Getting Out of Town: Destination Sceaux
I love Paris, but sometimes a girl needs green. I have a busy schedule, so often the best I can do is to take in a small dose via public transportation. When the mood hits, I know that Sceaux is the place to go. I pack up the kids and we’re off to a quaint town with picturesque lampposts, excellent food, a charming château and a stupendous park.
The Château de Sceaux was built by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who became finance minister to King Louis XIV after Fouquet was found to be a bit too ambitious. Colbert hired the best: the Perrault brothers, Le Brun, Mansart and, of course, André Le Nôtre for the gardens. Much, but not all, of the château was destroyed during the Revolution. Renovations were carried out in the 19th century, and the gardens in particular were restored to their original glory. Today the château is home to the Musée de l’Île de France, a museum that offers free exhibits on the region (and has public restrooms).
Originally all the châteaux were there to protect the people, so with each château invariably there is a town nearby. Sceaux is no exception. The town is now an upper-class suburb of Paris with an elegant little downtown that is home to the fabulous chocolatier Patrick Roger and his remarkable store windows. Saturday and Wednesday are market days, so be sure to follow the crowds, passing the Parish church along the way, into the antique covered market to stock up for a picnic in the park.
After the market, I usually head to the right of the church for some extraordinary breads and truly remarkable fruit tarts at l’Etoile du Berger. Next, I enter the château grounds through a small door in a rather thick stone wall, a mere 50 yards farther along. I like to head to the area around the château before choosing my picnic spot.
The Parc de Sceaux is one of my favorite formal gardens in the entire country. The trees are cropped into inverted cones and soaring cubes and the canals form long algae-rich rectangles, dotted with fountains throughout—a living Cubist masterpiece in green. And it is one of the most entertaining . . . In a very un-Frenchlike manner, you are allowed on the grass at Sceaux! Locals come out to fish, bike, play Frisbee and picnic. I bring the badminton kit or take advantage of the gravel paths for a match of pétanque (a game similar to boccie). On Saturdays the lawn in front of the château is a favorite spot for the African community to photograph wedding parties, the women in their ornate hats and bright colors, often chanting traditional songs. There is also a public swimming pool, along with tennis courts, a playground and wide allées for a simple stroll. If all this activity has you thirsty, there is a snack bar next to the château.
If you are not the sporty type and decorative arts leave you cold, there is music. The annual concert festival in the 350-year-old orangerie is a treat. And there is an opera held outdoors at the park every year, with the château providing a breathtaking backdrop. Swallows dash overhead as sopranos sing to Mozart’s Magic Flute, or Rossini’s Barber of Seville, with the Opéra en Plein Air. This year promises to be excellent, with Carmen taking center stage.
Getting there couldn’t be easier. We either take our bikes, following the Coulée Verte bike paths that run the 14 kilometers from Paris to Sceaux, or hop on the RER B for the half-hour ride to the Parc de Sceaux station. From there it’s a 10-minute walk and voilà, you’ve arrived.