History and champagne tasting were on offer for us culture vultures during a winter visit to Compiegne in northern France. The Oise area has long been popular with history buffs as a culture rich region full of destinations linked to the two World Wars. However, our long weekend across the channel proved to be more than just a historic venture. In just a few days, we’d immersed ourselves in castles, countryside, Chantilly horse racing and just a little local champagne!
Without the caravan this time, we travelled to France by Eurotunnel with Cherry, our four-legged furball for her first European canine adventure. The process of travelling the 35-minute train journey, after a quick check of her pet passport, was a breeze and helped by plenty of exercise opportunities at the dog agility course at the Folkestone terminal.
A two and a half hour car ride later, we arrived at our hotel, the Logis Hotel Beaudon, set across from a breathtakingly pretty view across a lake with an imposing castle, the “Chateau de Pierrefonds” beyond. Offering over 20 rooms, (some with wheelchair access), and with many of them including a view across that beautiful lake, the hotel staff made us immediately welcome. We soon relaxed into our surroundings, ready to discover the French hospitality in the village. There were plenty of local shops, cafes and pancake houses to indulge our gastronomic curiosities, as well as a lovely forest walk five minutes’ away from the hotel. Pierrefonds lies within easy reach of Paris and takes around an hour by train from the nearby station at Compiegne. The village boasts a campsite too. Camping “Coeur de la Foret” has plenty of glamping options for those who don’t have their own caravan, motorhome, or camper. You can rent a hobbit house, cabin, or vintage caravan if you prefer, so there are plenty of options for different tastes and budgets.
Both the village of Pierrefonds and the town of Compiegne were perfect for our stay, offering plenty of countryside and wooded walks nearby, a Christmas fair, a unique castle, the famous horse racing destination of Chantilly and an afternoon of champagne tasting a drive away. Unfortunately, only I could truly enjoy this last treat, unlike my poor chauffeur husband!
Here are a few reasons why this area is spot on for an easy to access French adventure…
A step back in time
The Armistice Museum is truly one of the most engaging and informative museums we have visited in Europe. We still may not be truly aware of the horrors which soldiers faced between 1914-1918 on all sides and on all fronts. Every year on the 11th hour of the 11th November, and as part of Remembrance Day commemorations, we are able to reflect and pay our respect to those who died and suffered terribly in the First World War and subsequent wars. What is less well known about World War One is the place where the armistice ending the war was signed. This took place in a train carriage, hidden from view from journalists in a wooded clearing in the forest of Compiegne. Fewer people may be aware that the same train carriage was returned to the same place and used by Hitler during the Second World War to sign an armistice marking France’s defeat to the Germans on the 22nd June 1940. This was a humiliating propaganda exercise to show off the beginning of the occupation of France.
A reconstruction of the famous carriage marks the start of your journey of discovery, with English audio and visual displays everywhere, (alongside French commentary), making the entrance fee of seven Euros particularly good value for money. There were plenty of WW1 artefacts from soldiers including tools, weapons and personal items which had been sensitively displayed. On top of this was 3D film footage from the Western Front. We also learned the sad story of Augustin Trebuchon, the last soldier killed at 10.45am on the 11th November 1918. An unexpected highlight were the exhibits relating to events after 1918. One of the pens used to sign the Treaty of Versailles was on display, as well as a copy of the actual treaty itself. The museum also recounted the events of Hitler’s invasion of France in World War Two. Outside the museum was a fabulous display of early tanks and a poignant memorial surrounded by the beautiful forest of Compiegne.
