Today is our planned-for trip to the Château de Chantilly
(front of the Château – taken at midday)
located, rather obviously, in the town of Chantilly, 60 km (37.5 miles) due North of Paris. Apparently it takes about one hour eleven minutes by road, but only 25 minutes by train.
We read about it before coming to France and gathered that, after the Louvre, the Château’s art gallery, the Musée Condé, houses one of the finest collections of paintings in France specialising in French paintings and book illuminations of the 15th and 16th centuries: also after Versailles it has the finest gardens and grounds.
All in all it comprises: a French formal garden, featuring extensive parterres and water features, including a cascade, laid out principally by André Le Nôtre who designed the gardens at Versailles: a large park containing pavilions and a rustic ersatz village – the Hamlet (Hameau) de Chantilly, which inspired Marie Antoinette to have her little Farm built in the Gardens of Versailles: Chantilly racecourse and the Great Stables: and lastly, an ‘exhibition spectacular’ of horse dressage. Wow!! Somehow I don’t think we’ll be able to visit everything. But we read that there is a small road ‘train’ which tours the grounds, so our initial planning is that we will eat at the famous Hameau, watch the Dressage Spectacular, visit the Great Stables and take a tour of the grounds on this train. If there is any time or energy left over we will visit the inside of the Château and the paintings.
We gathered that it is far less well known to tourists and consequently not as crowded as Versailles, so all in all, we thought it might make a ‘grand day out’.
After careful planning we chose a day forecast for good weather which also had the dressage exhibition (this does not take place every day) and booked tickets for this as well as a table in the Restaurant in the Hamlet which had much better reviews than the one in the Château (although even these were luke-warm to say the least). Booking tickets was a nightmare since we have no printer and have to get everything booked to our mobile phones. Sounds simple but it had taken us hours negotiating websites on our phones and speaking to people who seemed busy, not bothered, and refusing to speak anything but French. This was not a problem for me but L got the brush-off. Finally we got all our bookings made but have to collect our tickets in person on arrival at the box office in the Great Stables.
So, after the first great write-up we set off with a few misgivings, I have to say.
We rose early expecting to have to react to all kinds of fall out from the national strike, and set off on our adventure. However, our bus came promptly much to our surprise, taking us direct to Gare du Nord. In fact all the buses we could see appeared to be running normally.
Once at the Gare du Nord we wondered whether there would be any trains running but nothing appeared to be out of the usual. In fact, apart from crowds and posters in the Place de la Republique on our way over, we saw nothing that would suggest any kind of a strike. So we were far too early and had to sit at a horrid fast food outlet, drinking dreadful powdered drinking-chocolate and coffee at exhorbitant prices, noticing too that the woman handling the food was not very hygenic. We thanked our lucky stars that we had not bought any food. It was chilly, draughty, noisy, and we were persecuted by people begging for money. In fact it epitomisied everything bad about travel, and not what we have come to love about Paris.
However, the train was prompt, clean, fast and efficient. We easily got seats upstairs in a vacant coach and settled in for a pleasant ride looking out at the countryside. Blue skies and bright sunshine greeted us wherever we looked. The Château is situated in the Parc Naturel Régional Oise pays de France so the last part of our journey took us through a lovely area. (Picardie region this time).
The station for Chantilly is called Chantilly Gouvieux and is a little outside town so we went to find a bus to take us there: we found the Bus Station which was right beside the Train Station, through a small passageway, and asked a bus driver for directions. He told us that there was a free bus into town and where to catch it. A kind lady also waiting at the bus stop told us which stop to get off at in town for the Château: it was only a ten minute drive and once alighted we walked for 20 minutes from town to the Gates. Immediately inside we found the Great Stables, went inside and retrieved our tickets without problem: everyone was pleasant and helpful but we needed our French. Actually I rather like this because I do not go to another country and expect them to speak my native language: it is fun to try to communicate with people in their own (except for emergencies of course!) And L manages perfectly well with her slightly more limited French skills but with her lovely personality.
