There’s something special about walking in the footsteps of France’s monarchs! Every dynasty has roamed and shaped this immense forest (15,000 ha) that has become one of the most famous and beautiful in all of France — and the 3rd largest. The imperial paths, lined with the enormous trunks of oak and beech trees, lead you from the Palais de Compiègne to the Château de Pierrefonds, whose pepperpot turrets emerge from amongst the foliage as you approach the small village. Only 4 miles away, don’t miss Saint-Jean-aux-Bois, another charming village nestled in the forest. Be sure to come back in June-July for the Festival des Forêts: a unique experience that brings classical music to the woodland!
01. A royal wood
02. Luxury is in the air
Together, these three forests cover one third of the Oise department (20,000 hectares!), meaning there’s certainly no shortage of fresh air to fill your lungs. The estate around the Château de Chantilly has long been a haven for thoroughbred horses, which you can see in practice every morning. And whereas Chantilly is most associated with Le Nôtre, the gardener to the kings, Ermenonville is especially known as being the favourite of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In fact, it was along its sandy paths that “Reveries of the Solitary Walker” came to be. Last but not least is Halatte, whose history goes even further back with dolmens and menhirs (ancient standing stones) that will immerse you deep in mythology and archaeology!
03. A literary past
Retz has never been one to shy away. It most certainly caught the attention of Alexandre Dumas, who was born in nearby Villers-Cotterêts and whose most famous work was somewhat inspired by the forest. In fact, you can even walk in the footsteps of his Musketeers by visiting the sloping Laie des Pots. Long before Dumas, the kings of France also wandered the forest paths with François I declaring its 13,200 hectares the most noble and best planted in all of France. He even built his castle here, where he signed the famous decree that made French the official language of the kingdom, replacing Latin. We are very proud of this small part of Hauts-de-France.
04. Listen to the deer bellow
The vast forest of the Avesnois Regional Natural Park is ideal for a leisurely stroll or bike ride along the perfectly signposted trails. Nothing but silence… In spring, you may well catch a glimpse of deer, boar and even peacocks. Then, before September turns the forest crimson, you’ll do well not to hear the husky bellow of a mighty deer that fills the entire wood.
05. Monastic atmosphere
It’s the Irish monk Gaban VII who left not only his name, but also his hermitage to the village. The 6,000-hectare land is permeated with all manner of soulful qualities and is home to some historical treasures including an abbey and castle. Perhaps most importantly, it is also here that the statesman Jean-Baptiste Colbert established a mirror factory at the end of the 17th century. The very factory that would go on to supply the Château of Versailles’s emblematic Hall of Mirrors!
06. The tonic forest
At the heart of the first ever Regional Natural Park created by Charles de Gaulle, this forest is overseen by the National Forests Office, ensuring its full of safe, signposted walks and a wide variety of activities. Slag heaps and mine headframes furnish the landscape, as do the cobbled streets of the Trench of Arenberg, part of the famous Paris-Roubaix bike race. This is a former mining region, meaning a history lesson comes free with every nature walk! The black mountains have now become a thriving ecosystem: we recommend taking some binoculars to observe the rare and protected bird species such as black woodpeckers, nightjars and honey buzzards.
07. A surviving witness of the Hundred Year’s War
Renowned for the quality of its wood, this massive forest is the largest in the Somme. It is also an open-air sculpture exhibition, where artists illustrate Picardy’s most famous tales and legends by carving the trees in situ, stimulated by its positive vibes and energy. Oak and beech trees are the most common resident here, with 22 of them being listed. This includes the 600-year-old Chêne Ramolleux, which was most certainly around when the Battle of Crécy erupted way back in 1346!
08. A whole hoot of mysteries
With the owls partaking in a hooting contest and Marie-Grouette, the witch of the Saint-Omer marsh, supposedly never far away, this is one forest you really don’t want to get lost in at night! However daytime is a whole different story, with cuckoos and a variety of other birds serenading you as you explore the woodland and marsh. Continue on until the Harcehelles pond and the mysterious Grotte de Clairmarais cave: if you don’t cross paths with the (kind) witch, you will most certainly see the grey herons.
09. Hills and valleys(in the flat country!)
You’re best off taking a mountain bike if you plan on cycling around these beautiful oak woods. The Avesnois Massif is certainly no easy ride, and we bet you’ll have to dismount several times on some of the steeper climbs. But you’ll be rewarded with that feel-good fatigue and reinvigorated lungs. The highlight of the excursion is the giant timber called Le Chêne Jupiter (The Jupiter Oak), a “remarkable tree” standing south of lake Val-Joly, on the edge of Eppe-Sauvage.
10. On the seaside, feet in the sand
If you block out the birdsong amongst the pines, you’ll be able to hear the cries of seagulls and smell the fresh sea air: the Opal Coast mustn’t be far. The walk is easily reachable from the resort and promises a relaxing adventure along the many trails lined with deciduous trees. What’s more, it is also part of the Caps et Marais d’Opale Regional Nature Park, which is listed as an official biosphere reserve. After the walk, head from the Château d’Hardelot to Le Touquet for some of the legendary fish soup!