18 June 2011

Senlis, near Paris and CDG

Senlis is a town of some 16,000 inhabitants just 25 miles/40 km north of Paris. It's close to Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport and the town and château of Chantilly. I was in Senlis [sã-LEESS] two weeks ago and I was struck by the medieval character of the town's narrow, winding streets. It seems untouched by the passage of time — at least the old center of town does.

Central Senlis was declared a "protected zone" that covers nearly 100 acres in the town. Medieval buildings and many monuments have been carefully restored. The town organizes a varied program of cultural events to keep things lively, from what I've read.

All these pictures are ones I took in Senlis on June 5, 2011.

The cost of keeping the old town authentic and interesting is subsidized in part by tax monies flowing in from what is called une zone d'activités — a business park — outside town on the A1 autoroute that leads to nearby Paris on the south and Lille and Brussels to the north.

Senlis itself is about 2,000 years old, as far as can be determined. It was a Celtic city before the Roman conquest. For a time under and after the Romans, the town's name was Augustomagus, meaning "Augustus' market." It had status as a ville libre, of which there were only 10 in Gaul under the Roman administration, paying tribute directly to the emperor.

The temples, triumphal arches, palaces, and baths built by the Romans all disappeared over the centuries, with the exception a the Roman arena, of which visible ruins remain. Details of the town's history during the Middle Ages are sketchy, but Charlemagne and other Frankish kings weren't strangers to Senlis. In the year 987, it is said, Hugues Capet was elected king by his barons, meeting in Senlis. The Capetian dynasty — 37 French kings — lived on for nearly 900 years.

As late as the 13th century, judging by maps from that period, Senlis was a larger town than Paris. It was prosperous and known for its leather goods, woolens, and furs. It was an important market town for the region, and there were annual fairs and festivals. Senlis was even a wine town. The soil was sandy and light all around the town and was considered perfect for grapes. Even the king owned a vineyard there.

You get the idea. French towns have thousands of years of history behind them. Senlis is a beautiful place to visit, and it's especially close to the big Paris airport at Roissy. It's not quite a suburb of Paris, but it certainly is part of the larger Paris region, economically and geographically speaking.

When Walt and I arrived in France eight years ago, flying into CDG with our dog, Senlis was our first stop after we left the airport. It was a good place to take the dog for a walk after her 10 hour ordeal in the baggage compartment — she was fine, actually — and to get some lunch. Senlis has that old French feel and when you get there you know you're not in America any more, for sure.


  1. Hi Ken,
    I also spent a couple of days in Senlis and felt much the same as you do about the feel of the town and the wonderful architecture. This is one of my typical northern 'French" towns. Property prices are prohibitive though due to its close proximity to Paris. I guess it's a true bourgeois ville.

  2. When Elliot and I visited Senlis (his first time to Europe) we saw a sign on a section of the original, ancient town walls, stating that this section dated from way back whenever (3rd Century?). Elliot, in a rare moment of being awed, said, "Wait... did you say 3rd century?? This wall is from the 3rd century??" I had forgotten how this would have been his very first exposure to anything older than about 150 years old! We enjoyed the town, and then had an ice cream (with whipped cream atop, of course), in Chantilly.


  3. @Judy -- isn't it an eye opener? I have had similar feelings. Whoa, there are thing more than 150 years old? Of couse, I had the same experience traveling from California to Boston....

  4. Senlis has a special time in our travels - it was the same year we said hello to you and Walt.

  5. I LOVE these old buildings. Do you know if any of them are original from the early days?

  6. Starman, I think a lot of the building are "original" but like most old buildings they have been renovated, restored, modified, and improved over the centuries. There were battles at Senlis during all the wars in the 19th and 20th centuries. I don't know what the extent of the damage was and how much had to be rebuilt.

    john-san, I'm not surprised to hear that real estate properties are high in Senlis, given the town's proximity to Paris and the airport along with its medieval character.


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