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What about Compiègne!

Like most years I visit France and like to explore places mostly overlooked by others. Compiègne north of Paris is such a place, passed it many times and driving once through it on the way to nearby Pierrefonds but never payed a visit before, so last week time for a closer look. So does this place has something to offer for the interested visitor?

Last Monday April 23rd

Before arriving in Compiègne, about halfway from my home in the Netherlands I drink a coffee in Arras. After two hours driving ideal for a break. The town is a bit quiet this time of the year, but the weather is exceptionally good for April and the two main squares are simply stunning there, it makes me feel already in a completely different world. The real holiday feeling starts here! Compiègne is just 1½ hour driving further and the car park in front of the palace there is free, so no worry about time and tickets.

“Palais de Compiègne” is not only “Royal”, but also “Impérial”, meaning it was also in use after the French Revolution during the reign of emperor Napoleon III, cousin of illustrious emperor Napoleon I. It’s neo-classical architecture is not so flamboyant as the more famous châteaux, however the building is impressively big and the interior offers more than enough for a few hours enjoyment. It looks that too few know that, I had almost the whole building to myself....the hall of mirrors completely empty, well except me and two attendants. The rooms decorated in different time periods are as good as any other palace in France. Finally in the basement there is a little car museum to wonder and behind windows a big poorly lit storage completely filled with some fifty sleeping beauties covered under a thick layer of dust, not cars but all kinds of horse carriages....

Compiègne itself is a very nice place with a pleasant laidback atmosphere, perfect for wandering around. It is far from touristy, so most visitors are locals like those savoring a drink in the sun. There are almost no modern ugly buildings spoiling the beauty of the place, Compiègne is as quintessential French as it can be. Perfect for me, likely it misses something spectacular that can draw the crowds, so it remains under the radar for most, but to be honoust I don’t care, this is the way I like it. Before going back to my car I have a quick look inside gothic “Eglise Saint-Jaques”, still in use as a real church so still having it’s sool that makes a church a church. Finally have a scenic drive through the palace’s park before moving further.

Actually Compiègne is most and for all famous for the WW1 Armistice, signed in a railway carriage hidden away in a clearing in the palace’s forest. It’s a special place, I can’t describe how but it reminds me somehow to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the base of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. A moving monument there is the one of August Trébuchon, the last French soldier killed just 15 minutes before the armistice of WW1 came into effect, poor poor man! The railway carriage looks exactly the same, but replaces the original one that was destroyed by the nazi’s after showing around in Berlin as a spoils of war for their propaganda, it was the place the French were forced to sign their defeat in June 1940.

Before going to the campsite near Chantilly I really need to make a detour to Pierrefonds. It’s for the third time and even the castle is not so original, it’s a 19th century rebuild, I can’t help it but can’t get enough of this place, so beautiful!

My visit to Compiègne was actually too brief to do it justice, I could have stayed longer, but what a place to enjoy. If, for once, you don’t care about a spectaculair site and looking for a nice place to visit not too far from Paris, Compiègne especially combined with Pierrefonds can be a worthwile daytrip!

Posted by
1054 posts

Thanks for the lovely report. I visited Compiègne briefly on a bike trip from Paris to Bruges and visited the park with the armistice carriage. You’re correct in stating that it carries a solemn and moving atmosphere.

Posted by
1733 posts

Glad to hear my report is useful!

Keeping it focused on Compiègne I didn’t say anything about the scenic drive to Pierrefonds, so here we go.....

You can drive straight through the forest, but prefered making a lovely little detour. From “Clairière de l’Armistice” I crossed nearby river Aisne to the D81 in Le Francport. Following this road east and before heading further, in Rethondes I turned left to Saint-Crépin-aux-Bois and cute Offémont to see there the château on top of a hill overlooking the valley.

Back in Rethondes drove along the D81 further to Berneuil-sur-Aisne to take there the D335 to Pierrefonds. Was thinking also extending the detour to lovely Vic-sur-Aisne, but likely it would have been too much and before you know you are rushing to see it all, actually spoiling the fun you already have. Entering the winding streets of Pierrefonds surprisingly couldn’t find the château immediately that really dominates the place, it’s not so big there, so where is it? But you know I need to be focused driving safely and that doesn’t go well with sightseeing the same time, especially being alone, remembering the bump near Le Mans I know where I’m talking about! But there on top of a hill, there it is.....what a beauty!!

As said before it is the third time I visit Pierrefonds and just hanging around for a few minutes (well admitting a bit more) is for me enough. It is touristy but certainly around this time of the year not overrun...and so far it is touristy it doesn’t disturb me, for some reason it matches well. Still keep liking the place, so no bad decision to visit it again.

The day comes to an end, so now it’s time to go to the campsite near Chantilly. Quickest way is the D85 through the forest of Compiègne straight to the D200 near Lacroix-Saint-Ouen along the river Oise, where the scenic part of the drive comes to an end. The road through the woods is long and a bit boring, but halfway Saint-Jean-aux-Bois and Étang de Sainte-Périne (oh, oh, those names!), both far from a pain in the eye bring the variety I need. Nearby La Brévière must be a hidden gem too, but this for a next time.

Barbara, If you think staying a nicht or two there, hopefully this scenic drive is something for you to consider. Think hard to do with public transport I’m afraid, a car gives the flexibility for drives like this. Or biking around there is a good idea, if road safety isn’t an issue, so Patricia, what was your experience on the way to Bruges?

The scenic drive was a real bonus to Compiègne, Clairière de l’Armistice and Pierrefonds. You drive through a region with a whole lot of small cute villages and lovely countryside that has kept it’s caracter so well, authentic is likely put too strong, but somehow it feels pure and I have seen little or no things like industrial sites spoiling the experience. On the contrary most of the time nice things pleasing the eye. This day was already a good start for a further wonderful week just north of Paris. As already noticed if one is not looking for all those spectacular places that France has to offer, but like the charm and beauty of the countryside and happy with the little things an area like this has to offer maybe consider for instance Compiègne and surroundings. Just look around with Google Streetview for an impression.....

Finally one thing that really helped was the excellent weather. Spring, nature in full blossom....everything feels and smels new and fresh, with a deep bleu sky, temperatures between 15 to 20°C bringing the atmosphere that makes lovely places like this so memorable.

Posted by
1054 posts

Wil, in answer to your question concerning road traffic and safety on a bike — I was pleasantly surprised to have few difficulties with road traffic on my bike tour. However, with that said, I was participating in a bike/barge tour with guides who mapped out the routes. Sorry, but I can’t recall exactly what they were, but I do remember that, whenever possible, we were on bike paths (few of them in France) or roads with little traffic. I was, however, surprised at how hilly portions of the tour were. Since we were riding on sturdy Dutch 10-speeds, it was quite a workout.

Posted by
1733 posts

Thanks for responding Patricia, maybe you know that here in the Netherlands we have seperate bike lanes so you will never see bikers on the (main) roads like in France. So for this reason my worry about safety as every car driver must be aware of your presence there. So being reluctant promoting touring around with bikes and actually like to warn before someone decides making a tour this way. Otherwise I think it’s an ideal area with just a few climbs it’s pretty much flat there. Thanks again.