Father, Daughter, Hill and Dale
Logic would have it that the greatest satisfaction comes from setting oneself gargantuan goals that somehow one manages to achieve—the stuff of Julius Cesar and Bill Gates, for example. For most of us, lesser successes render a fine sense of achievement. Then it’s time for bed. Lucie and I agreed to a minor but not insignificant challenge. We met at Montparnasse with our bikes on the Friday evening of a three-day weekend. As was to be expected, a frantic mob occupied the station, loitering awkwardly in the main hall’s single strangled thoroughfare, dragging colossal suitcases, blocking access to the platforms, etc. Bedlam. After several minutes staring at an unmoving departure board, I noted the sudden appearance of a number in our column and jolted to attention. “Platform 14!” I hollered to Lucie across the crowd. “Run!” The Montparnasse commuter train platforms are roughly four kilometers long. Once past the scrambling horde, I stood on my pedal and pushed the bike to speed while Lucie sprinted beside hers, nearly trampling several toddlers. The train doors rolled shut as we wrestled our bikes into the car and claimed seats. An hour later we were comfortably installed in a room at the Hotel Saint Laurent, a charming inn 100 meters down a cobbled street from Montfort l'Amaury’s main square. If the train station ordeal and cramped ride west qualify as obstacles, the rest of our evening constituted our recompense: beer and a spritz amid a countrified beau monde for starters, followed by dinner in a chic tapas bar and too much wine. There are basically two ways to return to southwestern Paris from Montfort l’Amaury—the short way, about 40 kms, which keeps cyclists uncomfortably close to the cacophonous commercial corridor that throbs along the Route Nationale 10; or the long way, nearly double in length but several times more lovely, which ushers peddlers through a garden of Eden punctuated by quaint stone villages. Lucie and I chose the latter option.
The trip highlights begin just three kilometers from Montfort, where the spectacular Château des Mesnuls dominates an enchanting hamlet of the same name. You can even stay at the chateau if you’re inclined to lighten your wallet. Before tackling the bone-crushing cobblestones of Les Mesnuls’ Main Street, check your map to confirm a path along the back roads to the stone burg of Auffargis, nine kilometers distant. The primary route between these two towns looks peaceful but plays host to a constant stream of breakneck drivers. Choose well and you can instead pedal silent, hard-packed forest roads for most of the distance.
Cycling slowly is no crime. If you want to take your time, turn this one-day trip into two, stopping overnight at the charming Abbaye des Vaux de Cernay.
From Auffargis take the D24 east through the Vaux de Cernay, a virtually untouched forest valley eight kilometers long and home to an enchanting old abbey now transformed into a luxury hotel and restaurant—another magical place to stay the night.
At the end of the valley take your pick: Go left and you end up in Dampierre with its café, restaurant, antique shop and chateau which is open to the public; or go straight to Cernay la Ville and 5km across the plateau to the Chateau de Breteuil, also open to visitors.
Château de Breteuil, construction of which began in 1580.
You’ll be about halfway home at this point, and probably getting hungry. For lunch several options lay within a few kilometers of either chateau—all of them in the Vallée de Chevreuse, whose salient towns are Chevreuse, St. Remy les Chevreuse and, a bit further east, Gif-sur-Yvette, where Lucie and I stopped at a cheerful crêperie in the village center. All routes to Paris from the Vallée de Chevreuse take you across the Plateau de Saclay, once an expansive beet field, now the drawing board for a massive urban expansion project known as Le Grand Paris. Most of the plateau’s acreage is still dedicated to agriculture, but not for long. New roads and buildings are going up fast. Head toward the town of Bièvres, which will be the last bucolic scene before you wend your way through the suburbs and eventually reenter Paris. At which point you will have overcome your challenge and be ready to relish the satisfaction that comes with your achievement.