Archives for category: French Travel

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The Chateau at Chantilly was the first I ever visited when I arrived in France two years ago. It is absolutely beautiful, situated on a lake with lush grounds and gardens all around. When you arrive at Chantilly down a small country road you can see a magnificent building straight ahead. I, like many others, mistook this for the chateau. It is in fact the stables. The chateau is off to the right.

The chateau has seen many recreations since it was originally built in 1560. It has primarily been associated with the Conde family and houses one of the most magnificent private art collections in all of France, including three Raphael’s. The library at Chantilly houses some of the oldest and most priceless volumes in all of France and makes me drool with envy each time I enter it. I love libraries and it is my dream some day to have one in my house with a ladder and all. The library at Chantilly is magnificent in and of itself but the priceless books it houses makes it even more spectacular.

The way the chateau was gifted to the State the paintings are never allowed to leave the chateau and in fact are not to be moved from the places the last Duke of Orleans hung them. The site 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.

In the 17th century Molière’s play, ‘Les Précieuses ridicules’, was debuted here in 1659. There is also a story that when Louis XIV visited Chantilly for a hunting trip the chef was so upset that the fish he ordered for the first dinner was not fresh enough that he killed himself. If you ever have an opportunity to visit the chateau I highly recommend fitting in time for lunch at the restaurant situated in the former kitchens of the chateau. Likely where the unfortunate chef mentioned above came to his demise.

When you look at the Chateaux at Versailles and Fontainebleu you may, like me, just find them absurdly big to the point of being ridiculous. While the chateaux we have visited more recently are still quite large it is far easier to actually imagine real people living there. After Vaux le Vicomte the chateau at Chantilly is my favourite and well worth the train ride north of Paris.

This ends our travels through French history…..for now. We started almost a year ago in the 12th century at the Basilica Saint Denis where the monarchy were buried until the revolution; saw the monarchy rise and fall; met Napoleon as he rose to power and ultimately watched his downfall, too. We met wonderful characters like the devious and deadly Catherine de Medici and the unlucky and ill-fated Nicolas Fouquet. I have enjoyed almost every minute of these travels (I did not so much enjoy train delays, closed chateaux, the weather, etc) and am so happy that you chose to come with me on these adventures. It has made my two years in France that much more rich. By understanding her history and past I have come to not only love France even more but to understand the French and the culture and country I have adopted for the past two years. My first year in France was not easy and by following this book and by finding France’s history I was able to learn not just about this country but a little about myself too.

As I prepare to move back to Boston I am in search of a book that will allow me to do something similar following early American history. I hope you will follow me on that journey as well.


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Compiegne as a region has seen the French monarchy residing there for periods of time since the 14th century and the reign of Charles V. The chateau as we see it today was built for Louis XV in the 18th century and was subsequently restored after the French Revolution by Napoleon. Compiegne, like most of the great chateaux we have visited, became popular because of its forests and hunting.

Once becoming Emperor Napoleon divorced Josephine because she had not produced him with an heir. He married Marie-Therese, an Austrian archduchess. By all accounts life at Compiegne under Napoleon and Marie-Therese was a bit of a bore. Napoleon was a notorious workaholic and Marie-Therese lacked the wit and charm of Josephine.

It does not seem that Napoleon spent an overwhelming amount of time at Compiegne but was clearly pleased with its size and magnificence. Napoleon did a lot of remarkable things for France post-Revolution but he unfortunately did not learn to live less like a King than his predecessors. Like monarchs for thousands of years Napoleon enjoyed hunting in the lush forests surrounding Compiegne and this was the primary activity when guests were invited to the chateau.

Compiegne as a city is famous for a few other things in addition to the chateau. In 1430 this is the city where Joan of Arc was captured. The ballroom within the chateau was used as a hospital during World War I and it is also in Compiegne that the Armistice between the Allies and Germany ended World War I on 11 November 1918. The train where the Armistice was signed remained in tact and in the forest of Compiegne until World War II when a second treaty was signed in the forest, this time arranging an armistice between France and Nazi Germany (22 June 1940). With an unmistakable desire to humiliate his defeated enemy, German dictator Adolf Hitler gave orders that the surrender should be received in exactly the same spot, even the same railway car, where the Germans had to surrender in 1918. Hitler then had the rail car brought to Germany where it was ultimately blown up in Allied bombings towards the end of the war.

