Paris: Ile-de-France

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    Some of the Ile-de-France is accessible by local train (the RER) from Paris, but you'll need a car to get to most of these villages. Stay off the Périphériques (Paris's beltway or ring road) betwcen 8:00 to 9:00 a.m. and 6:00 to 7:00 p.m. and your day trips won't take all night.

    The region is famous for its drizzle; keep an umbrella handy even in the summer months. Except during full summer--July and August--the weather will be mainly mild to chilly. And watch the sky, the spectacular cloud changes aren't as dramatic as those of Normandy, perhaps, but they're close.

    Many of the churches in the smallest villages open only during Mass on Sundays. Others open only for a few hours in the mornings. Check beforehand. Sometimes you may be able to catch someone in the rectory who will open up for you; a small (20 francs or so) donation is appropriate in these circumstances. Many of the châteaux are private, or like many of the churches, too fragile to be visited; you just have to look.

    Dourdan: Visits to château, tower and museum. Open Wednesday to Sunday, 10:00 to 12:00 a.m. and 2:00 to 6:00 p.m. Closed January. Museum has a collection of Romanesque and medieval furniture. Tel: 64-59-66-83.

    Etampes: Museum of regional antiquities. Next to the Hotel de Ville. Open daily 2:00 to 7:00 p.m., Sundays 3:00 to 6:00 p.m. Tel: 64-94-80-90.

    Montfort l'Amaury: Maurice Ravel Museum. By appointment only. Tel: 34-86-00-89.

    Musical Saturdays, May to October, baroque concerts at the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles.

    The Festival of Auvers-sur-Oise, May 19 to July 2, voice, piano, chamber music and opera.

    Festival de Thoiry at the Château, June to October, concerts Tel: 1-34-87-52-25.

    The Medieval Festival of Provins, June 12 to 13, medieval games, concerts and popular celebrations.

    The Festival of Moret-sur-Loing, Saturdays June 19 to September 4, a sound and light show with 600 costumed participants in procession through town. Reservations Tel: 60-70-41-66.

    Though the Ile-de-France offers a range of hotels mid-priced to inexpensive, probably the best way to visit the region is by day trips from Paris. Look for lunch spots tucked away along the many rivers in the region, especially the Loing. Many restaurants in the Seine-et-Marne area have organized special 150-franc menus for lunch; the local tourist office can give you a brochure listing their addresses.

    Bicycles can be rented at train stations throughout the region, and the good news is that most of Ile-de-France is relatively flat. There are plentiful forests and woodlands for hiking and rock climbing, numerous golf courses, and fishing (river trout) and canoeing on some of the waterways.

    FOOD & WINE:
    All year round you can find les produits du terroir--regional specialty products--at the farms and markets in Ile-de-France. Search out delectable honeys, fruits and foie gras in Essonne; apples, champignons de Paris and vegetables in Val d'Oise; famous Brie cheeses and all kinds of products prepared on the farm from ducks, geese and turkeys in Seine and Marne.

    Roadside markets offer cheap fruits and vegetables if you buy in quantity. Look for myriad varieties of mushrooms in season. There are many weekly outdoor markets in the villages.

    To really understand what Notre Dame once was to the city of Paris, Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. For a novelistic historic exploration of medieval France, Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror.