Today I’m going to tell you about a sampling of castles you can visit while you reside in Paris or environs. There are an incredible number of these small and big merveilles so I am covering a few of the best known and some lesser known but wonderful castles- several of which I have personally visited. Check out the new photo album where I will be including photos of a large amount of the fifty castles I’ve found in this region. Enjoy!
– The Castle Lady
Paris grew from an island in the Seine, Ile de la Cite, but how many of you know that Paris itself is in the middle of a type of landlocked island known as the Ile de France? It is, in fact, surrounded by a circle of rivers that intersect. The Epte, Aisne, Marne and Yonne surround the enlarged city and run through forests with the names Rambouillet, St. Germain, Compie’gne and Fontainebleau. Considered the heart of France it extends into historic regions featuring royal (and non-royal) castles considered “la gloire de la France.” This region was favored by royalty during the time that Francois I transformed Fontainebleau into a true renaissance palace in 1528. For Louis XIV it was the political axis of the country when he rebuilt Versailles in 1661.
The City of Light retains very few castles (there are a few! ) but it is virtually surrounded by a forest of large, medium and small castles- too many to try to count. However, in this entry I’m going to touch on a few which will capture your imagination as much as Versailles and Fontainebleau but I will start with Versailles which I have visited twice now and once at Fontainebleau.
Versailles is fifteen miles south of Paris and its exterior will excite any castle enthusiast and the interior will enchant you like a jewelry box filled with precious stones! This is France’s most visited site. There have been many attempts at recreating Versailles by other Monarchs ( the most obvious being “Mad” King Ludwig of Neuschwanstein fame), but once you have taken in an extensive tour of Versailles you’ll know that it can never be duplicated and is, in fact, the most grand palace ever built. Even if you take several different tours of the interior you will not see it in its entirety but you can see a good part of the opulence by spending several days here. ( I recommend staying at Chateau d’Esclimont firstname.lastname@example.org .) Tours are sectional, dividing the palace into specific viewing purposes. You’ll start your entrance in the Marble Courtyard. One tour- the most popular- includes the State Apartments, the Hall of Mirrors (where the Treaty of Versailles was signed ), the Grand Apartments, the Queen’s and King’s private suites and salons and the Royal Chapel (which is awe inspiring! ) Other tours take in Madame Victoire’s and Madame Ade’laide’s Apartments, the Captain of the Guard’s Apartments and other vestibules and drawing rooms for the King’s purposes. The south wing tour takes in the Hall of Battles which is a monument to great French war victories in sculpture and paintings, and The Royal Opera which is at the end of the north wing, built to the second design and wasn’t finished until halfway through 1770 ! I’ve never seen a more magnificent and ostentatious opera house in my life.
If the Chateau blows your mind, you’ll find the Chateau Gardens will enchant you completely. Versailles is an immense estate made into pleasure grounds at the Sun King’s wishes. This portion of Versailles was the master plan of two landscaping architects- Hardouin-Mansart and Le Notre. From the West, North and South Parterres to the extensive avenues and groves on the other side which leads back into the wooded area where the smaller chateaus- The Grand Trianon, the Petit Trianon (Marie Antoinette’s Garden abode) and the Queen’s Hamlet- sit hidden away in smaller grandeur, you’ll find this portion is like a grand stage of elegance. It is a perfect Garden of Eden filled with trees, flowers, fountains soaring, sparkling lakes, hundreds of marble statues and it’s great for walkers and joggers.
Andre Le Notre was to French landscaping what Capability Brown is to England’s royal and stately home gardens. During his lifetime (1613-1700) he created perfect Edens in chateau gardens all over France. He did extensive work in the Ile de France as you will discover at Dampierre, Sceaux and Vaux-le-Vicomte At Vaux-le Vicomte his jardin a` la francaise is a classic example of his work featuring avenues framed by statues, box hedges, water gardens with fountains and ornate pools, graceful terraces, and geometrical parterres all showing his sense of symmetry and keen architectural sense. No where is this more apparent though, than at Versailles which is considered his greatest masterpiece.