At this point in our history of France Napoleon is once again in exile on Saint Helena island and we will continue into the Restoration of France. Our next and last stop is the chateau at Chantilly. Next to Vaux le Vicomte one of the prettiest chateaux in all of France.

Next stop – Chantilly

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Our first stop as we get introduced to Napoleon Bonaparte is his country estate at Malmaison. This is where he lived with Josephine during the period called The Consulate, a time of rebuilding after the French Revolution that took place from 1789-1799. Periods of the French Revolution were referred to as The Reign of Terror which was filled with stories of torture, beheadings, corruption and gross negligence on the part of the government. When Napoleon took over as Consul he passed what is known as the Code Napoleon “which guaranteed every French citizen an education, equality before the law, and freedom of religion, as well as opening all careers to talent and transforming palaces, including the Louvre, into museums for the people.”

I found Napoleon’s house at Malmaison to be completely charming, a far more reasonably sized residence than those we find at Versailles, Fontainebleau or our next stop (and Napoleon’s next home) the Chateau at Compiegne. This home actually gives, to me anyway, Napoleon Bonaparte a far more human aspect than the Napoleon we come to know after he crowns himself emperor. This is a place where you can actually visualize people that you could and would want to talk to rather than the complete opulence and decadence of the larger chateaux of the monarchs. You can see from the pictures that several of the rooms at Malmaison, particularly those for Napoleon’s sole use, are outfitted to look like a tent he would have used during one of his many military campaigns. The tent of the commander was usually fairly grand and these rooms are no exception but it is interesting still to feel that you are inside a tent during one of Napoleon’s battles.

Napoleon lived seemingly happily with Josephine and her two children at Malmaison until he became emperor in 1804. Josephine’s first husband was beheaded as part of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. For a little bit of complicated family history Napoleon’s brother, Louis, married Josephine’s daughter, Hortense. Their son, Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte would become Napoleon III. Serious doubts have been raised about his paternity because by all accounts his “father” Louis was gay. Nonetheless Napoleon III reigned from 1852-1870 and is responsible for cleaning up Paris, better aligning its streets, bringing in more modern health standards, commissioning the building of three large parks for the use of anyone and tearing down buildings deemed unsafe. It is also thanks to Napoleon III that we have been able to go on these great adventures as he is responsible for the intricate and amazing railway system in France. So, Napoleon III was therefore in fact Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew and his ex-wife Josephine’s grandson.

After Napoleon and Josephine divorced she returned to Malmaison and lived there until her death in 1814. Josephine is responsible for bringing several new types of rose species to France along with other exotic plants and flowers. After Napoleon’s death and before his exile he returned to Malmaison for a brief period, perhaps recalling happier times.

Napoleon lived at Malmaison for a rather short period of time and this house really is more the home of Josephine. I think, knowing Napoleon’s self indulgence, arrogance and desire to be seen as royalty he would actually not want us to imagine his life at Malmaison but rather the royal lifestyle he built and became accustomed to at Fontainebleu and Compiegne.

Next Stop – Compiegne

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The Conciergerie is a medieval palace on the Ile de la Cite in Paris. It dates back to the 10th century when it was the seat of the Merovingian empire. Under Louis IX the magnificent Saint Chapelle chapel was added where the King had the relics of the passion of Christ stored. As you will recall we visited Saint Chapelle on stop seven of our adventures. From the outside the palace is beautiful, especially when lit up at night. It sits right on the banks of the Seine and its turrets conjure up images of Disney princesses.

The inside of the Conciergerie is a completely different story. As it is a medieval palace it has very few windows and therefore is dark and uninviting. As it sits right on the river it is also extremely damp. Perhaps this was part of the reasoning for turning it into a prison. The oldest and largest tower of the palace is where, in the 13th century, prisoners were tortured until they confessed. The tower is known as Bonbec Tower, a rather sick joke as bon bec in French means the gift of gab.

