Paris is currently under siege by the highest level of air pollution the poor city has seen in 10 years.
Air pollution. No, not Paris! you say. Paris, with its romance and its mystery and its unparalleled perfection, cannot possibly have a problem with air pollution! Alas, even gay Paris must account for its industrial waste and its dependence on diesel fuels. The illusion was shattered for me and now I must share the stinky, smoggy truth with you. Sorry.
This pollution problem, however crummy it may be, hasn’t come without its perks. In an effort to improve air quality by encouraging would-be drivers to stay off the road, public transportation within the whole of the Île-de-France has been free on and off for the past two weeks. Tempted by this incentive and backed by our aversion to inhaling all of those nasty particles all day, Chris and I set out last week on a regional train to Rambouillet – a charming commune located about 30 miles southwest of hazy Paris center and home to a 650 year-old château – to breathe deep the sweet country air.
Rambouillet truly was a breath of fresh air – in more ways than one. This was the first time Chris and I had been outside the city since we arrived in Paris earlier in the Fall, so both our lungs and our urban-overloaded souls were perceivably grateful for the break. Maybe it was power of suggestion, but, from the moment we stepped out of the train station and into the sunlight, I swear the air tasted lighter, more pleasant and crisp on that cool afternoon. Deep breath in. Deep breath out. Refreshing.
On our way to the château, we meandered first through Rambouillet’s quaint downtown. The narrow cobblestone streets clacked under our shoes as we enjoyed the Christmas lights and the festively decked shop windows. Overall, the town was quiet – not without a passing car or a few shoppers, but still peaceful and relaxed. It was just what the doctor ordered. We stopped to admire the artistry of a few ice-skaters on a makeshift rink before grabbing a late lunch at a corner brasserie.
Eventually, we made our way to the grounds of la Château de Rambouillet, the ivy-covered palace that, throughout its history, has been home to some of France’s most notable royals including François I, the Count of Toulouse, the Duke of Penthièvre, Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, and Napoleon I.
We read prior to venturing out that the château had more recently served as a summer home for French presidents before, in 2009, it was handed over to the Centre des Monuments Nationaux for preservation. We also read that, as part of this preservation effort, the château itself would be closed to the public this year for renovations. No matter. It was a lovely day – blue, cloudless sky, cool but not freezing – and we would still be able to enjoy the château’s beautiful exterior and its expansive gardens.
When we finally came upon the château, however, we couldn’t help but to laugh out loud. Our guidebook wasn’t kidding when it said the palace was under renovation! Click here to see what la Château de Rambouillet looks like without all of the plastic and scaffolding. She really is beautiful, I promise!
Leaving the château and its plastic shell behind, we began our tour of the gardens. Paths line the large, manmade pond – perfect for an afternoon stroll and a visit with the wildlife. I regretted leaving the rest of our uneaten baguette on the table after lunch! What a treat that would have been for our new friends…
Walking along the path, we noticed that the pond had begun to freeze over. A thin, icy film muted the reflections of the now-bare trees, making the water look dense and murky. Winter is coming.
Over the garden wall, we could see the town of Rambouillet and the towering steeple of l’Eglise Saint Lubin de Rambouillet Catholic church.
We followed the path along an arm of the pond, hiking into the trees and reveling in the familiar scent of fallen leaves. Trees! Forest! When was the last time I took a walk in the forest? The sun was beginning to set. It cast long, spindly shadows onto the path in front of us. Chris and I couldn’t help but feel giddy and at peace; refreshed and content. Fresh air and a few vibrant trees will do that to you, I guess.
Once the sun hit the horizon, we knew the gardens would be closing soon. We made our way towards the exit, stopping once more to admire the château in all of its majesty before slipping out the side gate. Use your imagination, guys… isn’t she stunning?!
With that, Chris and I partook in a post-walk espresso, boarded the train en route to Paris, and said au revoir to Rambouillet. We want to return in the spring when the gardens are flecked with flowers and when, perhaps, the château is no longer covered in plastic. Until then, we’ll reflect on that afternoon in late fall when, despite it all, the town of Rambouillet offered us the breath of fresh air our lungs and our souls needed.