Sure, insider tip or not, it always depends on the knowledge of the observer. For many French, Pierrefonds is not an insider tip, but quite well known and popular as a summer resort. But for me this place and Saint-Jean-aux-Bois nearby with the former Benedictine abbey was an unexpected and joyful surprise. Located in the vast forest of Compiègne, this region has an idyllic and tranquil character.
I had noticed Pierrefonds on a bicycle tour through the north of France. Actually just a place of transit like so many before and after, I was looking for my morning coffee and suddenly discovered the castle above the roofs of the surrounding houses. This made me curious, so I left my route and just had to explore the place Pierrefonds.
From manor to summer resort – stories around Pierrefonds
As early as the 10th century, a castle was built – on a hill in the forest of Compiègne. Around it a village developed, from which Pierrefonds emerged. The village was one of the castle dominions in the county of Valois. In 1616, at the behest of King Louis XIII, the castle of Pierrefonds was besieged and destroyed after being taken.
Early on, during Napoleon’s second empire, Pierrefonds became a health resort and the castle was rebuilt as the Château Pierrefonds. Unfortunately, I was not able to visit it because of the Corona restrictions in force – a reason to pay Pierrefonds another visit.
Even today, Pierrefonds appears as a friendly resort with little car traffic and only about 1800 inhabitants. The village belongs to the French region Hauts-de-France in the Département Oise.
A little tour through Pierrefonds
Below the castle is a more or less triangular square with flower arrangements, like a market with the „Mairie“, around which the „commercial center“ of Pierrefonds gathers. So no shopping – mile in the sense, but traditional restaurants, a pharmacy, which could be from the 19th century, a few typical rural food stores such as butcher and boulangerie, which of course must not be missing….
This ensemble is pleasant to look at and quite unspoiled in its history-laden appeal. A church Saint Sulpice stands on the west branching street Rue Sabatier, this has a Romanesque crypt.
The château of Pierrefonds is behind this square, accessible via Rue Napoléon on the chateau hill. The large building is not really a medieval castle, because as already written, the old castle had fallen victim to destruction in the 17th century. From 1858, a reconstruction began under architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who was able to live out his imagination. The castle of Pierrefonds combines many neo-Gothic elements with some neo-Renaissance and even Art Nouveau, there are towers, battlements, pitch noses and embrasures and everything you would want from a fairy-tale castle. In this respect, the Pierrefonds Castle is somewhat comparable to the Bavarian Neuschwanstein or the Pena Castle in Sintra, Portugal. The Château de Pierrefonds has already provided the backdrop for various films as well as television series, such as „The Man in the Iron Mask“, Merlin’s Camelot (BBC) or „The Story of Joan of Arc“.
You can secure your ticket to Pierrefonds Castle online here*. An audio guide you can get for the guided tour of the castle in your individual language at the entrance.
Rue Jules Michelet, the street leading from the northern tip of the square triangle from the Place de l’Hotel de Ville, is lined with rows of shady trees, and a wide footpath (under a double row of trees) runs along the lake shore. Also on the lake are excursion inns and houses that look like vacation homes and summer resorts of the twenties – of the last century, of course (or even older)? There is also a small boat rental at the lake.
From Pierrefonds my way led me by bike west through the forest of Compiègne, on narrow forest paths under fresh green trees. And after about 8km came the next positive surprise:
Saint-Jean-aux-Bois and the Abbey of Notre-Dame-Saint-Jean-Baptiste
The small village of Saint-Jean-aux-Bois with just under 300 inhabitants lies practically in the middle of the Compiègne forest about 7km west of Pierrefonds and is only connected to the „outside world“ by forest paths and today also small roads. Most important building ensemble in the village is the former Benedictine abbey Notre-Dame-Saint-Jean-Baptiste with its abbey church.
The Benedictine convent dates back to the 12th century and was dissolved in 1791. Houses and small alleys of Saint-Jean-aux-Bois are idyllically grouped around the abbey church and the remains of the monastery. With the location in the middle of the forest and my arrival by bicycle on narrow forest paths, I immediately felt transported back centuries, as in a remote sleepy abbey – settlement, to which only a few pilgrims come from time to time and who otherwise live completely abandoned and forgotten in the forest. Only a few cars in front of the guesthouses and unfortunately a few very annoying motorcyclists disturbed this idyll.