More famously, however, the Conciergerie served as a prison during the French Revolution. This medieval palace became the second to last stop for over 2000 people executed by the guillotine for treason. I say second to last stop because their last stop was the Place de la Concorde where they were executed. As beheading was a form of execution reserved for the nobility (it was the fastest way to die) the majority of people who came through the Conciergerie were from a high class and one of its prisoners was none other than the Queen, Marie-Antoinette. It is said that once the queen was sentenced to death her hair went white overnight. The Conciergerie was her home until she was beheaded at the age of thirty six.

There are gruesome stories about the headless bodies of the dead piling up in the Conciergerie and rats eating the corpses. Fifteen to twenty prisoners were often stuffed into small, cramped, cells and the entire prison was said to reek of urine and death.

The Conciergerie continued to be used as a prison until 1914. It is now a museum and national monument.

I have to confess that this is one of my least favourite visits on our tour. The inside of the palace is depressing and as you walk past the cells you can only imagine the horror that must have ensued here during the Reign of Terror. What a horrible place to spend your last days before being executed. Perhaps during the middle ages this palace saw grand feasts and gatherings but all it congers for me now is a place of torture and torment.

We are now at the end of the Revolution and will next move into the Empire and the Restoration. Lets go and meet Napoleon Bonaparte.

Next stop – Malmaison

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When I saw that one of the stops in ‘Paris to the Past’ was a return trip to Versailles I was less than thrilled. The crowds, the lines, the disorder was just not something I wanted to take on again. But, as the book called for me to go to the Petit Trianon versus the actual chateau I figured I would give it a go. I was just hopeful that I could buy tickets for the Petit Trianon somewhere other than at the chateau where the lines can often times be hours long!

I arrived at Versailles and immediately went to the first person that worked there to ask if I could get tickets at the Petit Trianon and thankfully the answer was yes. The small house (small for the monarchy anyway) is located about a thirty minute walk from the main chateau through Versailles’ beautiful gardens. On a beautiful spring day I headed out to this little house in the woods that was the retreat of Madame de Pompadour and Marie-Antoinette.

Trianon used to be a village before Louis XIV annexed it to his gardens. The Petit Trianon was built there in 1768 as a home for Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour and for Louis’ gardens. He was fascinated by exotic plants and scientific gardening and it was here that he was able to watch over his mistress and his plants. Sadly the Madame de Pompadour died in 1764, four years before the Petit Trianon was completed. Jacques-Ange Gabriel, Madame de Pompadour’s favourite architect, designed the house and despite the fact that she did not live to see its completion there is a lot of her influence throughout.

Its other, more famous inhabitant, was of course the Queen, Marie-Antoinette. Growing up I think we all have a completely over the top image of Marie-Antoinette – a lavish lifestyle, spending money while the population of France starved, ‘let them eat cake’, etc. In 1770 when Louis XVI became King he gave the Petit Trianon to his young bride as a gift. You see, Marie-Antoinette never liked the opulence of the Chateau de Versailles and longed for a simpler and more intimate place to pass her time.

When Marie-Antoinette arrived in France from her native Austria she was fifteen years old. She was a mere nineteen years old when she became Queen. It is true that she outfitted the Petit Trianon with expensive furniture but it is also true that in her bedroom she hung paintings of her beloved father and aunt. In order to feel more comfortable “she added grottoes and created lakes fed by winding streams. She had rustic, thatched-roof cottages built around the lake, and called the area the Queen’s hamlet. She wanted the Petit Trianon to appear to be in the countryside and not at Versailles, which she hated.”

Walking through the Petit Trianon you see a number of places to play games – cards, billiards, and it is even said the Queen liked to play blind mans bluff in the gardens. Marie-Antoinette was young and her interests express that. Unfortunately her desire to distance herself from the Chateau de Versailles (I can completely relate) unfortunately was part of her downfall. The Petit Trianon was small and therefore was unable to host the full court. She tended to only include her favourites at dinner parties and many in the court began to feel snubbed, most notable the Duke of Orleans who began to spread rumours about the Queen throughout Paris. Her husband, Louis XVI was not much better and only liked to greet the court for brief periods of time on Sundays. The aristocracy began to move back to their homes in Paris and in the country as life in Versailles no longer held the same importance.

