When I stepped off the train on Friday afternoon, the very first thing I noticed was an intense, peaceful calm. No honking horns. No sirens ablaze. No people quacking incessantly on their cellphones. Not even the irritating buzz of a teenager’s souped-up motorbike racing past me. Nothing, that is but quiet and a sense of serenity.
As I climbed the stairs of the train station and crossed the bridge over the tracks below, I let out an involuntary sigh of relief. “I feel like I’m in the middle of the countryside,” I hear my voice saying aloud, to no one and anyone.
Each block I took further into this western suburb of Paris – the Montreuil section of the town of Versailles – brought me deeper into this feeling of being a hundred miles from “the city”. In reality, I was but a 20 minute train ride from Saint-Lazare station in the middle of Paris. For those of you who are familiar with Toronto, that’s like taking the express train to Oakville from Union Station.
Unlike the Haussmanian buildings that dominate the Parisian landscape, the suburbs are filled with various types of architecture boasting some remarkable stone work. Some of the buildings date much further back than Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s (the III) vast reconstruction of the city under Georges-Eugène Haussmann when he added the characteristic six storey buildings with their wrought-iron balconies and chimney stacks that have become emblematic of what we think of as Paris today. Haussmann also built the major boulevards, the gardens, the sewer system, the Bois, and even Place de l’Étoile at the top of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. It is estimated that in total Haussmann rebuilt 60% of Paris. But his reach is much less evident in the smaller towns surrounding the big city. Even the area of Paris where I live, the Village d’Auteuil, as well as other areas of the city were their own towns until they were annexed during the great Hausssmann expansion of the 1860s, a time when Paris went from a medieval town of 12 arrondissements to its current and modern 20.
Having lived in a number of big cities in my life – places like Boston & New York, Washington DC & Toronto, London & Paris – I am by now so used to the constant noise of city-life that I hardly hear ambulances screeching down the road in the middle of the night or car alarms accidentally sounding as someone fumbles drunkenly with their keys. But then I go spend an afternoon in a pleasant suburb or a week in the rolling wine fields of my parents-in-law’s country place, and the sheer silence renders me instantly and profoundly at ease. An ease I’d forgotten.
I’m not sure if we city-dwellers know or realize how much strain the constant noise that surrounds our lives affects us. I felt is clearly when I stepped off that train in the residential area of Versailles the other day. It was like a weight lifting from my shoulders, an unconscious tension evaporating for the few hours I stayed in this parallel reality so close to and yet so very unlike Paris.
In all my years living in Paris, I have rarely ventured out into the suburbs, la banlieue as it is called in French. As is the case with all big cities, certain surrounding areas are nicer than others, some dominated by commerce, filled with box stores and large building complexes; others are more residential featuring houses and gardens. To the west of Paris you will find the latter, a refuge from the chaos and noise, all the unnecessary excitement of big city life. Two of the most exclusive of these western suburbs are Versailles and Saint-Germain-en-Laye. This is where you will find the Chateau of Versailles, bien évidemment, as well as a number of forests, lakes and golf courses.
Family business took me to the Montreuil corner of Versailles on Friday. I had been asked to represent my husband’s family at the funeral of a good friend. I embarked upon the task with low expectations as I expected a rather crowded and unpleasant trip on the RER, which is my least favorite mode of Parisian transportation. To my delight, however, the way the locals commute to Versailles is by the regional train called the SNCF Transilien. Covering the Ile-de-France department of France, in which lies Paris and its banlieue, the Transilien lines are quite agreeable. You even have a lovely view of the Eiffel Tower and Montmartre topped with Sacre-Coeur along the way. For those of you wanting to visit the Chateau de Versailles – insider tip – hold the RER idea and take the Transilien from Saint-Lazare to Versailles Rive Droite. And then sit back and enjoy the transformation.