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Just what is it that makes the Ile-de-France so attractive, so comfortingly familiar? Is it its proximity to the great city of Paris—or perhaps that it's so far removed?

Had there not been the world-class cultural hub of Paris nearby, would Monet have retreated to his Japanese gardens at Giverny? Or Paul Cézanne and Van Gogh to bucolic Auvers? Kings and courtiers to the game-rich forests of Rambouillet? Would Napoléon have truly settled at Malmaison and then abdicated at the palace of Fontainebleau? Would abbeys and cathedrals have sprung skyward in Chartres and Senlis?

If you had asked Louis XIV, he wouldn'Read More
t have minced his words: the city of Paris—yawn—was simply démodée—out of fashion. In the 17th century the new power base was going to be Versailles, once a tiny village in the heart of the Ile-de-France, now the site of a gigantic château from which the Sun King's rays could radiate, unfettered by rebellious rabble and European arrivistes. Of course, later heirs kept the lines open and restored the grandiose palace as the governmental hub it was meant to be—and commuted to Paris, well before the high-speed RER.

That, indeed, is the dream of most Parisians today: to have a foot in both worlds. Paris may be small as capital cities go, with slightly fewer than 2¼ million inhabitants, but the Ile-de-France, the region around Paris, contains more than 12 million people—a sixth of France's entire population. That's why on closer inspection the once-rustic villages of the Ile-de-France reveal cosseted gardens, stylishly gentrified cottages, and extraordinary country restaurants no peasant farmer could afford to frequent.

The nation’s heartland isn’t really an île (island), of course. The green-forested buffer zone that enfolds Paris is only vaguely surrounded by the three rivers that meander through its periphery. But it nevertheless offers a rich and varied sampling of everything you expect from France—grand cathedrals, painters' villages, lavish palaces, plus the bubble gum–pink turrets of Disneyland Paris—all delightfully located within easy shooting distance of the capital.

The Ile-de-France isn’t really an île (island), of course. The green-forested buffer zone that enfolds Paris is only vaguely surrounded by the three rivers that meander through its periphery. But it nevertheless offers a rich and varied sampling of everything you expect from France—grand cathedrals, painters' villages, lavish châteaux, plus the bubble gum–pink turrets of Disneyland Paris—all delightfully located within easy shooting distance of the capital.

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Spring and fall are the optimal times to come. The Ile’s renowned gardens look their best in the former, and its extensive forests are particularly...Read More

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