It was around 1715 that rumblings began about the legitimacy of absolutism and the monarchy and these rumblings continued through the century. Unwittingly Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette contributed to their fates by not giving the aristocracy the attention they felt they deserved. Additionally, by not interacting more with their peers there was no proof to discount the rumours being spread throughout Paris that Marie-Antoinette was furnishing the Petit Trianon in diamonds and gold and delighted in dressing up as a milk maid in her hamlet.

While there was in fact no famine rampant in France in 1789 there was a growing economic crisis and the people of France were growing weary with what they perceived as the incompetence of their king and the indifference of the aristocracy. The economic situation in France was becoming dire due to a series of ill conceived wars over the past 100 years which had left France virtually bankrupt. One of these wars was the naval battle France waged with England during the American Revolution. I cannot complain as the French’s involvement led to the defeat of the British and the forming of the United States but it was unfortunately one more nail in the coffin for the monarchy of France.

There are hundreds, if not more, books written about the French Revolution so I will not go into more detail here. Suffice it to say that on October 5, 1789 an angry mob arrived at Versailles and forced the royal family to leave. The royal family was brought to the Tuileries Palace (sadly this palace no longer exists). Louis continued to rule, in a much weakened state, until 1793 when both he and his wife were sentenced to death for “conspiracy against the public liberty and the general safety”.

Next we will go to the Conciergerie where Queen Marie-Antoinette spent her last months before her execution. Before we move on, however, there is one piece of history that I would like to clear up. Historians all agree that at no time did Marie-Antoinette ever utter the words ‘let them eat cake.’ The phrase was found in a book written 100 years before she was even born. While Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette certainly lived in luxury it was no more opulent than any other French monarch. While I do not fault the French for starting a revolution to bring about reform and change it seems that they went a bit overboard with the beheading of a King and Queen who were maybe misguided but not to a point warranting execution.

Next stop – The Conciergerie

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After the death of Louis XIV in 1716 the center of France moved from its long time homes in Saint Germain en Laye and Versailles to Paris. We have not traveled to Saint Germain en Laye as part of our journey’s here but it is a wonderful village easily accessible by train from Paris and well worth a day trip.

During our stop here in Paris we are going to visit several sights that were either built by or became important under the close watch of Louis XV. Louis is responsible more so than any other monarch for making Paris the beautiful city we see today. Napoleon III was more responsible for the Paris we now know but as he was not a monarch we will give Louis credit where it is deserved as king. On this visit we are going to visit the Palais-Royal, Hotel Carnavalet, Hotel de Soubise, Ecole Militaire, the Pantheon and the Place de la Concorde.

As we visit Louis XV’s Paris it is important to remember that Louis was only five when his great-grandfather died, having outlived all of his immediate legitimate heirs. Obviously a five year old is not capable of ruling a nation and therefore Louis XIV left his nephew, the Duke of Orleans, as regent of the young king. This more or less put the Duke in charge and he decided to move the center of France to Paris so he could spend more time at his beloved Palais-Royal. After Louis XV the Duke of Orleans was next in line to be king. This must have had some impact on his oversight of the young royal. Additionally, while the Palais-Royal is exquisite it is also across the street from the far larger and more impressive Louvre which at the time was not the world renowned museum we see today but was the palace of the king in Paris.

While you cannot visit the inside of the Palais-Royal the gardens in the interior courtyard are absolutely amazing and well worth a visit. The residence was originally built by Cardinal Richelieu, that charming man who starved the citizens of La Rochelle to death. It was at the Palais-Royal that the rumblings began of a revolution. Discussion turned from absolute monarchy to a growing dissatisfaction with the status quo. It was also here that the French aristocracy began to propose a constitutional monarchy like that of England.

