Easy hiking trails near Paris
Hiking the Marais of Misery
You may have heard about Paris, Texas. Today, I will take you a little further east, into the swampy lowlands of the Essonne river, straight into the bayous of Paris, Louisiana.
But first, we have to take the train into the Deep South of the Ile de France, to a town called Ballancourt (RER line D from Gare de Lyon).
Turn left out of the station and then left again to cross the railway before turning right. After a few hundred meters, take a left turn into Rue Lavoisier and then, after a minute or so, turn right and continue down the causeway in the middle of the lake.
We came here on a sunny Saturday in June, and the place was teeming with weekend visitors, many of whom appeared to be regulars, sitting in front of their private little shacks or their boats in the middle of the water.
One elderly couple even had a picturesque little island all to themselves – and protested fiercely when we attempted to take a picture of their idyll. (Thank God this was Paris, France, and not the real south – and that the only weaponry the woman carried was her foul mouth.)
At the end of the lake, turn left. The path around the lake is part of the GR11 hiking trail, so look for the red and white trail markers (the “Polish flag” balisage) as a point of orientation. After 100 metres or so, turn right. You will now have the so-called Marais de Misery on your right hand side.
This wetland – marais is the French word for “swamp” – is only partly natural. (Walk down one of the many paths that lead into the forest on your right hand side for some great views of the local bayous.) Much of it has been created artificially from reconverted farmland that was abandoned when the local farmers grew weary of fighting this area’s natural tendency of flooding over and then not letting the water go.
The departmental government took over some years ago and went on to create a “pure swamp” that never existed in this place before, even hacking down large parts of the local forest to convert it into a prairie and purchasing highland cattle (5 cows) to graze there.
Many otherwise rare birds have taken advantage of this “artificial wilderness”, and you can watch them go about their business from several observation houses that were built along the trail for birdwatchers, complete with illustrations that help you distinguish between the various species of the local wildlife.
The only species of the local wildlife that we came into contact with, however, were the local mosquitoes who, I am pleased to report, gave us a very friendly reception, in contrast to some of the area’s human inhabitants, see above, and gave us to understand, in their own way, how much they appreciated our visit. At least now I know why it’s called the Marais de Misery.
Continue on the GR11 trail past the viewing platform (from where you can spot the highland cattle) until the walls of Echarcon castle. (This is where the trail takes a 90° turn to the left.) Just before the bend, there is a car park on your right hand side that you must cross to get to a little lake.
This is a great place for a picnic, complete with a hut for shelter and more benches and a table on the far side. You must, however, bring everything you need for a picnic from Paris, since there are no shops anywhere on your way. (Ballancourt station is a little desolate, and although there is a small café behind on the other side of the railway track, which looks charming up to a point, in a forgotten-by-time sort of way. I am not sure whether I would want to recommend one of their “best before 1953” sandwiches.)
Walk around the castle into Echarcon town, and when the GR11 veers sharply to the left, keep straight and continue on the Petit Randonnee trail which is marked in yellow. Cross two branches of the river Essonne first and then the railway line – from the point of the crossing, you can already see Mennecy station, about 1 km on your left hand side. Take your train home to Paris from there. (Alternatively, make a detour to Mennecy for a cup of coffee or a bite. I have to warn you, however, that Mennecy is not the greatest little country town in France that you will ever see.)
If there was a way of ending this hike in Echarcon, if – on top of that – Echarcon were a pretty little market town and one could finish the afternoon with an ice cream in the restaurant of the local castle, this would be the perfect “day out from Paris”, particularly for families with children.
But Echarcon looks drearier still than Mennecy (if you don’t believe me: check it here ). You can’t even visit the castle (it appears to be privately owned) and the train does not stop in town (there is a bus stop, but in rural France and the outer suburbs of Paris, this does not always mean that there will be a bus service, too).
Ultimately, however, it is the first half of the trail hiking the Marais of Misery that you will remember, much beyond the after effects of the last mosquito bite.