But a walk through the alleys and around the abbey church calms the mind again immediately. Small stone gates, a stream with bridge, beautiful cottages and the Mairie, which was once a village school, with its flower boxes let you quickly sink back centuries. A French Astrid – Lindgreen – idyll 😉
At the edge of the forest is a larger picnic – place set up, which many French families also like to use to barbecue and play together. South of the abbey church of Saint-Jean-aux-Bois there is also an aboretum. This is a botanical garden for trees, so to speak. In the surrounding area in the forest of Compiègne, there are still old forester’s cottages in various places, which are very stylish and beautiful to look at.
The forest of Compiègne
I would like to mention that the forest of Compiègne is also an important place in terms of French-German history. In a clearing in the forest of Compiègne, in November 1918, in a railroad carriage, the Armistice Treaty was signed, ending the First World War and sealing Germany’s defeat.
Twenty-two years later, in June 1940, the Germans specially brought this railroad carriage back from the museum to the clearing in the Compiègne forest and made the French side sign an armistice treaty again – after the invasion and occupation of the French North by the Wehrmacht. Today, a memorial commemorates these two events.
Since the original railroad car was destroyed at the end of the war, an identical saloon car has stood in the clearing in the Compiègne forest ever since.
In addition, since 1994, an oak tree from Thuringia has been growing at this site as a symbol of the bond between the Germans and the French.
Best time to visit Pierrefonds and Saint-Jean-aux-Bois
Of course, I was very lucky – I was in the region around mid – June with the best sunshine and blue skies. That’s when these places look their best, especially since the forest is still in its most beautiful fresh green. And as is actually the case throughout France, there are blooming flower borders, flower boxes and hanging baskets everywhere. While many German places come along in concrete gray and asphalt black and every plant, every tree makes oh so much work, in France even the smallest municipalities maintain their facilities and take care of an eye-friendly appearance regardless of all costs…
In any case, the recommendation is to visit the region around Pierrefonds between May and September, when everything is green and blooming and the forest of Compiègne seems most alive. In the overview to the right you can find your current travel weather for Pierrefonds today and in the next three days.
Accommodations in the forest of Compiègne
Since the region around Pierrefonds has been catering to visitors for 150 years now, there are corresponding cozy accommodations in vacation homes and vacation apartments.
One of the most popular accommodations is the small private hotel IL ETAIT UNE FOIS* with two- and three-bed rooms and a family room for a maximum of 6 guests. Kettles for individual tea preparation are available. Many guests are also particularly fond of the breakfast in the house. Hiking, biking, fishing and visiting castle and nearby historical places is well possible. If necessary, bike tours can also be arranged.
The vacation home L’Eugenie* is also one of the preferred addresses for visitors in Pierrefonds. In two bedrooms and the living room with sofa bed max. 6 guests will find their relaxing stay. The house includes a garden with an outdoor pool for the warm season. In the cottage is a fully equipped kitchen with oven and dishwasher. A washing machine makes also long term stays possible.
Vacation home castle view* is a vacation home in Pierrefonds for up to 4 guests. A kitchen is available. For nice evenings there is the terrace with lake view.
In the forest of Compiègne – best by bike
That Pierrefonds and Saint-Jean-aux-Bois are so little known is, in my opinion, also due to the fact that many visitors drive through the beautiful country of France by car. And then jet on the big main routes directly to the more important tourist „hot-spots“. As I said, I came through this region rather by coincidence by bike and was there, as in other places, pretty excited! With the slow mode of transportation on lonely country roads, field and forest paths or along the canals of France by bike, the varied country can be discovered much better and more thoroughly. And closer to the locals! Everywhere a friendly „bon jour“ resounded to me, sometimes even (on the mountain) a cheering „allez, allez, allez !“
In any case, it is worth to explore the forest of Compiègne by bike – along the l’Aisne and Oise and across to the small villages, towns or castles – Pierrefonds is not the only „hidden idyll“. Also Compiègne seems worth a trip (I’ve avoided the city but rather by bike… maybe next time). So if you’re ever cycling between Reims and Rouen through the north of France again, make a detour to rest in Pierrefonds.
Planning relaxing days with friends?
If you now feel like a vacation in the forest of Compiègne, invite your friends and share the link to the post on your social media channels! And I appreciate your comment about your trip to Pierrefonds 🙂 Thanks!
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