Chantilly- a cultural gem
Famous for its cream, (which appears on the top of many desserts you’ll order in France), a majestic castle, (the Chateau de Chantilly), and a famous racecourse and stables, the town of Chantilly is a superb day out and under an hour’s easy drive from Pierrefonds. We soaked up the beauty of its lavish parks, gardens and castle and were really impressed with its Hippodrome, home to many of France’s horse races. Its grand structure marked a contrast to the miles of parkland surrounding it. On our return into the town, we enjoyed browsing the many independent boutiques lining the streets, many of which were dog friendly. After a lovely warm meal including a dessert with lashings of, (you guessed it), Chantilly cream, we enjoyed a moment taking a festive photo of Cherry against the background of the Christmas market near the centre of the town. I’m not sure if Cherry enjoyed the moment quite as much. Judge for yourself by looking at her photo…
Nature at its best
The Forest of Compiegne, France’s third largest forest, proved to be a blinder in terms of rest and relaxation and something which we both needed on this mini trip. Full of easy to navigate walking and cycling trails, most of which are flat and easy to access, the forest offers opportunities for fishing, walking, running, cycling or horse riding. For the more adventurous, there are even treetop adventure courses. The Clairière de l’Armistice, the glade where the World War One peace treaty was signed, can also be found here, as can one of France’s oldest trees, dating back to the C13th. It’s a lovely spot for a picnic.
Camelot, (a.k.a. Chateau de Pierrefonds)
Built in the late 14th century by Duke Louis of Orléans, the château was taken down in the 17th century and was in ruins when Napoleon III decided to commission an architect to bring it back to its former glory. The exterior and grounds of the castle are truly awesome and, in our opinion, more stunning than its features inside. However, as a tourist attraction five minutes’ walk away from our hotel, it was a great added extra and gave us plenty of brilliant photo opportunities. It’s been made famous by the BBC TV series, “Merlin” where it became Camelot.
A short drive away from Pierrefonds, Compiegne hosted another Christmas market on our visit which was great for my mulled wine addiction. Famous for Joan of Arc’s capture and its proximity to the signing of the WW1 Armistice, the town has plenty to offer visitors. There are lots of shops and eateries to choose from as well as art galleries, a royal palace and a UNESCO site. The palace, or “Chateau de Compiegne” had previously been one of three seats of royal government. It was also popular with Louis XV and Napoleon. You can visit Napoleon I’s apartment and the Empress’s lavish rooms as well as two other museums inside. There are plenty of other beautiful buildings too, such as the town hall and the Saint-Jacques church, a UNESCO site and a stop on the Way of St James pilgrimage route. Another notable place to visit is a former deportation camp, “Camp de Royallieu,” built during the Second World War. It was here that many people including Jews, political opponents and members of the Resistance were detained, before being sent to the concentration camps of Eastern Europe. You can visit some of these buildings as well as a memorial garden and sculpture.
Champagne tasting at the home of Dom Perignon
Although a little further away, we couldn’t leave this lovely area of France before sampling a little of its world-famous sparkling wine. What better, than to be able to enjoy a quiet moment in a sleepy village where just across the road, we could visit the tomb of Dom Perignon, the Benedictine monk legend who is famous for having discovered the process of making champagne? Nestled amongst vineyards, the village of Hautvillers feels like the home of champagne. It is a charming wine-producing village containing characterful buildings decorated with intricately forged shop signs. It is also the place where we spent far too much money on several bottles from the cellar of J.M.Gobillard et Fils, during a champagne tasting afternoon session which was one of the best birthday presents I’ve received! The highlight of our champagne tasting was the fact that it wasn’t rushed, it wasn’t commercialised and it felt much more authentic.
Later in the afternoon, we visited one of the bigger champagne destinations where huge groups of people thronged along the “Avenue de Champagne” in Epernay. Don’t get me wrong, we were impressed with the lavish mansions on display along this main tourist route but we felt that our more intimate session in Hautvillers earlier on, had definitely been more enjoyable. The champagne was lovely by the way!
Of course, by the time we needed to head back home, we hadn’t even visited two other places under an hour away from us, Parc Asterix, (France’s second largest theme park), and Paris itself. These are on the list for our return, although, I’m not sure that rollercoasters and champagne might be such a good mix…
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