Paris is so full of treasures that once I’m there, I don’t like to leave. But last month, the friend of a friend invited me to the cultured suburb of Saint-Germain-en Laye, a half hour from Paris by train. My only regret was that I couldn’t stay in this elegant, medieval city a little longer.
History lovers in particular will want to visit Saint-Germain. French kings François I, Henry IV, Louis XIII, and Louis XIV have all left their mark on the town; the last made the town’s chateau his main residence from 1661 to 1681. Today the chateau contains the National Museum of Archeology, which houses the world’s largest collection of prehistoric art.
Mozart visited Saint-Germain-en-Laye in 1778, staying in the lavish Hôtel de Noailles. This building, built by Hardouin Mansart at the end of the 17th century, is one of the stops on a self-guided walking tour of the city’s historic dwellings. At the beginning of the tour is the birthplace of Claude Debussy, where a small museum contains some of the composer’s personal belongings.
Nabi painter Maurice Denis also lived in Saint-Germain; the museum in his home displays work by Denis, his contemporary Paul Sérusier, and Bonnard, Roussel, Vuillard, and Gaugin. The high point, though, is the 17th century chapel. Entirely designed by Denis and completed in 1928, it is a stunning work of modern art in a beautiful, old world setting.
Complete immersion in the history of Saint-Germain involves an overnight stay at the Château du Val (pictured above). Built as a hunting lodge by Henri IV and later enlarged by Louis XIV, this grand residence with ties to the prestigious Légion d’Honneur sits on the edge of town. Beautifully renovated and appointed, with fabulous food, beautiful gardens, and surprisingly low prices, it’s definitely worth the trip from Paris.