Making the most of our near neighbour

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Living in the Portsmouth area, we sometimes forget we can be in France in the time it takes to drive from here to central London.

In some respects it’s a world away, but so close.

The Venetian festivities at the Chateau de Versailles.   Picture: Paul Jacobs

The Venetian festivities at the Chateau de Versailles. Picture: Paul Jacobs

My non-stop three day break included my first trip to Versailles, situated about 12 miles south west of Paris.

We left from Portsmouth at 8.30am on the LD Lines Norman Arrow – the largest diesel-fuelled catamaran in the world.

Our arrival in Le Havre was delayed by a force eight gale in the English Channel, so we didn’t manage the three hours 15 minutes it usually takes.

Staying at the Trianon Palace hotel in Versailles was a treat. Rated as a four star deluxe, we ate at the double Michelin-starred Gordon Ramsay au Trianon restaurant in the hotel that evening.

I wouldn’t usually go for the foi gras terrine followed by rare lamb and a caramel shortbread dessert but it was tasty.

The Venetian Festivities at the Chateau de Versailles followed. It started with a glass of Champagne before we joined the 7,500 others along the Grand Canal for a spectacular view of the extravagantly-decorated gondolas, a huge number of fireworks, flames and coloured fountains all set to period music.

As a News photographer I’ve seen my fair share of fireworks displays, but this was on a scale I’d never seen before.

At times, the entire sky was lit up and I struggled to get any decent pictures because it was so bright.

This spectacle happens on Fridays in the early summer, but at 55 euros was relatively expensive, although a great end to a long day.

The following morning we wandered around Versailles before moving onto the chateau which was packed – not surprising when you learn the palace and gardens attract 11.5m visitors a year, more than the Eiffel Tower.

Thanks to our English-speaking guide who broadcast to us through headsets, we learned that French royalty lived very much in the public eye.

People paid to watch them doing everything from getting dressed and eating and even using the toilet.

A bit like a poshed-up version of Big Brother then.

After lunch we went to the relatively tranquil Chateau De Rambouillet.

But the jewel in the crown was our visit to Chateau de Breteuil later in the day.

The Marquis, Henri-François Le Tonnelier, was a lawyer in his forties when he started to run the chateau that has been in his family for 400 years.

Unlike many stately homes, here and abroad, you can wander around without the usual ropes and barriers restricting your movement.

During the French Revolution the home was largely untouched.

With 200 acres of gardens and woodlands to explore, take a picnic and spend the whole day there. It was a treat to have the Marquis himself show us around.

The day ended with a meal in Le Saint Julien restaurant near the Palace of Versailles. There was a masked ball that evening so the place was crowded with people in period costumes.

On the last day we spent time in Saint Germain en Laye, the birthplace of Louis XIV, with views over Paris and a bustling market, before returning to Portsmouth on the LD Lines Norman Spirit.

In all it was a very enjoyable weekend. I preferred the Versailles area over Paris which can be a bit too busy for my liking.

However, it’s easy to forget that France is literally on our doorstep.

ESSENTIALS

LD Lines’ year-round Portsmouth – Le Havre service is operated by Norman Spirit with a night sailing from Portsmouth (eight hours) and day sailing (five hours 30 minutes) from Le Havre.

From May to September the high speed ferry, Norman Arrow, also provides an additional summer-only service between Portsmouth and Le Havre.

Based on a five day return for a car and two passengers, fares start from £48.50 each way on the conventional ferry and from £68.75 each way by high speed ferry.

LD Lines’ ferry route network also includes Newhaven – Dieppe and a service linking north west Brittany to northern Spain between Nantes Saint Nazaire and Gijón in northern Spain.

For latest special offers, on board facilities, ports and destination information and to book log onto ldlines.com or call 0844 576 8836.

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