By this time we only had twenty minutes before our Lunch reservation: we asked how far it was to the Hamlet and were told “15 minutes” walking through the wood beside the Château . Well I don’t know what kind of speed they walk at, but we almost ran and then we were five minutes late. We saw the road train standing idle, clearly it is not in use today which is a blow, but there were golf carts for hire: it may be silly, but all the people hiring them looked middle aged or old, and I did not feel I wanted to join their ranks. How stupid is that? Actually on a more practical level, since we were going to be sitting eating, and then sitting watching the dressage, it would have been a waste of money to hire one, they are not cheap.
(I found this map on Wikipedia, and it shows the distance we had to walk.) We came in on the left hand side, in the middle, by the Jeu de Paume. Then we had to walk down to the bottom of the image where you can see the bridge over the water, leading to the Château. Then straight up the middle of the picture on the cream area to the large lake/pond. There we had to turn at right angles following along one of the water course in the middle of the map leading directly to the right hand side of the picture. You can see the caption of Le Hameau on the top of the map pointing towards the Hamlet. This might not look far to you, but after walking a mile already in town in the heat of noon, and it being so hot with the sun beating down on the limestone all round us and being reflected back up again, this was a very hard and fast 25 minute trek. Gasp!
However once under the trees and beside yet more water, it was cooler and fresher and smelled wonderful.
The Hamlet is sweet,
The Hamlet Restaurant( from http://www.domainedechantilly.com/en/accueil/prepare-your-visite/)
and the Restaurant is out of doors under the trees – basically in the garden of one of the cottages.
It was a wonderful setting:
we were met by a cheerful and very friendly young waitress who left us to choose our table, then came back and took our order. The food is dispensed to the waitress from a hatch in the end of the cottage and it all felt very medieval.
We both had salads with different meats and mine had some hot potato chunks in it too. Since we were at Le Hameau at Chantilly where the french Chantilly Cream was invented (see below) we decided to have a dessert and it had to contain the famous cream of course! L had hers with pain aux epices (gingerbread) and I had a strawberry tart with mine. I was worried about the pastry and decided I would just have to leave that part but it turned out to be made from ground almonds not flour, how lovely. The cream was not just plain whipped cream: it had an aromatic quality, perhaps rose water, I’m not sure, and tasted – not sour exacty – but sweet with some kind of yoghourty/mild soft cheese undertones. I cannot place the flavours but they were gorgeous.
So we sat under the trees surrounded by about six tables of people, with nothing to hear but dishes clattering quietly in the kitchen, people murmuring over their lunch and insects and birds going about their business above and around us. So peaceful and domestic. It could only be described as blissful. Another ‘Giverny day’. The food was delicious and the only draw back was no decaff. coffee, but no problem, I just went without. We ate in a leisurely fashion because we had left ourselves two and a half hours to order, eat, and then get back to the Great Stables for the dressage performance in the afternoon: we had read on Trip Advisor of other people finding they were short of time to make the long walk back.
“Crème Chantilly is another name for whipped cream. Whipped cream, often sweetened and aromatised, was popular in the 16th century. It was called milk snow (neve di latte, neige de lait). A 1545 English recipe, “A Dyschefull of Snow”, includes whipped egg whites as well, and is flavored with rosewater and sugar. In these recipes, and until the end of the 19th century, naturally separated cream is whipped, typically with willow or rush branches, and the resulting foam on the surface would from time to time be skimmed off and drained, a process taking an hour or more. By the end of the 19th century, centrifuge-separated, high-fat cream made it much faster and easier to make whipped cream. The French name crème fouettée ‘whipped cream’ is attested in 1629, and the English name “whipped cream” in 1673. The name “snow cream” continued to be used in the 17th century.
