French Escapes: Three Hours or Less from Paris

The Grand Place is the main square in Lille, France, which is the site of important monuments like the Vieille Bourse, the old stock exchange, the Column of the Goddess and the Grand Garde which houses the Theatre du Nord. // Photo by Getty Images / pp76

Paris is always a favorite for luxury travelers. Recently, Virtuoso named the “City of Light” as its Top City in its 2020 Luxe Report. However, for travelers who are looking for a new French escape, Luxury Travel Advisor has rounded up three cities that make for a great extension to your vacation or even just as a day trip. 

Lille

Lille, a French and Flemish city on the border of Belgium, is about one hour from Paris Gare du Nord station.

Strolling through the old quarter of the city, we were struck by the various styles of architecture, quite a contrast from uniformity of the Haussmann-style buildings from the late 19th-century dominating Paris. We later learned the Spaniards, the French and the Flemish ruled Lille, hence the fiery colors of brick with mustard trim, ornate Baroque style and the austerity of the Dutch influence.

Le Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse is a formidable edifice and one of the most relevant sites in the Old Quarter. Countess Jeanne de Flandre started the hospice in 1237 as a place for the poor to be spiritually and medically treated; the present-day buildings date from 15th, 17th and 18th centuries. Remarkably, the hospice operated up until 1939, and in 1962 it was converted into a museum where travelers can visit the monastery, the chapel with a ceiling decorated with coats of arms from significant donors, the medicinal gardens and the former hospital ward. The tapestries, wood sculptures and white porcelain tiles, each individually painted with figures in blue, sustain the strong Flemish period details.

Le Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse was founded in 1237 as a place for the poor to be spiritually and medically treated.

Meert, the oldest pastry shop in Lille (which dates to 1761), is a sheer delight for the senses. The present-day Meert encompasses a pastry shop, tea salon, restaurant, ice cream parlor and retail shop offering chocolates and confections. Although we enjoyed our lunch in the lavishly decorated Louis XVI-style tearoom, we were much more excited by our scrumptious desserts, lemon meringue tart and a heavenly chocolate concoction of chocolate mousse with hazelnut and almond praline. In case that wasn’t enough, we went overboard and bought a box of their famous gaufres (dry waffles) filled with vanilla cream.

After our decadent lunch and pastry feast, we headed to the Charles de Gaulle Birthplace and Museum. The former general and president of France was born in 1890 in the bourgeois home of his grandparents; bought by the friends of de Gaulle in 1967 to preserve his memory, the museum features artifacts and objects from de Gaulle’s formative years, plus a multimedia program that reflects on his historic accomplishments.

The Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille has a vast collection of paintings, sculptures and drawings spanning from the second to 20th century, including works from the Impressionism, Symbolism, medieval and Renaissance periods. Flemish, Spanish, French, Roman and Belgian artists are represented: Rubens, Monet, Courbet, Manet, Donatello, Delacroix, El Greco and Picasso are a sampling of the artists in the museum.

We had an outstanding dinner at La Royale, a cozy bistro within walking distance from our hotel. A starter of house-made country pâté with crusty peasant bread was more than ample for two people, followed by a succulent, slow-roasted beef served with organic yellow, orange and red carrots and buttery mashed potatoes. The genial owner, who spoke English, told us he recently sold the restaurant and was relocating to San Francisco to open a French wine bar.

The next morning, we headed outside Lille to the suburbs for two terrific and worthwhile attractions.

Just a 25-minute metro ride from the center of the city is La Piscine - André Diligent Museum of Art (most commonly referred to as La Piscine). The museum once contained a lavish Art Deco indoor swimming pool constructed between 1927 and 1932 (hence the name). Closed in 1985, it was remodeled into a museum, also incorporating an old textile factory next door. The museum has an excellent and well-rounded collection of mostly 19th- and 20th-century works, including an impressive selection of porcelain and pottery. One massive hall has a revamped version of the swimming pool hedged by plaster and marble statues and, on the upper floors, authentic-looking Art Deco railings and balconies.

La Piscine derives its name from an Art Deco indoor swimming pool it once housed. Today, the museum has a revamped version of the pool.

After leaving La Piscine, we took a tram ride to Croix to visit Villa Cavrois. During the 10-minute walk from the tram to the villa, we viewed some stately mansions and manor houses with well-manicured gardens.

Villa Cavrois is the masterpiece of French architect Robert Mallet Stevens. Built for textile magnate Paul Cavrois and his wife and seven children, Mallet was given free rein to his design — the only parameters were that the house should be comfortable, practical and not over budget. Construction began in 1929 and completed in 1932; the family lived in the house until 1985. It was to be demolished after it was sold to a developer, but the project was abandoned in 2001. The state bought the villa and took 13 painstaking years restoring it. We marveled at the scale and size of the rooms and the handsome furnishings, impeccable architectural details and natural light flowing through the rooms. A long, narrow reflecting pool complemented the symmetrical, manicured gardens, while the swimming pool is an extension of the house, rather than being separated. 

