a haven for a school of painters between 1830 and 1870.

Hôtellerie du Bas-Bréau has 16 rooms, four suites and one villa, all individually decorated in different styles.

We arrived at the four-star Hôtellerie du Bas-Bréau in the heart of town as we were invited to have lunch at the restaurant and tour the rooms. The owners, Jean-Pierre Fava and his wife Dominique, warmly greeted us (the handsome couple has privately owned and run the hotel for 50 years). In fact, even at 75, Jean-Pierre still wakes up at 1 a.m. twice a week, heads to the Rungis wholesale food market to stock up on food for the restaurant and returns at 8 a.m.

The magnificent grounds of the hotel are set on three acres of a private park and landscaped with squared formal hedges, manicured lawns, classic statues and massive trees. It was the height of the fall foliage and the leaves of crimson and marigold heightened the beauty of the grounds. There’s an area on the side with a heated pool on a wooden deck.

Hôtellerie du Bas-Bréau has 16 rooms, four suites and one villa, ranging in size from a spacious 300 square feet for a standard room to 600 square feet for the junior suite. All rooms are individually decorated in different styles ranging from rustic and cozy with colors of red, rust, mustard and green, to a more formal style, including toile de Jouy prints with a canopy bed. Each oversized bathroom has a mini-spa with a Jacuzzi tub.

Despite the small room count, the hotel has three dining options. We dined in the more informal bistro, although we had the tasting menu from the traditional restaurant. Fontainebleau has been renowned for centuries for its broad hunting forests; since autumn is season for hunting and also for wild mushroom harvest, the restaurant offers a specialized menu of game and mushrooms.

The intimate bistro has 12 tables in a soothing atmosphere with paned windows overlooking the picturesque village. Jean-Pierre said the dish of roe deer garnished with fall vegetables and mushrooms was a must, if we wanted to have a true, local specialty. Although the texture was more like a filet mignon, there was a distinct and pleasant game taste to the deer. Our steaming Grand Marnier soufflé was the perfect light dessert to finish our excellent meal.

Barbizon is known for low buildings covered with wild vines, half-timber houses and stone cottages.

Jean-Pierre shared the fascinating history of the hotel: the oldest part of the hotel, the reception area and restaurant, was originally a horse stable and carriage house. The big claim to fame is Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island while staying at the hotel, where he also met his future wife, Fanny. Numerous luminaries, royalty, celebrities and politicians have stayed in the hotel over the years, including Queen Elizabeth, Princess Grace of Monaco, Mick Jagger, Robert De Niro, Yves Saint Laurent and Francoise Sagan. A special moment for Jean-Pierre was when Hirohito, the emperor of Japan, came to the hotel. Hirohito traveled out of Japan only one time during his reign and one of the three places he visited was the Hôtellerie du Bas-Bréau.

After lunch, we toured the tiny village of Barbizon, with just one, long main street. Although there are modern-day restaurants and services, the road retains a time capsule of the 1700s and 1800s with its low buildings covered with wild vines, exposed stone walls, iron gates, half-timber houses and stone cottages.

Another reason why artists were attracted to the area — besides the wild beauty of the forest and open meadows — was the indescribable light, which would dramatically alter during the course of the day with fast moving clouds.

We visited two small museums filled with history and works of the Barbizon School of Painting.

Jean-François Millet is the most recognized artist of the Barbizon school, painting stunning landscapes with farm workers and outdoor workers in the background. La Maison-Atelier de Jean-François Millet is the former home and atelier of the artist and the rooms showcase his private possessions, his art and family life. In the late 1800s, Van Gogh was so taken with Millet’s work, he declared he was his master and painted 40 replicas of Millet’s paintings as homage.

The Barbizon museum showcasing the history and works of the Barbizon School of Painting.

A little further down the road is Musée de Barbizon, the official museum of the city. Formerly an inn and tavern, the main floor once consisted of two dining rooms and the kitchen. Artists were so poor that they exchanged their paintings for food and lodging. Upstairs was a series of empty rooms with drawings on the walls, which were an early form of graffiti, scrawled on the walls by the painters, who sometimes didn’t even have enough money to afford paper or canvas to paint on. 

Another lovely homage is a series of replicas of the most iconic paintings from the Barbizon school, made of mosaic tiles that line the main street.

Barbizon is an ideal day trip from Paris, but if you stay at Hôtellerie du Bas-Bréau overnight, you will also have time to visit Chateau de Fontainebleau. 

Trains leave approximately three times an hour from Gare de Lyon to Fontainebleau.

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