The invention of crème Chantilly is often credited incorrectly, and without evidence, to François Vatel, maître d’hôtel at the Château de Chantilly in the mid-17th century. But the name Chantilly is first connected with whipped cream in the mid-18th century, around the time that the Baronne d’Oberkirch praised the “cream” served at a lunch at the Hameau de Chantilly — but did not say what exactly it was, or call it Chantilly cream. The names “crème Chantilly”, “crème de Chantilly”, “crème à la Chantilly”, or “crème fouettée à la Chantilly” only become common in the 19th century. In 1806, the first edition of Viard’s Cuisinier Impérial mentions neither “whipped” nor “Chantilly” cream, but the 1820 edition mentions both. The name Chantilly was probably used because the château had become a symbol of refined food. ”
After lunch we decided it was time to leave for the Dressage performance, since we wanted to stop and take photographs on the way.
The footpath from the Hamlet, through the woods
We crossed a small bridge over one of the grand water channels leading back to the Château
and noticed that the water was full of very large trout
As we came out of the trees and approached the back of the Château
the heat just beat over us: we had to walk back through with both the reflected heat from the the buildings and the stone on the ground and then up a limestone path up a hill to the Great Stables. I began to struggle despite the glorious view in front of us.
We had noticed on the plan of the grounds that there was a path parallel to where we needed to go, through some more trees and out of an opening right opposite the Stables: so I headed off in that direction for shade while L went back the way we had come to take photographs. This was my view:
When I got to the top of the hill I discovered that the ‘opening’ was in fact a gate, which was at that moment being closed by a young woman in a hurry, who said as she went past me that there was no exit that way. She would not stop and open it for me. so I was faced with going all the way back down the hill, round the back of the chateau and retracing our steps back to the Stables. At this point L met me looking for more photos and I said she should go on ahead and get our seats and I would join her if I could make it, but time was now getting short and I was just exhausted.
With some apprehension she left me and went back and I found a place to sit and try to recover. Sometimes I just curse my M.E. although I know that I manage to do a lot of things that others cannot.
Anyway, to cut a long and difficult story short, I did finally struggle back and got to the Great Stables and the Dome (which is the wonderful domed school [for horses] built in 1755 by the Prince de Conde) where the dressage event was being held, in time.
A word of history now from Wikipedia and the guide book:
The site of the Château comprises two attached buildings: the Petit Château built around 1560 for Anne de Montmorency, and the Grand Château, which was destroyed during the French Revolution and rebuilt in the 1870s by Henri d’Orléans, duc d’Aumale, who bequeathed the property to the Institut de France upon his death in 1897.. However, the Stables and associated buildings survived.
The estate’s connection with the Montmorency family began in 1484. The first mansion (no longer in existence, now replaced by the Grand Château) was built in 1528–1531 for the Constable Anne de Montmorency. The Petit Château was also built for him, around 1560. In 1632, after the death of Henri II, it passed to the Grand Condé who inherited it through his mother, Charlotte Marguerite de Montmorency. A couple of interesting pieces of history are associated with the château during the 17th century: firstly, Molière’s play, Les Précieuses Ridicules, received its first performance here in 1659 and secondly, Madame de Sévigné relates in her memoirs that when Louis XIV visited in 1671, François Vatel, the maître d’hôtel to the Grand Condé, committed suicide when he feared the fish would be served late.
It was the descendant to the Grand Condé, Louis Henri, Duc de Bourbon, the Prince de Condé, who was so passionate about horses and in 1719, he asked the architect, Jean Aubert to build stables suitable to his rank: and along with the stables was built, the Dome. According to legend he believed that he would be reincarnated as a horse after his death!
This is my attempt at a panoramic view of the Great Stable yard, the entry to the Dome is through the double doors at the bottom left.
Inside the Dome school (from http://theequestriannews.com)
We were not allowed to take photographs while the performance was taking place, but I managed to take one or two when it was finished – the windows had been covered and coloured lights were switched on so I could not any photos by natural light.
The ‘Spektacular’ as it was promoted, lasted for an hour. I am not quite sure how to describe it. The performance was accompanied throughout by a trio of close harmony Italian singers who sang folk songs from Italy. Unfortunately, although I think they probably described some kind of story, but as we could neither understand them or the story, the interaction with the riders and animals they were trying to put together was quite incomprehensible!
