The weather in Paris is finally getting nice enough to enjoy the sunshine and start craving a bit of nature and tranquility. And while there are actually many green spaces throughout the city, some hidden and almost secluded, there’s nothing like a bike ride through the countryside just outside Paris to escape the masses and reconnect with nature.
So what is the best way to experience the Parisian countryside without any hassle? Contact Bruce from French Mystique Bike Tours, and he will take care of everything. Originally from Boston, Bruce moved to France in 2008 and spent his free time exploring the little towns, villages and countryside just outside Paris with nothing but a Michelin map and his bike. A few years ago he started French Mystique Bike tours to share his favorite routes with visitors (and Parisians) looking to truly get off the beaten path.
I spent most of the winter in front of my computer (pesky knee problems keeping me from running since January), so when spring finally arrived in Paris I was ready for some fresh air and exercise. So I emailed Bruce and asked if he had any suggestions for an easy-on-the-knees half day trip, and he suggested the Chantilly-to-Senlis route. I go to Chantilly quite often, but I hadn’t been to Senlis since writing an “Adventure Guide” to the region in 2004, even though I remembered liking it a lot.
So we agreed on the date and time, and I joined him at a bike shop in Paris near the Rex Theatre (Grands Boulevards district, 9th) armed with just my camera, phone, cash, and a small backpack to carry my hat (for the sun) and windbreaker (it was a little chilly in the morning). Bruce had taken care of everything in advance, including the train tickets, bike helmets (not required), water bottles and paniers to carry any supplies for the day (so I didn’t even need my backpack). He had two sturdy (and comfortable) bikes ready to go, chosen based on my height, which he asked in advance.
After a quick brief on hand signals (for city riding) and how to change gears, we rode for about ten minutes through Paris to the Gare du Nord station. If you’re not used to riding in a city, this may seem like the scariest part, but you’re mostly on bike paths and sidewalks for the short ride. When we arrived at the station he knew exactly where to line up on the platform to get the bike compartment of the train, and hung our bikes from the designated hooks while I grabbed us two seats.
The train to Chantilly is about a half hour. Once there we rode through the town and past the famous Château de Chantilly, its 18th-century stables, and the Grand Canal. The most strenuous part of the trip was the hill just outside the town on the way to Senlis. He said I could walk the bike up the hill if I wanted, but I’m too lazy to walk so I just down-shifted all the way to the lowest gear and took my time.
With its Roman-era ramparts, Gothic ruins and ancient cobblestone streets, Senlis is often used as the setting for period films. We stopped in a bakery for picnic provisions and ate next to the ruins of an old French royal residence. Afterwards we had time for coffee on a café terrace where a half-dozen locals were enjoying the sun. Compared to Paris it was completely dead. Perfect for taking photos without people walking into your shot (if you’ve ever tried to take a scenery photo of Paris without humans in it you know what I mean). We took a different route back into Chantilly past the château gardens, and caught the train back to Paris.
If you’re allergic to “tours” you’ll like Bruce’s relaxed guiding style. He’ll fill you in on the local history and point out great places to eat, but he never lectures or makes you listen to long, complicated stories. It feels more like a nice ride with a cool friend who knows his way around (and how to change a flat tire). Which is exactly what I like when I’m on vacation. And because he never has more than five people in a group, you’ll never feel like you’re on a “tour”, gawking at the locals as if you’re on safari.
These tours are not for people who haven’t been on a bike for years, but they also aren’t so strenuous that you need to be a regular cyclist as long as you’ve got a good cardio base. I definitely got a good workout, but despite Bruce’s offer to stop whenever I wanted to take a photo, I managed to take most of these while still riding (not actually recommended, since you could end up in a ravine or wrapped around a tree).
French Mystique Tours also has trips to Giverny, Fontainebleau, Château Vaux-le-Vicomte, Chartres, the medieval town of Provins, the Marne River (I can’t wait to do that one!), and many other towns you probably have never heard of if you’re not French, but are well worth a visit. Bruce even does a real Secrets of Paris bike tour that takes you to neighborhoods you’d never find through any other tour operators.
Tours are 3-7 hours and cost €150-€295 for up to five people, plus €30/person bike rental and any train or château entrance tickets if needed, all detailed in the trip reports and tour summaries on the website. Bruce can also customize tours on request, just ask!