The prettiest and least visited part of the Canal de l’Ourcq, which enters Paris at Porte de la Villette, is its beginning at Port aux Perches in the Aisne département, 70 km north east of the capital.
The River Ourcq has always been important to Paris, originally supplying the city with grain and wood from the rich duchy of the Valois and still supplying part of its drinking water.
Part of the river was canalized in the 16th century and the meandering 10-km stretch from Port aux Perches to Mareuil-sur-Ourcq, passing through La Ferté-Milon, is the oldest part of the canal, which was completed under Napoleon. You will not meet many Parisians on the boat cruises here, nor in La Ferté-Milon itself, an attractive little town whose provincial appearance conceals a distinguished and sometimes violent past.
Its impressive hilltop castle was never completed. Work stopped abruptly in 1407 when the owner, Louis d’Orléans, younger brother of the mad king Charles VI, was assassinated on the orders of his cousin Jean Sans Peur, sparking a civil war and the subsequent invasion of the country by the English. Had it been finished, it would have been the grandest castle in France, a suitable monument to Louis’ aspirations. The magnificent façade which remains was spared by Henri IV, who ordered its demolition in 1594 during the Wars of Religion.
In 1639 Jean Racine, France’s greatest classical dramatist, was born in La Ferté-Milon and baptized in the Eglise Notre-Dame just below the castle. La Fontaine, author of the famous Fables, married Racine’s cousin here in 1647. The church’s 16th-century stained glass windows were destroyed by German artillery in 1918, when the town was at the heart of the Battle of the Marne. The elegant little iron footbridge across the canal at the old Port au Blé in the town center, where boats were once loaded with timber for Paris, was built in the 19th century by an obscure young engineer called Gustave Eiffel. The curious round tower next to it is a remnant of the medieval ramparts.
You could combine a visit to the town and lunch in the aptly named ivy-clad Café des Ruines next to the castle, or a picnic in this most dramatic of locations, with a pretty 7-km walk along the canal to Mareuil-sur-Ourcq, from where you can take a train back to the Gare de l’Est. You could even arrange to join the Croisière-Promenade at La Ferté-Milon lock in the town center at around 4:30pm and get off at Marolles half an hour and a kilometer later, turning part of the walk into a cruise. The towpath takes you along a winding thickly wooded stretch of the canal, where scarcely a boat passes to disturb the waterfowl. You pass the locks at Marolles and Queue d’Ham before coming to the church and lock at Mareuil. Cross the road to the other side of the canal here, and follow it as it curves left to become the rue de Meaux (D936). The station is just past the Mairie on the opposite side of the road.
If you decide on the Croisière-Déjeuner, you can arrange to be met at La Ferté-Milon station by car for the ten-minute drive to Port aux Perches, 2 km away from La Ferté-Milon by canal. The boat leaves at around midday and an aperitif is served almost immediately, followed by a classic three-course lunch including cheese, wine and coffee over which you can linger for the entire 3-hour trip. The boat is engagingly small, with space for about 50 people. There were only six couples on board when I went in September two years ago, but I have passed it on several other occasions in the summer when it was packed with French families and couples in infectious holiday mood. The loudspeaker commentary is mercifully limited to the outgoing cruise.
After winding along the river-like canal, brushing past waterfowl and riverside plants, the boat slows down to go through the lock in La Ferté-Milon. You get a close-up of the Eiffel footbridge and families of ducks and then long-distance views of the castle ruins at every turn until you come to Marolles, where you get off to stretch your legs for 20 minutes before the boat turns to go back. You could arrange to get off at La Ferté-Milon lock on the way back at around 3pm to give you a chance to explore the town, returning to the station on foot. It is less than a kilometer from the lock in the town center and you will pass the 15th-century Eglise St-Nicolas on the way. Although not as dramatically located as the Eglise Notre-Dame, it is of more interest, as the little door next to the locked main entrance is usually open. If not, ask for the key at the Pompes Funèbres opposite.
The walk in the other direction along rue de la La Chaussée (La Ferté-Milon is basically a one-street town) will take you past the Musée Jean Racine, the little house in which the poet grew up, and up the steep hill past the Eglise St-Nicolas to the magnificent ruins of the castle, from where there is a good view over the Ourcq valley.
Choose a Sunday if you want to combine a visit to la Ferté-Milon by train with the lunchtime canal cruise. Trains to Reims leave the Gare de l’Est at 9:22 and 10:52 on Sunday mornings, arriving at La Ferté-Milon at 10:24 and noon respectively. The last train back is at 8:13, arriving at the Gare de l’Est at 9:15pm. On Saturdays the train leaves at 11:28am, with a change at Meaux, arriving at La Ferté-Milon at 12:50pm. The last train back is at 7:06pm, with a change at Meaux. Mareuil-sur-Ourcq is the station after La Ferté-Milon on the way back to Paris.
By car, take the A4 to Meaux, then the D405 and D936 to La Ferté-Milon.
Le Port aux Perches 02460 Silly la Poterie, tel: 03 23 96 41 25 (English spoken). Reservations essential. Let them know if you want to be met at the station by car or to get off at La Ferté-Milon or Marolles.
La Croisière-Déjeunernoon to 3:30pm, Sat from Apr to Oct, Sun from Mar to Nov, 45€, children 22€.
La Croisière-Promenade 4-6pm, Sun from Mar to Nov, 7€, children 4.70€.
Les Ruines cafe-restaurant 2 pl du Vieux Château, 02460 La Ferté-Milon, tel: 03 23 96 71 56. Open for lunch every day and on Friday and Saturday evenings. Weekend menus from 21€ and à la carte
Office du tourisme31 rue de la Chaussée, 02460 La Ferté-Milon, tel 03 23 96 77 42, closes at noon Sun
Musée Jean Racine2 rue des Bouchers, La Ferté-Milon, tel : 03 23 96 77 77, open on weekends during the summer 10 am to 12:30pm and 3-5:30pm
©Annabel Simms 2005, author of An Hour From Paris (Pallas Athene, £12.95) //www.annabelsimms.com