Also, sorry to sound so philistine, but the songs all sounded more or less the same too, rather gutteral, rough and droning. So from that point of view we did not enjoy ourselves. But it was so good to be sitting down out of the sun, in the magnificent cool arena.
The horses were glorious: there was a huge Percheron and a man on his back who conducted extremely athletic circus antics; a troupe of Shetlands who were remarkably well behaved for Shetlands; and at one point, a troupe of horned goats who looked rather like Soay sheep, and behaved impeccably. The main emphasis was on the Thoroughbreds though who were spectacularly magnificent and unbelievably well trained. They and their riders performed with grace and agility and were a joy to watch. One movement disturbed us both though: a couple of horse were required to cross their front legs and then pirouette on one front ankle, so all the weight of the horse was just on that one fine ankle. It looked very dangerous to us and made us uncomfortable.
When it finished we were led back out into the stable yard: we decided to visit the Great Stables at this point:
(I found this photograph on Google images attributed to various sources amongst which were CNN and http://www.francaisdeletranger.org so I am not sure whose copyright it actually is, but it isn’t mine.)
and found that we were beside some of the animals being led back to their stalls:
the goats came rushing past
and joined an equine friend
We wandered around the stables for a while
speaking to the horses and making friends, then had a quick look at the Museum of the Horse but it was geared to racing, not unnaturally, and our interest in that was slight, although it looked very comprehensive.
By now a cup of tea was more than calling, it was shouting, so we hastened to the Stable Cafe where we were just about the last people around, most having left by now.
We thought it would be pleasant to walk back to the station through the woods as the plan we looked at suggested it was not a huge distance, but when we asked the attendants about that they looked quite horrified and said that it was a very long walk and not to try it. I must say that everyone we met was very friendly and helpful and not at all like some of the reviews on Trip Advisor: perhaps it helped that we were early in the season.
So taking a last look back we left the Château and its environs:
The Great Stables and Chantilly Racecourse
and retraced our steps back into town. It has been such a day of contrasts and impressions: we were so sorry to miss the inside of the Château and the famous art therein, but we had done as much as we possibly could. We did find that our original timings were not quite accurate: but the area of the gounds was actually much, much larger than we had suspected from looking at the plan on the website and we must have walked at least four miles, often very fast.
I must admit that by now I was absolutely done in: however, there were no means of transport from the Château (the last having left an hour before), so it was a question of just putting one foot in front of the other as we walked the mile back into town. At the bus stop we were prevented from getting on the wrong bus by some pleasant teenage girls whom L had befriended: they were horrified and said we would have to pay on that one, but the next would be free!! It was, but it was also a school bus, absolutely full of lively kids all about 11 or 12 years old, and we had to stand all the way. Clearly on a school bus and with few adults around they did not feel it incumbent on them to give up seats. Or perhaps it would not have been cool to be the first to offer! So we made the journey back to the station, waited for about 20 minutes to catch a train, and thence back to Paris uneventfully, all buses and trains running to time.
On alighting from our bus at the Bastille at about 6.30 pm we could not resist a cold beer at an outside cafe after all the heat, dust and walking of the day. At least that is what L had, I just had a shandy and even that made my legs go numb:) It was great just sitting there being part of the hustle and bustle of people stopping on their way home
as the city, and we, began to unwind from the day.
Tomorrow will be our last full day in Paris, so we are imbibing all we can, while we can.
Esoteric facts about Chantilly:
1. The château and the Great Stables were featured in the 1985 James Bond movie A View to a Kill, as the home of villainous Max Zorin who had already aroused the suspicions of MI6 with various business activities. It was being infiltrated by Bond (Roger Moore) in his quest to find out more about Zorin, and ultimately eliminate him.
2. Every two years, in June, the “Nuits de Feu” international fireworks competition is held in the château’s garden.
3. Every May, a rowing regatta, the Trophee des Rois, is held in the grounds. French university crews compete in the 750m race for a trophy.