France Special: Escape the intrigues (and odours) of Paris

Days out: St Germain-en-Laye

Losing a kingdom must have been inconvenient, but spending one's exile in a sumptuous castle near Paris, only recently vacated by Louis XIV (for the even more luxurious surroundings of Versailles), must surely have dulled the pain.

Losing a kingdom must have been inconvenient, but spending one's exile in a sumptuous castle near Paris, only recently vacated by Louis XIV (for the even more luxurious surroundings of Versailles), must surely have dulled the pain.

The deposed James II and his Jacobite court-in-exile may also have been comforted by the acres of landscaped gardens and forest around St Germain-en-Laye, as they plotted ill-fated attempts to regain the throne.

Barely half an hour from central Paris on RER line A, this elegant little town is an excellent destination for a day trip. For centuries the French royal family retreated here to escape the intrigues (and odours) of Paris and to hunt. Mary Queen of Scots spent much of her childhood here. The castle has since been transformed into one of France's leading museums, but the gardens and forest remain much the same.

The Château-Vieux is home to the Musée des Antiquités Nationales, an exceptionally rich collection of archaeological discoveries from prehistoric times to the Middle Ages. Its former staterooms are, handily, directly opposite the RER exit. Household and religious objects are on display, together with intricate gold work, plus models of Roman battlefields for Asterix fans.

Few traces remain of the castle's previous incarnation as a royal residence (or its post-Revolution role as a prison). Only the ballroom, now home to an exhibition on comparative ethnography, recalls former glories, while a chapel in the spacious internal courtyard retraces the building's regal history.

Well-tended "English" gardens and parks stretch out to the north of the castle. An implausible mile-and-a-half of terrace, offers panoramic views over the Seine and western Paris. On Bastille Day this is one of the liveliest places to watch the fireworks display in the capital.

More recent artwork is on show at the Maurice Denis Museum (2 rue Maurice Denis). A leading figure in the Nabis and late Symbolist movement, Denis made Le Prieuré a centre for artists at the beginning of the last century. The house contains Post-impressionist and avant-garde paintings, sculptures and furnishings by Denis and his contemporaries, including Gauguin. The St Louis chapel in the museum grounds houses yet more art, and a few minutes in the peaceful garden is recommended.

Another artist from this era is commemorated at the Claude Debussy Museum, (38 rue au Pain). Debussy's home now houses a museum with musical partitions and personal objects. The local tourist office is on the ground floor of the same building.

There's more to St Germain than history, though. The Musée Vera in the Jardin des Arts has contempory art and photographic exhibitions, and the neighbouring Theatre Dumas has a modern and varied programme.

The picturesque pedestrian streets, together with the overall air of a noble past, seem far removed from overcrowded Paris.

The municipal baths on Avenue des Loges (five minutes from the RER) may not be the most beautiful swimming pool in France, but if Paris successfully bids to host the 2008 Olympics, this could well be the pool where records are set. Meanwhile, its open-air play areas, funnels and domed swimming pool contrast neatly with the history-laden town.

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