When I counted down to midnight on December 31, 2019 I could never have guessed what a rollercoaster of a year 2020 would be. Even when I went to Vienna at the end of January, I would have never believed anyone telling me that all my other travel plans for 2020 would fall through.
But here we are. Seven months into the year, of which I spent about three not even leaving the borders of my own little home town. Absurd.
Fortunately for little over a month we’re now allowed to cross country borders again. At first that resulted in me taking my racing bike across the border to France every once in a while, just because I happen to live close and certain routes just go that way. Last weekend however, after a while of seeing how things were going, I couldn’t stop myself anymore from properly crossing the border and embarking on a small road trip in the north of France.
My companion this time around was my sister. For the first time, it would be just the two of us traveling together and I couldn’t have been more excited about it. We planned to be on the move for about three days, with our first night stay in Laon, and our second night in Monchy-Saint-Eloi. The main places of interest for me where Laon and the Domaine and castle of Chantilly, so I connected those two and then just looked whatever else was along the way or only a small detour.
We ended up having three a-ma-zing days traveling together. The sun was shining, the cider was flowing and the sights were gorgeous. It honestly makes me wonder why I never prioritized France as a destination. I guess I have COVID-19 to thank for this discovery…
So for all of my fellow Belgians (or others who live close) who are also looking into traveling close to home, this is it!
On Sunday, we left my sister’s house little after noon. Direction: Valenciennes. Our first goal was to find a beautiful spot to enjoy the lunch that we brought along with us. The city of Valenciennes didn’t really appeal to us, so we continued until we reached Le Quesnoy. Immediately we were charmed by this lovely commune so we decided to park our car and stroll around for a while. The French flags around the market square immediately made us feel on holiday, but it was on the ramparts that we discovered the perfect picnic spot. Surrounded by lush green grass and trees and with a lovely view on the city walls; we couldn’t have found a better place! Our trip was off to a great start!
From Le Quesnoy our next destination was also our end destination for the night; Laon. If we took the shortest route, we would be reaching Laon only one hour and a half later. But of course, we didn’t take the shortest route. No big roads for us, but hello country roads. We drove from small town to small town, through the corn and hay fields. With the sun shining down on us, it was absolutely amazing! And when you’re driving on small roads, it’s easier to pull over when you see a field with hay bales. Warning; it takes quite a bit of effort to climb up and down those things!
It was a bit after five when we arrived on the parking lot of our hotel in Laon; Premiere Classe. Because of COVID-19, the reception of the hotel was closed and we were referred to the Hotel Campanile next door to check-in. And that’s also the hotel we ended up staying at. For only about 30 euros, we definitely got all we needed for that one-night stay.
After checking-in, we took our car and drove to the center of Laon. The old city is situated on top of a hill and offers stunning views over the area. We parked our car right outside the Ardon Gate and from there just strolled around from the Cathédrale Notre-Dame, along the ramparts, to the city hall and the Saint-Martin church. What struck me most was how calm it was along the way. And that pleased me immensely. While I was deliriously happy to travel again, the corona virus was still in the back of my mind and I couldn’t help wondering if I wasn’t taking too many risks. But seeing how we were perfectly capable of keeping our distance everywhere, I was able to relax.
For dinner, we ended up on one of the loveliest terraces in the city; Crêperie Agora. This place’s specialty are savory pancakes with loads of toppings, which are absolutely delicious. Take that amazing food and add a large can of cider and the view on the cathedral and you have all the ingredients for a perfect evening! Day one of our trip was most definitely a success!
Early rise and shine on day two in Hauts-de-France, because we wanted to get the most out of our day. We woke up to a cover of clouds but that didn’t bother us to much as we still had quite a while to drive to our first destination of the day; Pierrefonds.
The clouds were still present upon arrival, but very quickly they left the premises and made room for a bright blue sky. Hallellujah! We parked our car along the walls of the castle and first strolled around town a bit – on an unsuccessful hunt for some coffee to go. Pierrefonds is a quaint little town with many lovely buildings and views, but the most important sight is of course the Castle of Pierrefonds. This castle gave me Neuschwanstein feels, especially with the view from the top of the stairs at the Jonval castle on the other side of town. It is possible to visit the castle, but since we were a bit short on time and didn’t really know what the interiors offered, we decided against that. But the outside of the castle was already so pretty and fairytalelike. Definitely worth the stop!
