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Chantilly On the Hoof

photo, team of horses, senlis

Better their feet than yours on Senlis' cobbles.

Senlis On the Rocks

Paris:– Saturday, 26. March:– Every once in a long while I get an urge to go out of town, to see what this country France looks like. A lot of people come back from it with glowing reports, such as the ones I heard last night at Uncle Den–Den's, between courses of a colossal pasta feast. Zip off to the Alps for a swim in the Lac d'Annecy – why not? Spring started last week.

No, but Ho! That is too far out of town for a day trip even if it involves a ride on a super–nifty French train, king of the rails! Besides, I don't like Alps. I fear avalanches, even in Montparnasse.

Also eliminated – Amiens, bombed to smithereens – Arras, only has one star or two – Dijon, I love mustard but it's too far, even though its sausages may be better than the ones in Troyes.

So gradually it's look at the rail map for the Ile–de–France and gradually Chantilly fallsphoto, grande ecurie, chantilly into consideration. Thanks to Heather Stimmler–Hall I now have an up–to–date guide book, for adventures no less. What a thrilling idea to go to Chantilly and see... see what? I can only force myself to read a guide book when I'm not going anywhere. I must of had a lousy upbringing.

Pretty as a postcard – Chantilly's famous horse barn.

But all the same I get up early today and trundle down to the RER station at Denfert and ride a RER train up to Gare du Nord. Heather's book says I should take the RER or the train to Chantilly, but doesn't say how to find it in the Gare du Nord. From the look of the signs nobody else knows where it is either.

Some escalators later a ticket kiosk is discovered, by virtue of its considerable line of potential passengers, their baggage, their kids and their wheelie carts. At first three windows are open but this is far too efficient and one is shut. A waiting lady says, "Incroyable!" She must be a foreigner.

My ticket, when I get it, is one of the big old–fashioned cards, like an airline boarding pass. Before leaving the kiosk I have enough smarts to ask for the departure track number but not enough to ask where to find it. After passing through unshut gates and descending multiple escalators, a certain track 41 is found deep underground with a RER train about to leave – no time to read 'for where?' – and my 'adventure' begins.

My regional RER maps must be out–of–date because the RER train, after passing some tattered 'Bidonvilles,' arrives at Chantilly–Gouvieux. Oh, I see now. This is beyond zone 5, north, on the way to Creil. It requires a special map, one showing boonies beyond the Paris transit zones. I guess I'm lucky they sold me a ticket regardless of its shape. On second thought, I could have gone to Dijon.

Too late for that. The Chantilly station is not fancy. Signs on its doors says beware of the transit strike even though it doesn't affect RER lines 'B,' 'C' and 'D.' I think I must remember to take the RER back, and then forget it. There is nothing remarkable outside the station, but the town's Tourist Office is only a short block away.

The pleasant fellow there is a bit thrown off by the question about the bus going to Senlis. He thinks there is one but has never used it himself. My Paris street–smarts tell me that a bus stop is easy enough to find, so I set out on foot to see Chantilly.

Chantilly is a small town in a 'L' shape with a big racetrack taking up all the space between the two arms of the letter. By the look of it, it is a fine place with lots of green grass and splendid stands for viewing races, and it is closed and only a few joggers are loping around the track.

But it is a nice enough day so I walk towards the château. The paths are a bit lumpy, but the grass beside them is green. Presently, after some considerable time, I arrive at a big stone building. It is fancy, but I don't think it is what I've come to see, so I walk around it. It takes 15 minutes to get to the front door at the back.

It is the Grandes Ecuries, a stone horse barn, with room for 240 horses, 140 dogs for hunting deer and 280 other assorted dogs for harassing other animals. I didn't know it was legal to mix horses and dogs. Actually, the Michelin guide says the whole caboola – along with the racetrack – is a 'grande curiousité.'

It is Easter so there are shows in the horse barn three times a day, but it costs 8€ for a peek inside. The weather is too nice for it so I continue on towards the châteauphoto, street, senlis which is in view even if it's a long way off. It's lumpy walking though, tricky for ankles.

After crossing a stone bridge and passing an iron grille I am stopped from entering the park of the château by some sort of functionary who emerges from the shade of a little kiosk. He says I need to buy a ticket, but I see no sign of it on his shabby hut. I have managed to overlook another building, with rope lines like a bank, that is peddling trinkets – and tickets.

Typical street in Senlis has few palms.

It costs 8€ to see the inside of the Grand Condé's house, or 4€ just to walk around his garden. This is a lot more than at Louis XIV's place in Versailles – who does this Grand Condé think he is? Oh, I see now, it cost Louis a pretty packet to out–splendor this Condé.

Who, nevertheless, invited Louis and 5000 close friends to a dinner for three days in April of 1671. There were 60 tables with 80 places each, and at the end of the three days the cook, Vatel, fell on his sword, mortally. No mention is made of the tip thus spared Louis.

