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I love Ina Caro and her book “Paris to the Past’ but sometimes I think she and I view things from very different perspectives. When I arrived in Melun her book (and frankly the Vaux le Vicomte website) gave me the impression that the chateau was either accessible by bus or walkable. Ina notes the chateau as being roughly 6km (3.6 miles), it is in fact 9 km (5.4 miles) and therefore not walkable, at least not for me on that hot day. Furthermore, there is no shuttle bus. So, as I was standing in the middle of this little train station trying to figure out what to do I saw a number for a taxi. Hating to speak on the phone in French (don’t ask me why, I don’t know) I called and a taxi was there within five minutes. As we drove to the chateau I realized I could not have walked even if I wanted to as the route was almost all along a highway.

Vaux le Vicomte is tucked away down a beautiful, tree lined street, and there is absolutely nothing else around it. I have been to many chateaux in France, both for this book and otherwise, and while I still have two more to see I can say with certainty up until know this is the most beautiful chateau I have visited. The chateau itself, the way it is situated on the land, the gardens, fountains and forests, just make this particular chateau magical. It is a complete pain in the neck to get to (and expensive! the taxi was 40 euros round trip) it is well worth the effort of the visit.

Vaux le Vicomte was built by Nicolas Fouquet in 1661. Fouquet was the Minister of Finance under Louis XIV. The gardens at Vaux were designed by the not yet famous Le Notre who would later gain fame by designing the magnificent gardens at Versailles. Fouquet became the young protege of the Cardinal Mazarin who under his guidance taught him the art of embezzlement. In addition to using these extra funds to build one of the most magnificent chateaux in all of France Fouquet was also famous for identifying artistic talent and bankrolled the likes of Moliere and La Fontaine. Moliere would regularly stage productions of his famous plays at Vaux. While Fouquet certainly had a talent for embezzling funds his real talent lay in identifying artistic talent, supporting the arts and artists young and old.

It is said that Fouquet was a great lover of beauty, the arts, and women and that he was unusually handsome and charming. One of his closest confidants was none other than the King’s mother, Anne of Austria. He also remained in the King’s good graces for a lengthy period of time as he was charming and intelligent. “He loved to argue in Latin with Jesuit philosophers, discuss the latest scientific and philosophic ideas with the greatest minds of seventeenth- century France, and gather around his table the greatest artists and most talented authors, a place where the food, served on gold plates, was cooked by Vatel, the greatest of chefs.”

Fouquet was so proud of his beloved Vaux le Vicomte that on August 17, 1661 he hosted an enormous party for the King at the estate. The party included fireworks and the debut of Molier’s newest play ‘Les Fâcheux’. Food was again served on gold plates and the wine and champagne flowed freely. Fouquet no doubt went to bed that evening thinking the entire event a huge success. The party, in celebration and honour of the King, went off splendidly and Louis XIV gave lavish praise to Fouquet on his beautiful home.

There are numerous accounts of the events following the party but one thing we do know is that a few short weeks after the event Louis XIV had Nicolas Fouquet arrested for fraud and embezzlement. Some say that an overly ambitious politician, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who wanted the post of Finance Minister, turned Louis against Fouquet by pointing out that in no way could the finance minister afford such luxury if he was not stealing money from the state. Others will tell you that Louis was so jealous of Vaux and the magnificent lifestyle Fouquet had created that Louis had him arrested for no other reason than showing up the King. Most historians will tell you, however, that it was Cardinal Mazarin himself that betrayed Fouquet confessing on his deathbed to the king that he and Fouquet had been embezzling funds. The tour at Vaux neatly skips over the fact that Fouquet was stealing money. Fouquet himself admitted to embezzlement so there is no need to glance over it. It was fairly commonplace for the ministers of France to skim money off the top so while it was certainly a punishable offence it was usually ignored. Colbert himself had a rather elaborate chateau in Saint Germain en Laye.

Colbert was in Paris while the party took place on August 17, 1661 making arrangements for Fouquet’s arrest. It is unlikely that Louis had him arrested because he was jealous of the chateau at Vaux but it certainly sealed his fate.

Fouquet was sentenced to life in prison at the infamous Pignerol fortress deep in the Alps. The cold, dark, damp surrounding of his cell had to be torture enough given the beauty he surrounded himself with at Vaux. His family was unable to visit him and it is rumoured that his treatment while at Pignerol was the inspiration for Alexandre Dumas’ “The Man in the Iron Mask.”

The party at Vaux le Vicomte took place when Louis XIV was a mere twenty two years old. Next we will go to the opulent chateau he built, using many of the same artisans that built and designed Vaux le Vicomte, and learn how his leadership evolved through the years.

Next Stop – Versailles Chateau

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