MBA students at the château of Chevreuse

Top Tips for Discovering the French Countryside

When current student Charles Serilas suggested that he share his tips for discovering the region around campus, we leapt at his offer. After all, the former senior investment analyst and portfolio manager has logged nearly 4,000 kilometers on rides and runs since joining the HEC Paris MBA last September. “I work hard to finish all our homework during the week, so I don’t have to stay at home during the weekend,” he explains. Along with serving as Treasurer for the MBA Council and Vice President of the MBA’s Finance Club, the Belgium native has earned another, more playful distinction—he won the cycling competition during last year’s MBA Tournament.  Below he shares his advice.

Located just outside of Paris, the HEC campus can seem rather remote at first glance, but it actually borders one of France’s most interesting regions. Plan to spend some significant time exploring the sites around your new home.

Here are some incredible examples of just a few areas near campus you can visit either by foot, bike or public transportation:

  • La Vallée de la Bievre and Versailles forest are perfect for nature walks. There are a lot of hidden wonders such as the Etangs de la Geneste, and a decorative Mirage fighter jet. Or, of course, you can go for a nature walk in the forest right on campus!
  • Versailles is a must. It is a superb area, with lots of walking and running trails. You can have a coffee in the Palace’s garden while looking at the rowboats, or wander through the antiques market to see some incredible pieces of art and history from France and abroad (expect to see some museum-quality pieces).
  • Find your secret happy places. Mine are the cafés near Dampierre Church, and la Boulangerie de Chevreuse below the Château de la Madeleine.
  • Les fermes de Gally offers nice local delicacies and is an excellent place to buy food or stop in for a coffee, or a brunch or lunch with friends.

More generally, there are a lot of places that can quickly be spotted on Google Maps and where you can spend a relaxing day outdoors. My favorite way to explore the area near campus is by bicycle–you can source a good bike on the used second-hand market (more on that below) for an affordable price, or pick up an electric bike rental from the ZOOV electric bike station located just outside of HEC Paris’ main reception desk.

Chateau de la Madeleine in Chevreuse

Château de la Madeleine in Chevreuse

Getting Outside in France

France offers a lot of opportunities for hiking, running and cycling. Google is usually the best tool to discover an area, as it allows you to browse through the various local resources. Other desktop tools include the “petites cités de caractère”, a website filled with quaint small cities often forgotten by tourists. There’s also natural parks such as Le Perche and Le Vexin. France’s plus beaux villages rating also points you to some incredibly picturesque French cities – but those won’t be forgotten by tourists.

one after a 150km ride paris-Rouen

Charles Serilas, photographed after a 150km ride Paris-Rouen

Train and highway maps of France are interesting tools that allow fast and easy travel. I put train stations at the center of most of my outings, no matter if I’m traveling to get some exercise or to discover a new area. I can either leave for a bike ride and come back home, or ride to another city and discover twice as much by coming back by train.

Sports events and more generally organized events are another excellent tool to discover a region. For example, participating in an organized bike ride means that you will discover a region, with mechanical support, catering, and nice people to talk to. Some hipster bike shops such as La Chouette and Le Peloton serve excellent coffee and can help you in finding groups that share in your same activities and interests.

Books and guides are old school, but they work extremely well. For example, I rely on the Michelin guide as it also boasts an impressive list of affordable restaurants that serve really good food.

Technology can also help you to discover the area and prepare for your trip. My three favorites are:

Strava, a fitness application that records your activities. Strava’s route-mapping option is extraordinarily good, and the app can generate routes and loops for you. Mind you, this is especially centered around sports, looking at which routes are the most popular.

Komoot, on the other hand, helps you prepare your route with a focus on sightseeing. It will list all of the interesting features of the area, be it an old building, a natural wonder or even notable hills if you fancy a tough cycling trip.

Alltrails is at the other end of the spectrum. The routes are already designed and you just pick the one you want depending on your level. This is by far my favorite hiking app.

Le Perche area of natural beauty

Le Perche, an area of natural beauty

Gearing Up

My favorite place for gearing up is Decathlon. This store always has an entry-level price-point for every sport, and features equipment for everything from triathlon riding to hiking.

For hiking and running, shoes are the most important. Always ensure you get well-fitting shoes designed specifically for your activity. If you like running, go to one of the many running stores in Paris or Versailles and get an expert to help you pick out the right shoes.

In terms of cycling, the hipster cafés most often sell second hand bikes. This is the case for:

Other (cheaper) addresses to buy a bike near HEC are:

Atelier Velo Versailles – Open Friday-Saturday-Sunday morning. It is an extraordinary community that repairs and sells second hand bikes. Thoroughly recommended.

Decathlon – we all know it. Affordable and sturdy

Gumtree and Leboncoin are excellent for second-hand bikes

When you buy a bike, be sure that you buy a bike suitable for what you want to do. For example, do not buy an old, heavy touring bike if you want to knock out lots of kilometers. For the rest, watch the Global Cycling Network on YouTube and their videos on second hand bikes, it will prevent you from buying a lemon. Also, as a security measure, always wear a helmet, check the brakes and change the tires.

La Chouette bike shop

La Chouette bike shop

A Few Final Tips

Now that we have thoroughly covered the subject, I will leave you with a last few tips to help with your adventures.

– Water is essential. Always carry twice what you deem necessary.

– Take some cash with you. Bank cards or even Apple Pay might be a must have in the city, but it is not necessarily the same in the countryside.

– If you wear contact lenses like me, or have any medical issue/problem that can make your trip a nightmare, plan for the worst. I always try to carry spare lenses with me just in case.

– Prepare your trip. Ten minutes of desk research will make it a lot easier once you are in the field. Know where the restaurants are–that will prevent arguments. Also try to identify areas of interest in advance. You will look like you know the place, which is always a plus.

– Once you’re in the field, try the local specialties and avoid going to international chain restaurants. Buying a burger and fries is the last option if you really can’t find anything else. Look for basic French cuisine priced to be a good value.

– Always be nice and polite. The most important thing for French people is not “please” or “thank you” but “hello” and “excuse me”. You can be loud and slightly enthusiastic, that always help. A lot of people in the service industry are rude because they deal with really rude tourists all year long. If you want good service, treat people nicely and they will return the favor.

– Finally, be prepared, but don’t carry too much. You can almost always buy a replacement in the event of an accident. Don’t take a week’s worth of gear when you leave for a weekend.

If you have any questions, you can contact me at Safe trip!

Text by Charles Serilas

Charles SerilasCharles Serilas (MBA ’22) graduated as a Civil Engineer in Belgium. After a first experience in Strategy Consulting mainly advising public utility companies, Charles spent two years working in Venture Capital in a London-based family office. He decided to pursue an MBA at HEC Paris to increase his knowledge of finance and operations, aiming to pursue a career in green energy investments. He is currently serving as the HEC Paris MBA Council Treasurer, and Vice President of the Finance Club. Outside of work, Charles is a keen cyclist and runner, loves to cook and is always on the lookout for new restaurants to try.