In Lille, we stayed at the cozy and historic Mercure Lille Centre Grand-Place Hotel, which was an easy five-minute walk from the station, ideally located in close proximity to many of the main attractions. We stayed in a Junior Suite — one of the larger rooms in the hotel. One of our pet peeves of late is the lack of plugs in hotel rooms for the various electronics one is required to travel with these days, and we were happy the suite had a plug on each side of the bed, plus a reading lamp and a sconce. A Nespresso machine was a nifty amenity, a welcome caffeine treat first thing in the morning. The clever setting for the breakfast buffet was a real-life kitchen with a four-burner stove with Le Creuset pots filled with simmering breakfast dishes, a dishwasher and a refrigerator filled with dairy products. The space made us feel so much at home, we were tempted to wear our pajamas and slippers. 

The staff patiently marked our maps and gave specific directions to the sites we wanted to visit. Contact Jérémy Paillart, front office manager, at [email protected]

Chantilly

The most obvious reason to go to Chantilly is to visit the historical Château, but we found many other activities and sites to enhance our stay, including recently restored rooms at the aforementioned château.

Trains leave Paris Gare du Nord station to Chantilly / Gouvieux station almost every hour, and it takes less than 30 minutes to be whisked to the verdant French countryside.

A two-year restoration of the royal apartments at the Château de Chantilly is a great reason to revisit the city. Henri d’Orléans, Duke of Aumale, engaged the services of architect Victor Dubois and decorator Eugene Lami in 1845 to design private apartments for him and his new wife, Maria Carolina Augusta, on the ground floor of the Petite Chateau, an extension of the Château de Chantilly. The suite of eight rooms was completed in 1847, and it includes the prince and princesses’ bedroom, salon and bathrooms, plus the Petite Singerie, the only room that is completely intact as it was originally built. A series of wood panels painted in 1735 by Christophe Huet exhibit the aristocratic activities of female monkeys (lunch during the hunt, picking cherries, playing card games, dressing), borrowing the clothes and expressions of the Condé princesses, in all the seasons.

The Château features the second-most significant art collection in France after the Louvre, with masterpieces by artists Corot, Delacroix, Fragonard, Ingres, Poussin, Raphael, Watteau and van Dyck. An extensive library boasts 50,000 books and 15,000 manuscripts. Le Nôtre, who created the royal gardens of Versailles and Fontainebleau, designed a gorgeous formal French garden, and the park area of the chateau has acres of forest, streams and meadows — an ideal place to have a picnic.

Château de Chantilly has a significant collection of masterpieces and an extensive library with 50,000 books and 15,000 manuscripts. // Photo by Getty Images / isogood

A few hundred feet from the Château, horse aficionados will embrace the Hippodrome de Chantilly, one of the most prestigious racetracks in Europe. The first official race took place in 1834, and the current racetrack was constructed in 1879. The flat, thoroughbred track runs a little under a mile and a half, and five classic races include the Prix de Diane and Prix du Jockey Club, which draw international guests. Next door to the racetrack is The Living Museum of the Horse, located in the Cour de Remises, the vast stables of Chantilly. Fifteen rooms have been designated to exhibit 200 objects and works of art, including manuscripts, drawings, paintings, prints and sculptures, which tell the rich history and evolution of the horse culture of France.

Le Potager des Princes is the former royal vegetable garden of Prince de Condé, and, today, it is a wonderful public garden with a bevy of sites and activities. A formal garden still stands along with an active vegetable garden; and children will be enchanted with the animal farm that has peacocks, ponies, swans, goats and geese, in addition to rabbit and hen races. A theater on the property has a festival in summer (Tip: Operas are also performed from time to time). A tea salon and café serving full meals and pastries, open from May to September, has a lovely setting inside the formal garden with a green latticework pavilion and starched white linens.

Golf is not a major pastime in France, but the turf and climate of Chantilly is ideal for the sport. There are five premier golf courses in Chantilly, all with 18 holes and some that sponsor competitions.

Since there were so many activities in Chantilly, it was necessary to stay overnight. Auberge du Jeu de Paume, a five-star Relais & Chateâux hotel, is the best-situated hotel in Chantilly, as it is the closest property to the Château, and it is also within walking distance of the restaurants and boutiques in town.

We highly recommend booking the suites and rooms overlooking the Château gardens and a tranquil fountain, rather than the rooms facing the front of the hotel, where the main road runs. Our Junior Suite was decorated in typical, luxurious French style with blue Toile de Jouy fabric on the headboard and drapes in the bedroom and lace-trimmed pillows on the bed. Our petite salon was tastefully appointed with a tapestry-style carpet, a handsome blue silk-covered sofa with mahogany wood trim and classic 18th-century portraits on the wall.

L’Auberge du Jeu de Paume is a Relais & Châteaux hotel with 92 rooms and suites, as well as two restaurants, salons and a spa. Photo courtesy of Auberge du Jeu de Paume

The highlight of our stay was the dinner we had at the Michelin-star restaurant Le Table du Connétable. We appreciated the spaciousness and comfort of the elegant dining room, as many restaurants in France tend to be crammed with too many tables. French-born chef Julien Lucas prepares an exquisite menu of truly local specialties, sourcing most ingredients within 50 miles, such as endive and mushrooms from Orry-la-Ville; hares, deer and chestnuts from the forestland surrounding Chantilly; wild seafood from the waters of Picardie; and shellfish and saffron from the Baie de Somme. A most special dessert — probably one of the most beautiful and clever we’ve ever seen — was an exact replica of an endive but made of chocolate on the outside and filled with a sensational mix of chocolate and espresso ganache inside.

