We’ll always have Paris, so explore the fabulous sights outside the capital, says Frances Barnes.

Irma looks every inch a true Parisienne, beautiful, serious about her food and faultlessly groomed from head to – er, paw. Irma is a lioness, you see, one of a pride of amber-coloured Angolan lions currently enjoying a perfect leonine lifestyle of feeding and breeding at the Parc des Felins, less than 60 km from the gates of Paris, in France’s Seine-et-Marne. The 60 acre-Parc is unique in Europe and houses over 150 species of Big Cat in spacious, safari-like conditions that replicate life in the wild. Along with its vital conservation work protecting such rare breeds as snow leopards, South American panthers, and Siberian tigers, the Parc de Felins offers a chance to glimpse these rare and lovely creatures in safe, natural surroundings. The result is an unforgettable educational experience for all animal lovers.

National treasures

It is also a reminder of the many world class travel attractions that exist within an hour’s journey from France’s capital. The Seine-et-Marne teems with national treasures – chateaux, gourmet delights, famous artworks and sites of international architectural importance. Historically as well as scenically, this region – part of the Ile de France – distils the essence of France and its turbulent, and sometimes heart-breaking history. Many pivotal turning points that altered the destiny of the nation happened here.

The ancient cities of Meaux and Provins alone are worth any detour. Meaux, along with its celebrated mustards, hosts the Bishop’s Palace, former domain of Jacques Bossuet, confessor of the Sun King and renowned for his stirring sermons. It is the last of such complexes still standing in France today.

Provins, deservedly on UNESCO World Heritage listing, is a wonderfully well preserved medieval city. It provides a spellbinding backward look to the Middle Ages, when Knights Templar invented passports and travellers cheques to protect the all-important cloth merchants journeying from Scandinavia and Italy to visit the town’s famous Trade Fairs. More recent alumni include Jules Verne and Honore de Balzac who wrote part of his “Human Comedy” in the lee of city’s ramparts.

Our visit to Irma and her relatives involved a journey across a famous Great War location – the battle of the Marne. Here on 4 September l914 the Allied army confronted 700.000 German soldiers and prevented them from marching to Paris. In November the Meaux region will unveil the Great War Museum, dedicated to enabling visitors to understand WW1 from the perspective of ordinary soldiers.

Crown Jewels

Two magnificent chateaux, Fontainebleau and Vaux le Vicomte, are among the region’s crown jewels. Fontainebleau is called “family home to the Kings of France” – among its 1,300 rooms you trace the history of eight centuries, with Rococo chapel, priceless Sevres porcelain, more than 1,000 clocks and the exquisite furniture of Marie-Antoinette’s boudoir. Despite its roll-call of royalty, it is the diminutive shadow of Napoleon which dominates the palace today. On view is his Greatcoat and distinctive hat worn at Waterloo, his tiny bed, and the table where he signed his abdication paper.

The incomparable Vaux-le-Vicomte Chateau, a 17th-cent.baroque masterpiece was built by Nicolas Fouquet, Louis X1V’s Finance Minister. Its perfection cost him his liberty. Throwing a lavish house-warming party in the young king’s honour, he hoped to dazzle his peers with the beauty of his new home. Louis, aged just 23, watched in mingled admiration and envy as the festivities went on, and repaid Fouquet’s invitation by clapping him in prison, furious at his “insolent and audacious luxury.” This first demonstration of the Sun King’s absolute power didn’t deter Louis from commissioning master craftsmen Le Veau, Le Brun and Le Notre to complete his own palace at Versailles. Vaux-le-Vicomte looks gorgeous illuminated by 2,000 candles every Saturday night during the season. Watching the chateau glow, you can enjoy delicious food at Les Charmilles terrace restaurant.

Parc des Felins

Before departing for our Eurostar return we said farewell to Irma and her cousins in the Parc des Felins, walking the four circuits that took us into the habitats of predators from Asia, Africa, America and Europe. There is an educational farm for children, and, an acre-long island where inquisitive striped-tailed lemurs made us welcome on their own territory. The popularity of this attraction, more than holding its own among Seine-et-Marne’s treasures, proves that these latest feline residents of the Ile de France are no less fascinating than inmates from the region’s rich and varied past.

Museum of the Great War, Meaux  www.museedelagrandeguerre.eu
Le Parc des Felins, Nesles  www.parc-des-felins.com
Provins: Office de Tourisme  www.provins.net
Provins: La Table Saint Jean Restaurant  www.table-saint-jean.com
Provins: The Mansion of Old Baths www.demeure-des-veux-bains.com
Eurostar: www.eurostar.com/uk reservations: 08432 186 186
Seine et Marne Tourist Board, 11, rue Royale, 77300 Fontainebleau
tel: +33 (0)1 60 39 60 39 email: cdt @tourisme77.fr