Get Out of Town to Houdan
The Yvelines is a lovely department just to the west of Paris. I live there, so I’m biased, but it is hard not to like rolling hills, small towns, discreet historic sites, the wide open agricultural spaces, forests, sinuous roads with little traffic (perfect for cycling), paths for walking or riding. To me the Yvelines has it all. And the town of Houdan sums it all up.
Houdan is just an hour from Paris by train, but it is a voyage to the provinces. Make a day trip to Houdan and you won’t regret it. The tourist office offers a handy brochure of the of the town center discovery circuit. The English is not very good, but you’ll enjoy the charm and have a chuckle. The most famous of Houdan’s historic sites is the 12th century dungeon or keep. Yes, a real medieval dungeon that you can visit! It has graffiti from the prisoners who were held there and a gorgeous view over the town and countryside from the top. After viewing from up high you can walk around the old town to see the multiple inns from the 16th century when Houdan was a thriving commercial center. You can practically still hear the columns of pilgrims passing through the inns and past the roadside cross erected to invoke Our Lady of Montserrat to end the plague. The inns are half-timbered and sculpted. The 16th century towers that are part of the old ramparts are there too. Everything in Houdan says medieval and then suddenly when you get to the 13th century church you meet the Revolution head on. The inscription above the door reads “The French people honor the existence of the Supreme Being and the Immortality of the soul”! An abrupt change in time period, but of no less significance in the history of France.
A unique chicken bred here is called the poule de Houdan. It is black and white, with a crest and 5 toes! It was reputed to be one of the favorite dishes of Louis XIV and was served in the courts of England and Russia as well. In the 19th century the poule was so famous that Houdan was the biggest producer of chickens in the Paris area and they would sell 12,000 during each market. It was also on the menu at the Tour d’Argent in Paris. You can’t eat this special chicken these days (the war nearly made it extinct), it is only raised for show, but you can find a delicious chicken terrine and the only pickles made in France from French-grown-pickles (Maison Marc) at the Boucherie Bollaert. Take some home – they are more than worth the price!
Mention the Affaire Seznec to any French person and they’ll know what you are talking about immediately. The disappearance, in Houdan, of Pierre Quéméneur in 1923 was pinned on Guillaume Seznec as murder. The story was in the news again in the spring of 2018 when the grand children of Guillaume said the murderer was not Guillaume but his wife and she had acted in self-defense. The authorities did not believe her story and Guillaume spent 20 years in le bagne. The story fascinates the French and a film was made in 1992 and a book written in 2015. A real century-long Hou-dan-it!
If you want to get out in the countryside, the area surrounding Houdan is a verdant territory that offers many possibilities for walking, horseback riding or cycling. The four valleys are full of more of those discreet and charming historic sites: old mills, washing places, ancient wells, beautiful mansions and castles, plus hills, rivers and wetlands. So picturesque! Ask for biking and hiking brochures at the tourist office and get out of town!