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January 16, 2011

A Parisian Hideaway

When Marie-Antoinette wanted to play country, she had to invent the Hameau at the Petit Trianon. When sophisticated Parisians yearn for a country paradise, they dream of Montford-l‘Amaury. Thirty miles west of Paris, the medieval fortress town floats serenely above the surrounding pastures in the soft haze of the Ile-de-France. Set off against the rich tapestry of green and gold forest, Montfort in an Impressionist painting of pastoral perfection that could be light-years away from the hustle of Paris, instead of a short drive.

Montfort is country with all the pleasures of civilization. The local grocery stocks products from Paris gourmet shops, Fauchon and Hediard, and crusty Poilane bread is delivered daily. The fish is sparkling fresh, the meat tender, the cheese impeccable.

Les Montfortois are used to the best. Those one meets are not simple country folk, but a cosmopolitan collection. “There hasn’t been a peasant in Montfort for four-hundred years”, jokes a friend of mine. Montfort seems to be a chic Paris neighborhood in the middle of the forest. Full of houses furnished with ghosts and myths of hidden treasure.

Being on the move is a Montfortois characteristic. Friends are always just off to China back from Egypt about to trek in Nepal, or off to New York. Everyone knows everyone. Friendships are close and dependable because families have known each other for generations. This close-knit network produces support system that is as powerful as the proverbial old school tie.

Montfort’s unspoiled charm owes much to its location on the edge of the Rambouillet forest and its classification as a historical site with a recorded past that stretches back over a thousand years. Naturally, building restrictions are draconian, so the views that appear on turn-of-the-century postcards are astonishingly similar today.

“We are like an island,” comments my friend. “There is a very particular art of living here. It is a delicious place to live, very protected.”

Montfort may be just next door to Paris, but to call it a suburb would never do. The very word is enough to send elegant shivers down a Montfortois spine. Montfort is distinctly country, and country pleasures are pursued with vigor. Each weekend flocks of would-be Lance Armstrong's bicycle at breakneck pace through the Rambouillet forest.

Tennis too, is played with a fierce concentration. The Montfort players are very good and very serious. They don’t fool around. At the Polo Club in Paris, I might have a moment to watch the ducks fly past during a match. Not in Montfort. Although I played tennis, I abstained from the hunt.
Close to Versailles as well as Paris, Montfort has been fashionable and fought-over since it was founded by Count Amaury de Montfort in the late tenth century. The most famous-or notorious- of his descendants, Simon IV, led the particularly bloodthirsty Albigesion crusade until he met his and at the siege of Toulouse in 1218.

The charms of Montfort have proved especially attractive to a legion of artists and writers. Colette, who lived in nearby Mere, often visited writer Germaine Beaumont in town. Composer Maurice Ravel, small of stature, delighted in his minuscule house, Le Blevedere, where he composed some of his most known works such as Bolero and Daphnis and Chloe. Jean Anouilh came to Montfort to work. Today’s eccentricity is provided by my friend, whose carefully nurtured three-day stubble brings a bit of Les Halles to the heart of Montfort. On returning from a long trip abroad recently, he gave a party that started at 6:00a.m.-the guests rolled up from the trendy nightlife in Paris-and went on for twenty-four hours.

Montfort could be prime commuter country, if Parisians thought to commute. But they don’t, spoiled as they are by one of the world’s most livable cities, and wary as they are of sporadic train schedules. Nevertheless, for an enchanting weekend getaway it is priceless. Every time I approach Montfort I have a foretaste of the splendors in store and for the magic I have yet to experience.

January 5, 2011