Do not miss the crème de la crème we experienced at the hotel’s Spa Valmont: The Thousand & One Chantilly treatment. The decadent treatment starts with a revitalizing exfoliation, followed by a soothing massage; the surprise at the end is the slathering of chilled Chantilly cream all over your body. Afterwards, our skin felt smooth and silky for days.

An advantage about Chantilly is its close proximity to Charles De Gaulle Airport, only 20 minutes away. Travel advisors may contact Nicole Wilms-Kauffmann ([email protected]), hotel manager, directly for bookings and other information.

Granville

Our last pick is Granville, a small city in Normandy on the Mont Saint-Michel Bay (tip: it’s just an hour away from the popular eponymous commune). 

The main reason we went to Granville was for the Princess Grace exhibit at the Musée Christian Dior. The museum is actually the home Christian Dior grew up in during the early 1900s, which had a significant impact on his later life. In his memoir, Christian Dior et Moi, he says, “I have most tender and amazed memories ... of my childhood home. I would even say that my life and my style owe almost everything to its site and architecture.”

Villa Les Rhumbs was the original name of the house purchased by Dior’s parents in 1906, but in 1932 his father had to sell the house for financial reasons during the Great Depression. The city purchased the villa in 1938 and opened the garden to the public. In 1997, the villa was bought by LVMH, the company that owns the Dior brand. The museum celebrates the life and designs of the master couturier.

We had the chance to check out “Grace de Monaco, Princesse en Dior,” an exhibit tracking the fairy tale story of how a movie star gave up a thriving Hollywood career when she married a real “Prince Charming,” Prince Rainier III of Monaco. Announcing their engagement at her parents’ home in Philadelphia, Princess Grace wore a dress adorned with flowers designed by Christian Dior. Soon after, she was exclusively dressed in Christian Dior with Marc Bohan, the creative director of the house, personally designing all of her garments until her death in 1982.

The Musée Christian Dior in Granville is the home Christian Dior grew up in during the early 1900s.

Over 90 designs display the princesses’ wide-ranging wardrobe, including suits, gowns, day dresses, casual clothes and accessories. The clothes are interspersed with artifacts of her well-chronicled public life in the press, which includes magazine covers, portraits and photos. The highlight of the exhibit is coverage of the annual gala ball for charity Princess Grace would throw, where she had noted designers and artists create the lavish sets while Dior designed a gown to match the theme. 

After the informative and entertaining exhibit, we treated ourselves to a stroll in the lovely surrounding gardens bursting with late spring blooms. An outdoor café with white wood trellises covered in wisteria was too pretty to pass up, so we sipped on Earl Grey tea served in a porcelain teapot, admiring the handsome manor house and gardens. 

The house and gardens are perched on a high bluff overlooking the dramatic, rocky beach, and we took the long staircase down. It was a blustery day and the Caribbean-blue water crashed on the high boulders. The sea air made us plenty hungry, so we had lunch at Le Restaurant du Port, which specializes in locally caught seafood. We enjoyed their hearty signature dish of seafood choucroute, a bed of steamed sauerkraut and bacon bits topped with salmon, haddock, sea bass, cod fish and shellfish.

After lunch, we walked through an ancient stone archway, which led to the old quarter of Granville. Charming cottage-style houses with exposed stone facades and window boxes brimming with seasonal flowers lined the uneven, cobblestone streets. In the center was the oldest church in the village, Église Notre-Dame du Cap Lihou, which was built in 1440 by the English but not consecrated until 1641. The brilliant stained-glass windows with geometric and abstract forms appeared to be from the 20th century, and two chapels had small, wooden sailboats hanging in them, commemorating the strong presence of fishermen in the village.

Passing the inviting white lattice exterior and the heavenly scent of fresh crepes being made, we couldn’t resist La Courtine. We practically inhaled a dreamy warm crepe smothered in whipped Normandy cream and gooey chocolate syrup.

La Courtine in Granville is famous for crepes.

At the end of the afternoon, we discovered the Rue de Juif, a street chock full of art, ceramic and painting galleries. Most of the high-quality work is from local artists depicting the village scenery.

Although we didn’t have time on our day trip, it would be worthwhile to stay longer to take a boat ride on an early 19th-century schooner, Lys Noir. The half-day sail takes passengers to Iles de Chausey, a series of inlets, and small islands. Rugged and mostly untouched, the islands have white sand beaches, a chapel from 1840, an ancient fort and are a haven for fishermen. 

For an overnight stay, our pick is the Mercure Granville Le Grand Large Hotel. It is a laid-back, four-star property with contemporary rooms (some with Channel views), a gym and bar. Granville takes between three and three and half hours to get to from Gare Montparnasse Paris. 

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