From Pierrefonds, it’s only a fifteen minute drive to the city of Compeigne, our next destination. This city is mostly known for its – drum roll – castle and the castle grounds. Nonetheless we first walked through the city center to experience the ambiance there, but mostly on the hunt for a fresh French baguette for lunch. With it being a Monday, that proved to be quite a struggle as most bakeries seemed to have their weekly closing day on Monday. But we succeeded and with our baguette in hand, we continued to the castle park where we enjoyed our lunch picnic style.
Domaine de Chantilly
And then it was time for the – for me – main attraction of our trip; the Domaine and Castle of Chantilly. Considering there is a lot of stuff to be said and this post is already quite lengthy as it is, I’m just going to make a separate one for this part of our trip. This way I’ll be able to give you all the information I have. Stay tuned because it’ll be worth it! 😉
After leaving Chantilly around 6pm, we didn’t have a whole lot planned for the rest of the evening. The only thing on our minds was finding a nice place to have dinner. Our hotel for the night was situated in the small village of Monchy-Saint-Eloi and before departure I had already discovered that there weren’t a whole lot of options for dinner over there. But we figured we would find something en route, as we were passing Creil and Nogent-sur-Oise. However as we were driving through those places, we didn’t get a good feeling or didn’t see the appeal in stopping. So suddenly we found ourselves at the studio (Confortable Studio tout equipé) we had rented for the night.
Fortunately our lovely hosts had provided a folder with information and we found out that every Monday evening a pizza truck came to the town square with fresh pizzas. Easy decision! Thank you Jean Paul and Brigitte! There wasn’t a whole lot to do in this town, so we took a seat on a bench outside and enjoyed a cider while we waited for our pizzas. After dinner we wandered town for a while and discovered that even Monchy-Saint-Eloi has a castle. A lovely end to an even lovelier day!
Another day, another destination! After a mouthwatering breakfast with fresh croissants – of course – we continued our travels to the city of Beauvais. Beauvais isn’t really a big name in France, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a detour. The main square is quite lovely and most importantly the cathedral and the astronomical clock inside are really beautiful.
For about an hour we wandered around – mouth masks on, because every one else had theirs on (good job there!) – and while this city wasn’t the highlight of our trip, I’m glad we stopped to check out the sights.
While preparing this trip I searched for highlights close to our main sights and ended up discovering Gerberoy, ‘one of the most beautiful villages in France’. Well, you don’t have to repeat that to me. I just had to go see for myself if the rumors were true. Gerberoy is about half an hour away from Beauvais and would be our last stop of the day. We were promised an utterly charming village with lots of flowers. And I couldn’t have put it into better words myself. It’s that and so much more.
There are so many cute, flowery streets and the ambiance is just lovely. Although I can imagine we were lucky the place wasn’t too swarmed. There is a big parking lot on a field right outside town which suggests that it can get very busy there. But for us there was the perfect amount of people not to feel like a ghost town while at the same time creating a lovely atmosphere.
While we hadn’t planned to have lunch there, we stumbled upon the lovely terrace of ‘L’ Atelier Gourmand de Sara‘ and just couldn’t resist. Some cider and a lovely, delicious lunch in a gorgeous nature environment? Impossible to say no to. My sister claimed this town to be her favorite part of the trip and I must say that it’s hard to disagree with her on that one.
The city of Amiens wasn’t on our itinerary because I had already been a couple of years ago (x) and it seemed like too big of a city to visit in times of corona. But when we realized we still had some time left and all previous places hadn’t been busy at all, we decided to give it a go anyway.
I revisited the breathtaking Cathedral of Amiens and the gorgeous Quartier Saint-Leu, but this time around we continued a bit further to Les Hortillonages. This large area of floating gardens between the branches of the rivers Somme and Avre is absolutely amazing. I wish we had had more time so we could have rented a little boat to go through the canals. But that’ll have to wait until the next time!
After Amiens, it was about a two hour ride home. We tried to drive along as many country roads as possible, hanging on to our roadtrip feeling for as long as we could. It really was an amazing trip. The sights were amazing, the weather and the company were perfect and most importantly; we never felt trampled by the amount of tourists, which to me was a high priority with this virus still going around pretty violently. I want to travel, but I want to travel in a safe way!
This trip has made me realize that there are many places close to home that aren’t top destinations but are still so damned pretty. With all of my other plans falling through, I still have a lot of days off work available so I hope to visit a few more of those places in the coming months. So stay tuned for what will hopefully be my Tour de France of 2020!