The Museum of Carriages are the twin buildings which face opposite the chateau which were Louis the XIV’s pride and joy and contains fantastic royal coaches, sedans and berlins. This collection displayed is that of Louis-Philippe since the extensive collection of 2,000 were sold during the Revolution.
If you want to stay close by there is the Trianon Palace Hotel on the Blvd. de la Reine, set in a five-acre garden and has had guests such as Woodrow Wilson among other famous signers of the Treaty of Versailles.
Fontainebleau is forty miles south east of Paris on the main route to Lyon Fontainebleau forest is 50,000 acres of woods which was a hunting ground for nobles for many centuries. It’s a beautiful area which contains gorges, unusual rock formations, dark ponds and unknown wildlife which were inspiration for artists Millet and Rousseau who loved this area and turned Barbizon into an artists’ colony in the 19th century. The chateau you see today is in 16th century Renaissance and its central entrance horseshoe staircase is a unique feature which makes it easily identifiable among such renaissance buildings.
Its greatest era was during the 12th century and was the preferred residence of Francois I, Charles VII and the Bourbon Kings later on. With each era, new extensions were made turning it into a maze of halls not unlike Hampton Court but, of course, smaller by comparison. The interior furnishings and collection will take your breath away and then overwhelm by turns. My favorite rooms are the Galerie de Diane (the library) and the Grand Salle de Bal ( also known as the Galerie de Henri II ) which was very much to my taste. The gardens here are also extensive but very different from those of Versailles. They comprise a surrounding maze of the English Garden, Jardin de Diane and the Grand Parterre. Under the Sun King’s watch, in 1661, Le Notre built the cascades between the canal and the Parterre du Tibre d’Henri IV.
West of Paris in Yvelines, the ancient royal town of Saint Germain-en-Laye the 12th century chateau houses the Muse’e des Antiquite’s Nationales, which exhibits archaeological finds from pre-history to the Middle Ages. This collection created by Napoleon III includes a 22,000-year-old carved female, a megalithic tomb, a bronze helmet from the 3rd century BC and Celtic jewelry. The finest treasure is the Gallo-Roman mosaic pavement.
The chateau you will see today was built in 1539 by Pierre Chambiges on the sub-foundations of a 12th century medieval fortress. Francois I retained only the dungeon of Charles V and the beautiful Sainte-Chapelle.
Chateau de Dampierre, even though not as well-known as Versailles is among the most celebrated chateaux southwest of Paris in the Yvelines region. It was built in 1675 for the Duc (Duke) de Chevreuse (Colbert’s son-in-law) largely designed by J. Hardouin-Mansart. The main building is linked by balustrades to the various outbuildings placed symmetrically around the cour d’honneur and the color of the brick is beautifully harmonious in rose and cool colors imparting the look for which this chateau is famous including genuine Mansard roofs, of course!
The lavish interior, particularly in the royal apartments and Louis XIV dining salon, will remind you of Versailles and the room not to be missed is the Salles des Fetes which was remodeled in the 19th century in a Baroque style. The Grand Galerie was reconstructed for Theodore d’Albert, the Duke of Luynes by the antiquarian architect Fe’lix Duban. The rooms look out over landscaping set around a canal by Le Notre but much of his work has disappeared with conventional lawns. An 18th century garden folly remains. Malmaison
Chateau de Malmaison, in the Haut-de-Seine region, nine miles west of Paris, was once the favorite home of Empress Josephine. This was Richelieu’s 17th century estate which had rural grounds mostly unrivaled, save for Versailles, of course. Napoleon’s desires were in the other direction concerning the estate and he had a special entrance built for himself to avoid the front he scorned as being fit only for servants. Bought by Josephine as a retreat from Napoleon’s formal residences at the Tuileries and Fontainebleau, it still has beautiful rural parkland enhanced by Josephine’s’ romantic “English” and rose gardens and the interior. Many of the paintings were from her private collection and her rooms are richly decorated. The rooms considered the finest are the frescoed and vaulted library, the canopied campaign room, the sunny Salon de Musique and Josephine’s bedchamber where she passed away. Curiously, on the wooded grounds the Chateau Bois Preau houses a museum dedicated to Napoleon’s exile and death.