On the way to find the bus to Senlis I see a direction sign pointing to the Easter egg garden, the Potager des Princes in the Parc de la Faisanderie. Its gate is closed and its wall is too high to see anything. Otherwise, the entry costs 8€, which I decide to spare myself.

At a hairdresser's salon on the long arm of the 'L' in Chantilly I ask again about the bus to Senlis. This pleasantphoto, cafe le balto, senlis young man has never heard of it, but if it exists, it might be at the marché or the train station. Other bus stops along the way seem to be for a municipal shuttle bus that cruises by occasionally.

An outstanding leisure establishment.

At the train station there is no sign of a bus stop, just like there wasn't on arrival. I stand in the street and look like I'm waiting for a bus and one appears, and stops hesitantly. The driver says the bus stop is behind a building beside the station and he's not supposed to stop in front of the station. To be on the safe side I ask for round–trip tickets to Senlis. The driver says they have to be used before 16:30, which I assume is the time for the last bus.

The bus stops at the Gare Routière in Senlis. As a station it looks like it has seen better days, like when it had tracks. A café nearby serves for a refreshment pause which becomes long on account of the sleepy service. Some couples at another table are drinking big beers are talking in a strange language – is it Flemish? Hungarian?

The old town of Senlis is right around the corner. The streets are paved with old–fashioned cobbles – the kind that were put down 300 years ago, and left the way they were. It is shortly after the noon pause, so the few visitors are examining the old, mostly stone buildings. It is very authentic and very old.

The last French king to stay here was Henri IV. He was preceded by the king, Hugues Capet, who was put forward by the Archbishop of Reims, in 987, in Senlis. The cathedral was started 16 years after the one in Saint–Denis and ten years before Notre Dame in Paris.

There is another old, smaller church, Saint–Pierre. Within what's left of a Gallo–Roman wall, the town of stone huddles at odds and ends, leans and soars, half–timbered in places. A clockmaker went bonkers in 1789 and shot up a parade, killing 26 and wounding 40 beforephoto, street, senlis he was himself demolished. Be sure to see the Hôtel de Ville, rebuilt in 1495, and don't miss the Gallo– Roman arena even if it is a bit out of town.

But those cobbles! Sidewalks, where they exist, are narrow. Cars for some reason, are allowed inside the town – even through there's a shuttle–bus making frequent rounds. Whole tour – 7 minutes, hardly enough to ride.

While the cobbles seem to be the same, many are actually different.

Okay, also for the cobbles, there are horse– drawn buggy tours clopping around too. Easy on the feet. Fancy buggies and very cool– looking horses. Today they are all white ones. Clopping down the stone alleys, under the houses bridging some streets. Few, few enough, boutiques. Lots of old stone.

For the attractions I see, I get the impression the entry charge is half of Chantilly's. All the same I want to catch that last bus back, so I hike the five minutes back on the cobbles to the Gare Routière to be in time for the 16:30 bus.

There is no bus at 16:30. There is the municipal shuttle–bus coming by every seven minutes, and there are other, bigger municipal buses. In the big area in front of the station I finally find the bus stop. The one not for the bus to Roissy. Some young ladies are playing digital camera and park– the–car, and some shoppers come by on the way to someplace else.

Three ladies show up and wait three minutes and a bus arrives and takes them away. Half an hour later another lady shows up with a bag on wheels and begins to wait. Then a big bus arrives and lets off its passengers. We wait and then begin to think maybe we should cross over and get on it, but the driver leans out the window to say we should go back where we were. There are no other cars or buses around.

He swings the bus around to our side of the station and I climb on board with my return ticket ready. The driver says it's no good. It's expired, it's after 16:30. I buy more tickets, and the bus returns quickly to Chantilly, to the invisible bus stop behind the building beside the station.

In the station there is a crowd gathered in front of the ticket window. The sign on the station door says the nextphoto, street, senlis train for Paris is at 19:20. But a TV monitor over the doorway to the platform indicates a RER train at 18:38. I go across the street to a café–PMU where a bunch of loubards are having a shout. The café is like brown water again.

Senlis residents were not tempted into street dancing for Easter.

Freight trains speed through the station and one passenger train rips past. At the correct time an empty RER train creeps into the station and I get on. Darkness is falling so I don't see the 'Bidonville' on the way back. Maybe it's a different line. A lot of passengers get off at the Stade de France, and a lot more at Gare du Nord. I stay on to switch at Châtelet, another maze.

Door–to–door, Senlis–Montparnasse, takes three hours 45 minutes. It will be some time before I foolishly risk leaving town again. I think the next destination may as well be Dijon, even though it's so far away that it'll probably take a week to return from it.

Speak French? Speak it Better!
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