A Visit to the Chateau of Chantilly

We had a fantastic day today at the Domaine de Chantilly, one of the major sights to see in France, and only a bare hour’s drive from us. I can’t believe I have never been before as it’s perfectly do-able as a day trip from Paris.

The estate encompasses, a huge wooded and landscaped park, the Chateau and the Great Stables. The Chateau contains the art collections of the Duc D’Aumale, the last owner and his predecessors, the Condes and the Montmorencys. When the Duc died in 1897, he left the Chateau to the French Institute with the instructions that the interior and the exterior must be left as they were and that his paintings, which were hanging in the 19th century fashion, must be left in position and never loaned out. His collections do not only encompass paintings – the largest collection of Great Masters outside of the Louvre – but also ceramics, Roman treasures from Pompeii, including two mosaic floors, jewellery, clocks, books, bronzes and sculpture. There is also of course the furniture and superb tapestries.

We are so lucky in some respects to be travelling in the time of covid. It is a bit like being a tourist 50 years ago, the number of visitors is so light. Again, we felt like we had the place to ourselves on many occasions and there were never more than a few other people in a room with us max.

The car parks are about an 8 minute walk from the Chateau, set back in the woods and you have to walk in. At first, I frowned a bit about this, (I know…. lazybones) but actually it means that you see the Chateau and grounds unblemished by carparks and it is all the more spectacular for that. The Chateau is now one, but at one time it was two: The Grand Chateau and the Petit Chateau, separated by a canal of water and linked by bridges. There is still a body of water around it, reflecting the fantastical stone of the structure. It is a truly beautiful sight.

There have been 5 structures on this site, dating back to one Cantilius, a Romano-Gaul who built the first. Since then it has been owned by a succession of nobles who were very close companions and advisors to the king of the day. The three most famous of the builders of what survives are: Anne, Duc de Montmorency, The Great Conde and the Duc d’Aumale. The families were immensely wealthy and managed to preserve their wealth through the political ups and downs of the centuries.

We got there just after 10am and began by touring the Chateau. Unfortunately the audio tour was not available but the rooms were well labelled and I had photographed the relevant pages from my Michelin Guide. There were a lot of rooms to visit and it took us over 2 hours to get through. I’m sure a more avid art lover could have taken all day. There is a superb collection of Old Masters but some highlights were works by Raphael (including the original painting The Three Muses, which is sublime), Watteau, Delacroix, Botticelli and Ingres. Room after room. The Prince of Conde was passionate about porcelain and established an important centre of manufacture at Chantilly and there are collections of this ware plus Sevres and Chinese porcelain. One piece that made us stop and stare was an amazing clock with lots of porcelain figures attached and a mini organ. When it struck the hour and played, the little figures would apparently rotate. Amazing. I wish we could have seen it in action.

The galleries are very intimate. You are absolutely nose to canvas with the paintings, no distance at all. I really liked that. Although the insurance must be a headache. No security guards in the rooms. And because it was so quiet, there was no enforced shuffling and moving on. It felt as though we were the Duc’s guests and wandering through. I loved the library which contained what looked to be thousands of beautiful leather bound books. Indeed, the Duke of Aumale was the greatest bibliophile of his time and has over 19000 works including 1500 manuscripts. At the moment they are showing an exhibition of a selection of his collection of fables. He had some really comfortable looking reading chairs in there.

Eventually, we tumbled out into the courtyard again, dazed from the sheer magnificence of it all. And there were still the gardens to view. There are several different ones immediately surrounding the Chateau. The English Garden is a romantic English park style garden laid out on the old Le Notre garden. There are weeping willows, a trickling stream, a lake, a distant temple, horse chestnut trees, There are the Parterres – the French style formal gardens with water pools and fountains.

There’s a Hamlet dating from the late 1700s: a collection of rustic buildings and a watermill set in the woods., which predates Marie Antoinette’s one at Versailles. The Estate under the Prince of Conde hosted many huge parties and extravaganzas and they would all include some sort of “picnic” at Le Hameau. Can’t you just imagine???? I loved the story about Francois Vatel, the royal caterer to the Prince of Conde. Apparently, The Great Conde organised a 3 day extravaganza of festivities in 1671 to entertain his cousin, Louis XIV. On the last day of the festivities the fish that had been ordered did not arrive on time and the over-wrought Vatel, killed himself!!!!! The fish duly arrived just as he expired! Kitchen dramas……

We walked a good few miles. Through the English Garden, the Parterres, out to the Hamlet, where we paused for a snack. I mean…. you can’t visit Chantilly without sampling one of its other famous creations: Chantilly Cream. It was invented by the hapless Vatel!!!!!! Bob heroically ordered Pain d’Epices (gingerbread) with Chantilly Cream while I watched hungrily. I did have a couple of spoonful’s actually…. Yum!!!! The cream was delicious, much nicer than I remembered. I think the difference must be in the cream they used which is probably the equivalent of full cream Jersey. It was certainly a creamy yellow colour. We enjoyed it despite the presence of the mandatory persistent wasp.

After that, we walked through the beautiful woods. There are even lots of artworks scattered in clearings and amidst greenery here. There are many paths for hiking and we barely scratched them. By two pm. we were a bit tired. We had our picnic in the woods and then decided to call it a day. We did not get to see the Chapelle, the other churches, the kangaroo enclosure (no idea, don’t ask..) . We would have loved to have toured the furthest reaches of the park by one of the electric carts or taken a boat tour around the waterways. But we ran out of time and leg power. I blame the chantilly cream….. We saw the Great Horse Stables from the outside and a visit to them, the Horse Museum and the Hippodrome will have to wait for another day. We’ll just have to come back again then……

We had just a brilliant day out and thoroughly enjoyed Chantilly so much. It cost about 15 euro each plus 5 euro for parking for the day and was good value. Chantilly itself looked to be a charming town with lots of nice looking brasseries and picturesque old houses.

It was probably the perfect weather for visiting. Warm but not too hot, about 20C and mostly sunny. Later in the week it is going to get hot again so we are getting some trips scheduled for today and tomorrow so that we can hopefully enjoy some pool time later in the week.