We were very fortunate that Mark’s long-time friends Didier and Corrine invited us to stay with them in Chamant, just outside Senlis. We spent July and August there, happily exploring the surrounding villages with trips into Paris on several weekends.
Senlis is just over an hour from Paris by car, or you can catch a train from Chantilly or Creil. I have several posts about our Paris adventures, but this one is about all the wonderful things we saw and did in the area around Senlis.
Chamant is tiny, but we had a boulangerie and a fantastic restaurant within walking distance. The importance of a walkable boulangerie cannot be overstated.
L’Ancien Piquex (the old prickly?) is a wonderful place for lunch or dinner. They do not cater to tourists (very few evidently come to Chamant), but we managed with our poor French and pointing to communicate with the very friendly staff. Delicious food and good prices. Normally I wouldn’t order a hamburger in France, but after seeing a few go by I had to try it. One of the best burgers anywhere, dripping with creamy sauce au poivre. Yum! We went several times during our stay, until they had their August closing.
Those Darn Romans
By now, if you’ve read any of the previous posts or know anything about France, you will not be surprised to hear that the Romans were active in the Senlis area. The remains of the third century Roman city wall as well as an amphitheater can be explored today.
The basement of Museum of Art and Archeology (Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie) has the remains of a Gallo-Roman house and a large collection of artifacts from a temple found in the Halatte forest nearby. The ex-votos were really interesting. Historically. these small statues are offerings to a deity usually in gratitude for granting a prayer or request.
Castle and City Walls
Leaping forward 800-900 years Senlis has many examples of Medieval architecture. The castle is now mostly ruins, but the city walls and 15 of the towers are still standing tall. There’s a very detailed history of the city walls here. We were walking around on a day when there was a family event, Les Lézards d’été, so the bouncy house was set up in the castle park. Fun!
You Can See the Cathedral for Miles
You can see the 78 meter (256 feet) spire of the cathedral from almost anywhere in town. And if you are driving around the countryside, you’ll be able to spot it from miles away.
Officially named Cathédrale Notre Dame de Senlis, the cathedral was started in 1153 and completed in 1191 (with major renovations in the 13th and 16th centuries). The tourism website notes that it’s one of the smallest gothic cathedrals in France, but I assure you, it’s quite impressive.
And just outside the cathedral is the Tower #2, Tour de la Bibliothèque. Once a tower on the medieval wall, then the chapter house, and very old library.
Wonderful Market Days
Senils has market days on Tuesdays and Fridays. There are many stalls selling fresh produce, cheeses, meats, and all manner of local crafts. Some of the best peaches I’ve ever had came from the Senlis market. Bring your appetite and cash, as not all of the sellers will take cards.
Day trips Around Senlis
In our two months in Senlis, we had many opportunities to take day trips in the surrounding area. There are so many more places to see besides going into Paris.
Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte
About an hour from Paris or Senlis, the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte is a Baroque 17th century French estate. This chateau turns out to be a bit of a dry-run for the design and construction of Versailles. The architect, interior designer/painter, and landscape artist credited with bringing about Vaux-le-Vicomte later went on to create the chateau and gardens of Versailles.
It’s possible the chateau was too impressive. The original owner, Nicolas Fouquet, didn’t get to enjoy his creation very long. He was accused of embezzling from the French state and sentenced to life in prison. Coincidentally (or not), many of the movable items from Vaux-le-Vicomte ended up at Versailles. Today Vaux-le-Vicomte is the largest privately-owned estate listed as a historical monument in the country.
We were lucky enough to visit during the summer when they have special candlelight evenings. Both the chateau and the gardens have thousands of candles glowing. They also have fireworks on those nights, but we missed those due to rain.
There’s a great story and a lot of history to be found at Vaux-le-Vicomte. Be sure to get tickets ahead of time and if you like, you can bring your own picnic (including wine) to enjoy in the gardens.
Raray – Home of the Dog Wall
A short drive (11 km) from Senlis is the pretty village of Raray (pronounced Ha HAY, or close to that). The Château de Raray is now a hotel and golf course. It was closed the day we visited, but we were able to sneak in and walk around and get a good view of the “hunting alley.” The 1946 version of “Beauty and the Beast” (La Belle et la Bête) was filmed at Raray.
The Headless Saint
When we run across a saint that I’ve never heard of, I try to look up the origin story. So far, St. Maxence is one of the most extreme. Pont-Sainte-Maxence is a tiny village less than 20 minutes drive from Senlis. We stopped in one day on our way back from Compiegne looking for dinner. As is typical, there’s a very old church in the village, named for St. Maxence, so we looked up the story.
According to the legend, Maxence was an Irish or Scottish princess who converted to Christianity in the 5th century. She refused to marry a pagan chieftain and fled to France. He tracked her down and when she again refused him, he cut her head off. “The virgin (Maxence) took up her head in her own arms out of the place where it was cut of, and carried it to the place where it now lies: where afterward there was a Church erected.” Carl Horstmann reproduced a life of the saint from MS. Stowe 949, written about 1615. (from Wikipedia)
Besides headless saints, the village is very pretty and we found a wonderful little creperie, Tri Martolod.
Stumbling Onto a Gem
Looking for something to do one Sunday, we came across Crépy-en-Valois, about a 25 minute drive from Senlis. The town has some really beautiful buildings, a cathedral (naturally), abbey ruins, and the Musee de L’Archerie & Du Valois (Museum of Archery & Valois). Well worth a visit, if you are in the general area.
The building housing the museum is itself a historical monument. What’s left today are the remains of a 12th century castle, though the original castle dates from as far back as 1030. They have artifacts from across the globe tracing the history of archery. The different styles of bows and arrows is fascinating.
There were also several buildings that had interesting little embellishments. And, of course, Joan of Arc slept here on her way to Compiegne.
A Ruin that Didn’t Have to Happen
Across the UK and France, we’ve seen many, many castles. Some of the very old structures are in ruins due to time or ancient battles. The Château de Coucy in Coucy-le-Château-Auffrique was unique to us because while it was very old (early 13th century), it had survived more than 700 years (with major renovations in the 19th century) — only to be purposely destroyed by the retreating German army during WWI. The ruins were declared “a memorial to barbarity” and though much of the rubble was cleared, the ruins were left in place as a reminder.
In it’s prime, the keep was the largest in Europe at 35 meters wide and 55 meters tall (that’s 115 feet wide and 180 feet tall roughly). The complex still quite impressive, but the needless destruction of such a historical and beautiful landmark made me sad.
Chateau de Coucy is about an hour and 15 minutes by car from Senlis, nearly 2 hours from Paris. There wasn’t much else to see in the village, but this was a fascinating site and I’m glad we went.
Off the Beaten Path
One of the best things about being a digital nomad is that we have gone to places that most tourists never see. We are able to stay in one place long enough that we can hunt for the “hidden gems” and learn more about the history and people in each area.