Chateau de Rambouillet, closely linked with Louis XVI, is now the summer residence of the French president, Sarkozy, and was once favorite royal hunting ground. Rambouillet has been used as the president’s summer residence since 1897 but its history is adorned with many French royal connections. Owners included the Argennes family, the Marquise de Rambouillet and the Comte de Toulouse. An ivy-covered red brick castle with five round towers, it is rather eclectic and sits on the edge of the Rambouillet Forest also in the Yvelines area. The interior is oak-paneled and filled with Aubusson tapestires and Empire-style furniture. The façade overlooks classical parterres.
A nearby building is the Queen’s Dairy (Laiterie de la Reine) built in Greek temple style, which was given to Marie Antoinette by Louis XVI so she could play milkmaid !
Chateau de Courson, came into international attention after Sting made his solo debut videotape” Bring On the Night” (1986) at this magnificent 17th century beauty. The main part of the building is an Italianate balconied vestibule which has twin ante-chambered apartments, alcoves and studios adjoining with wings on either end. One wing has a gallery and library and the dining room, kitchen and butler’s wing is in the left wing.
Originally built in the Empire-style as a manor house for Gilles Lamaitre, the first President of the Parliament of Paris, the current chateau was ultimately the work of Jean-Thomas Arrighi de Casanova ( a cousin once removed of Napoleon ) the Duke of Padua. He and his wife (the granddaughter of Guilliame-Joseph Dupleix de Banquencourt) transformed the chateau and park into the splendor it is today The interior is filled with paintings of the Bonaparte family including his mother Maria Letizia. A tour will be absolutely enchanting as long as no one is rehearsing their musical debut !
Located half way between Les Ulis and Dourdan in the Essone region, Chateau de Courson is best to see during the Plant Days which runs from the end of May to October.
In the region of the Hauts-de-Seine, Chateau de Sceaux, seated in a park of elegant villas is a renaissance chateau from an original (1597 for the de Gesvres family) built for Jean-Baptiste Colbert in 1670. The architects included the Perrault brothers, Antoine Lepautre and Charles Le Brun attended to the interior along with Francois Girardon and Antoine Coysevox . However, todays Chateau de Sceaux was reconstructed by Mare’chal Mortier (the husband of M. Lecomte’s daughter) in 1852-62 in Louis XIII style with designs by Quantinet and carried out by Le Soufache’. This is the site of the Muse’e de l’Ile de France which will inform you about all the landscapes, chateaux and history of the region through paintings, furniture, sculpture and ceramics and home to one of the largest collections of the artists of the School of Paris.
Often used as a musical venue, the exterior grounds are a sheer delight, laid down and designed by Le Notre. The gardens use water to great effect, with tiered waterfalls and fountains presenting a moving staircase that cascades into an octagonal basin. This feeds into the Grand Canal and offers a poplar-lined view to the Pavillon de Hanovre, one of several which adorn the park. A classical Orangerie by Mansart is also featured and was inaugurated by the King at a formal fete in 1685.
The Grandes Nuits of 1714-15 were hosted here by the Duke and Duchess of Maine which celebrated the best musicians of France conducted by Jean-Joseph Mouret.
In the region of Seine-et-Marne, Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte, has some of the loveliest gardens in France and also rivaled the Sun King’s own chateaux- so much so that Nicholas Fouquet, the powerful court financier who had it built, was arrested by Louis the XIV and all his estates were confiscated !
Not far from Fontainebleau, it rests in a peaceful rural location with a Classical architecture that makes me think of Castle Howard in North Yorkshire- with Italianate touches of course. Surrounded on three sides with a rectangular moat, it is a symmetrical building with the central projecting block and wings that sit forwarded from the building. It is dominated by the central salon which realizes the full height of the house topped with its oval dome.
