‘The Westchester Of Paris’

12/13/2011
Travel Writer

The chilly fog of Paris, and its neat rows of Hausman-era rooflines, receded as we drove north on the highway toward Lille, the city giving way to thick forests and wide-open fields of green still vivid on this late-fall weekend.

It was Thanksgiving weekend, to be precise, and my husband, Oggi, and I were spending the holiday with cousins who settled awhile back in French horse country. Twenty-five miles northeast through thick woods dotted with streams and the odd chateau take you into the Department of Oise.

Still within the Paris orbit, Oise’s medieval villages, castles and exquisitely tended landscapes are quintessential rural France, and rich with history. Senlis — compact and picturesque — makes a terrific base for exploring the area.

Oise makes an ideal side trip from Paris. Overlooked by foreign tourists, this area is as relaxing today as it was for bygone kings.

Historically, this was the country retreat of French royalty: Senlis calls itself “The Royal City,” and nearby Compiègne has been a kingly hideaway since the origins of the monarchy. Where Louis XVI and Napoleon once escaped from the day-to-day pressures of Paris, affluent professionals today raise their families away from the urban bustle.

“Oise is the Westchester of Paris,” I commented to my cousin as we made the rounds on Senlis’ main shopping street, where we stopped by a pastry shop out of a Juliette Binoche movie, and picked up our turkey from a butcher shop with mouth-watering cuts (and eye-popping prices). On a Saturday evening, there was a merry bustle of mercis and au revoirs as locals scurried along the cobblestone lanes from one specialty shop to another, greeting each other with a flurry of kisses.

Like much of the area, Senlis dates back at least to Roman times, when its sizable Jewish community had its own quarter — centered on what is today Rue de la Chancellerie. But Catholicism has long dominated, most visibly in the imposing 12th-century Cathedral of Notre Dame, whose 250-foot spires are visible across miles of farm fields.

Mostly, Senlis is lovely just to wander around. Third-century Roman defensive walls and sandy-colored buildings marry perfectly with the peaceful green landscape; on the outskirts of town, ancient cow paths are laced with canals and crystal-clear streams.

Just west of Senlis is Chantilly, where a grand chateau documents the lavish eccentricity of one French royal. That would be Louis-Henri of Bourbon, the Prince of Condé, who went from being an intimate of King Louis XV to an exile from Paris. But what an exile: With a palace like Chantilly, who needs Versailles?

Louis-Henri believed that after his death, he would be reincarnated as a horse. That explains why his stables are so nice — his architect was specifically ordered to build grandiose pens appropriate to a horse of his rank. The 500-foot-long Great Stables date to 1719 and were recently restored; where Louis-Henri once lodged his 240 horses and 500 hounds, today stands the Living Museum of the Horse, with 31 live steeds and more than 1,000 paintings and drawings that focus on the prince’s equine passion.

A 20-minute drive north, Compiègne is both a town and a forest that boasts 60 miles of trails and natural mineral springs. To walk these woods is to walk thousands of years of French history: Julius Caesar scored a decisive victory in the Gallic Wars here, while generations of later French princes got lost — sometimes for days — amid the brambles.

The erstwhile Camp David of France, Compiegne’s current palace dates to 1750. Napoleon redecorated the whole place, and his nephew, Emperor Napoleon III, used the spread as his autumn residence, where he and favored guests could let their wigs down. Today you can stroll their lavish, gilt-trimmed apartments and landscaped gardens.

The mood was probably less relaxed at the Glade of the Armistice, in the Compiègne Forest, where two historic treaties were signed: the 1918 German surrender to the Allies, and the 1940 French capitulation to Hitler, who chose the spot for its humiliating symbolism. Today the Glade, with a small museum and statue of Marshall Foch, is a much-visited memorial to 20th-century European bloodshed.

Even as Hitler was extracting his vengeance, Nazis were building a concentration camp nearby in these woods. More than a million French Jews were interned here in 1942 while en route to Auschwitz. Today the site houses the Memorial of Internment and Deportation, where you can tour the original barracks and bear witness to a somber chapter of French history.

The ethnic-separatist tyrants of the mid-20th Century could hardly imagine how multicultural their continent would become. Even back in tiny, out-of-the-way Senlis, we heard American and South African English on both the streets and the traffic radio.

Visually, the towns of Oise appear strikingly homogeneous — white, older, affluent. There’s no evidence of the North African and Asian immigration that has transformed metropolitan France.

I learned from locals that this is no coincidence: locals opted to shut down Senlis’ train station rather than risk an influx of carless, working-class commuters. On one level, this exclusionism has worked, with no Chinese restaurants or kebab shops to mar Senlis’ picture-perfect Frenchness.

Yet in a very real sense, such measures are inherent failures. A 21st-century French town designed to ward off modern trends is by definition not the organically immigrant-free village of simpler, less migratory times.

As my cousin dropped us off in Le Bourget — a grim airport suburb of wall-to-wall halal joints, and a major commuter hub — I saw the other face of contemporary Paris. No royal will ever retreat to Le Bourget for R&R, and the landscapes are lovelier elsewhere.

But after a weekend immersed in tidily landscaped Gallic history, I was ready for the chaos of the bustling, soot-choked city. 

The ruins of a royal castle ruins and Roman walls in Senlis. Photos courtesy of Office de Tourisme de Senlis

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