Roaming the Seine-et-Marne

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Tourist offices and museums across Belgium and northern France are busy organising a host of events to commemorate the centenary of WWI.

Much of the focus this year will be on places such as Ypres and around the Somme, the areas usually associated with that awful conflict.

It is a little known fact, though, that the Battle of the Marne in 1914 was one of the opening campaigns in World War I – it was fought in the countryside around Meaux, in north-east France.

For those visiting the area this year for WWI events, one must-see attraction is the exceptional Museum of the First Word War at Meaux, which opened just over two years ago.

It features an outstanding, 50,000-strong collection of WWI artefacts, all assembled by Jean-Pierre Verney, a self-taught private collector. Amazingly, this is only 15% of his entire collection. Exhibits include 250 uniforms from the 35 countries that took part in the ‘war to end all wars’ and a documentation centre.

The museum, located in a bunker-shaped building, attracted 200,000 visitors last year, but only 10% were non-French and – much like the region itself – it is hoping to raise its profile among people from abroad, including Belgians.

Of course, everyone knows about Disneyland, but some may not know that this iconic attraction is actually located in the Seine-et-Marne region. If you’re as unfamiliar with the area as I was, that’s a shame because there’s an awful lot going for this land of art and country houses.

Disneyland, which opened in 1992, continues to be a huge success, pulling in 16m visitors last year, nearly as many as the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre combined.

In July, Disneyland welcomes a brand new attraction based on the hit movie Ratatouille. It takes guests into the world of the Oscar-winning film, which tells the tale of Remy – a talented young rat who dreams of becoming a renowned French chef. Disney story-telling and state-of-the-art technology will come together in this romantic, larger-than-life, Parisian experience.

Euro Disney Chairman Philippe Gas said: “The Ratatouille attraction symbolizes all of the creativity, innovation and emotion that guests associate with Disneyland Paris.”

Disneyland aside, this is a region full of very pleasant surprises, and several wonderful visitor attractions await close to the theme park.

For instance, located just five minutes from Disneyland in the heart of the commercial centre Val d’Europe, is SEA LIFE aquarium. It now features a brand new exhibition, called CLAWS, featuring some stunning species of crabs from the amazing Tasmanian king crab (which can reach a mass of 13 kg) to the humble blue lobster. Built like miniature armoured tanks, these powerful, crusty creatures of the deep are natural warriors, and guests can inspect them at close quarters in a themed area featuring quirky displays designed to resemble giant crabs. You can discover thousands of sea creatures from seahorses to rare Green Sea turtles, 13 species of stunning sharks and baby stingrays in the Amazonia area.

If you journey a little into the heartland of Seine-et-Marne you’ll find Europe’s largest big cat park, which attracted some 280,000 people last year.

If you like big cats you’ll love this place. With 150 cats representing 36 different species, from the best known (tigers and lions) to the rarest (clouded leopards), this 170-acre park offers its animals a natural environment to ensure their well-being and reproduction. Included in the admission price is a visit to the charming Lemur’s Island, home to 60 of the bushy-tailed little creatures.

Deputy Director and zoologist Gregory Breton says the large enclosures mean Les Parc Des Felins cannot remotely be compared to a traditional zoo. Over €1m is spent annually on the 5,000 chickens, 500 rabbits, 150 sheep and 300 cows needed to feed the park´s residents – new for 2014 is a 4D movie and mini-train tour.

If felines aren’t your thing, try the delightful Vaux le Vicomte, arguably France´s most beautiful private chateau and location of Leonardo DiCaprio’s 1998 adventure The Man in the Iron Mask.

After expending so much energy you’ll have worked up an appetite and C.Comme Ca in nearby Meaux is the ideal place to satisfy it. Boasting a particularly relaxed atmosphere and nicely situated in the market square in the shadow of the city’s cathedral, it serves some terrific traditional brasserie cuisine but also fine gastronomic dishes too. Don’t leave without tasting brie and mustard, the two local specialities.

For overnighters, the Vienna International-owned Magic Circus and Dream Castle hotels, both located near Disneyland and with themed rooms, make for a great base. The delightful 4-star Dream Castle, for example, provides numerous services such as a free shuttle for the parks and even a Disney shop. The restaurant staff wear period costumes and, if a day out at Disneyland proves a bit too much, the hotel also boasts a spa and wellness centre. Both hotels offer a reasonably priced range of pleasant international and French cuisine.

This delightful region, only about three hours’ drive from Brussels, has moved on apace since those dark days of WWI and makes for an excellent long weekend, irrespective of the time of year.

Further information is available at www.tourisme77.fr