The interior is gilded with many frescoes, stucco, caryatids (a sculptured pillar using the female figure )and giant busts The Salon des Muses makes use of Le Brun’s frescoes along the ceiling and La Grande Chambre Carre’e is decorated in Louis XIII style featuring paneled walls and an impressive triumphal frieze. The overall effect of this chateau’s interior is less formal and not as overwhelming as many European royal interiors.
Most recently, on July 7, 2007, Tony Parker and Eva Longoria had their reception and apparently their honeymoon at Vaux-le-Vicomte ! !
Chateau d’Ecouen, to the north, offers a museum of Renaissance life as the Muse’e National de la Renaissance. Located in the Val d’Oise this impressive moated chateau seems to float on its grounds between the Abbaye de Royaument and the Basilique St.-Denis. The quadrilateral plan provides much as a great setting for its collection of paintings, tapestries, coffers, carved doors and staircases salvaged from other 16th century chateaux. Built in 1538 for Anne de Montmorency, he employed the Fontainebleau artists and craftsmen to decorate and furnish the palace. Their influence, today, is displayed in the painted fireplaces, the chapel, the minstrels’ gallery and the vaulted ceilings which still bear the Montmorency coat of arms. Montmorency was Francois the Ist’s advisor and commander in chief of the French army so the palace is a reflection of his power in Francois’ Kingdom.
Visiting this chateau is an all day affair if you wish to see everything that is available on the tour. The ground floor is the first tour of the day- in the morning. Later in the afternoon, the second floor offers views of a long gallery containing one of the finest series of 16th century tapestries in France. Then there are the princely apartments with renaissance-tiled floors, the library of illuminated manuscripts, a collection of vivid ceramics from Lyon, Nevers, Venice and Faenza and Iznik, and a display of early mathematical instruments and watches.
Two towns in the Ile de France are medieval fortified towns which you must not miss. Provins and Moret-sur-Loing in the Seine-et-Marne region offer tours which you will never forget. My good friend and colleague, Earl Steinbicker personally toured Moret-sur-Loing and I will put a link to his Typepad account at the end of this entry. It offers winding streets, 12th century dungeons, the Maison Francois I, the Early Gothic Notre Dame Church to say nothing of the charm of the town all along the Loing River. My favorite impressionist, Sisley, retired in this town and of course, immortalized its most charming features through his medium in more than 400 paintings !
During the Middle Ages, Moret was the primary crossing point of the route between Paris and Lyon. It was fortified to protect the French kingdom from insurrection by the Dukes of Burgundy and the city still has over 4,500 feet of walls, two fortified gateway and twenty towers.
When on foot, if you take a walk up the Rue de l’Est to the Rue du Donjon, you’ll find the house Sisley lived in at the corner of Rue Montmartre. This was his last residence and he lived there from 1889 to 1899. Further up the street is the 12th century castle keep where Nicolas Fouquet was imprisoned by Louis XIV after Vaux-le-Vicomte was seized. You won’t be able to tour these buildings, unfortunately, as they are closed to the public.
Provins is a feudal city of Merovingian origin and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with one of the richest art centers in the entirety of France. Termed the “Town of Medieval Fairs” you can take tours of Porte Saint-Jean, the Grange aux Dimes, the 12th century Cesar Tower and 12th century Saint Quiriace Collegiate Church with its 17th century tower. There is also the Romanesque house, the Bourreau Tower, Saint Ayoul Church, Notre-Dame du Val tower, Sainte Croix Church, Hotel Dieu (hospital), Cordelieres convent and a maze of underground passages which will intrigue.
The Castle Lady, intriguing you with nice surprises
, big kisses and hugs !
“On the 17th of August (1661) at six in the evening, Fouquet
was the King of France: at two in the morning he was nobody.”
There are quite a few images of these castles plus more than I have mentioned today in the new photo album !