Our next visit is the Hotel Carnavalet, now the museum of the history of Paris but at the time was the home of Madame de Sevigne whose letters detailing the court of Louis XIV have been of enormous help to historians in mapping out that period of time. The Carnavalet is laid out with paintings and models of what Paris has looked like throughout the centuries. It even has a room dedicated to shop signs going back hundreds of years including a large pair of scissors from the 1700’s that hung in front of an 18th century barber shop. The Hotel Carnavalet, and the Hotel de Soubise where we will visit next, were the homes of the nobility in Paris and were often referred to as Hotel Particuliers. It is in these homes where the famous salons of the time were held and where not only the wealthiest but the most noted and celebrated philosophers of the time, including Voltaire, debated the news of the day. These debates increasingly included the importance of separation and balance of powers in government. It was during these salons in the mid-1700’s that the spark of revolution was not only lit in France but also in the American colonies. Voltaire was apparently inspired to write ‘De l’Esprit des Louis’ through attendance at these salons, a work important in the ideas behind the United States Constitution.

The Hotel de Soubise, another Hotel Particulier, is located not far from the Hotel Carnavalet in the Marais district of Paris. Marais in French means swamp which is what this section, one of the oldest in Paris, originally was. It could take days to wander the streets of this ancient sector of Paris which for thousands of years has been the Jewish section of the city. The Marais houses some of the oldest buildings in Paris, including the oldest house located at 51 rue de Montmorency. In addition to being a marvelous example of an 18th century aristocratic home the Hotel de Soubise is also the home to the National Archives of France. The Hotel de Soubise is actually a great piece of 18th century gossip. Its owner, the Princess of Soubise (Anne de Rohan-Chabot), was part of the court with Madame Mainteon (Louis XIV’s last wife and governess to his illegitimate children) and Athenais de Montespan, Louis mistress and mother to said illegitimate children. These two woman squabbled so much and so frequently that it gave the Princess her opportunity to seduce Louis and therefore become his chief mistress for a time. It was the same year that the Princess found that she and her husband were financially destitute. It is unclear if she began the affair with Louis to gain favour in the court or as a way to gain better financial stability as Louis was known for his generosity. As you will recall he bought the Chateau at Maintenon for the Widow Scarron later known as the above mentioned Madame de Maintenon.

Next stop, the Ecole Militaire is just what it claims to be, the military school of France. It is still in use to this day. It was built in 1750 by Louis XV at the insistence of his mistress Madame de Pompadour. In fact it was her favourite architect, Jacques-Ange Gabriel, that designed the building and was the head of the French Academy of Arts at the time. The school sits at the end of the Champs de Mars which is also where the Eiffel Tower resides.

Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour play a great role in the beautification of Paris. Another building they had built during his reign was the Pantheon. The Pantheon is a beautiful building but a bit sad as I always feel it suffers from an identity crisis due to its timing in history. During the 18th century the French were not only beginning to question absolutism with the monarchy but also the relationship between church and state (for my American friends, sound familiar?). The building was originally constructed as a church and named Saint Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris. The construction took so long that by the time it was completed in 1790 not only had Louis XV died but it had also fallen prey to the French Revolution which was anti-monarchy and anti-Catholic. Its religious relics were thrown into the Seine. The Marquis de Villette made the following suggestion as to what should be done with the exquisite building – “In the tradition of the Greeks and Romans, from whom we have received the maxims of liberty…let us have the courage not to dedicate this temple to a saint. Let it become the Pantheon of France! Let us install statues of our great men and lay their ashes to rest in its underground recesses.” So the Pantheon now stands as a tribute to great French thinkers and houses the sarcophagus of Voltaire.

Our last stop in Paris as we march closer and closer to the Revolution is the Place de la Concorde. To be perfectly honest with you this is one of my least favourite spots in Paris as it is now a giant traffic circle where you take your life in your hands to go anywhere near it. The Place de la Concorde stands between the Champs Elysees (another of my least favourite places in Paris) and the Louvre. Originally the Place Louis XV, the Place de la Concorde was a beautiful square surrounded by such amazing buildings as the Hotel Crillon, the Tuileries gardens and the Seine. I also dislike the Place de la Concorde (briefly named La Place de la Revolution) because it is here that a large number of the beheadings took place after the revolution. The guillotine stood here for the heads of Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, Philip Egalite, Madame du Barry, Robespierre, Danton and 1,341 others.

As we get closer and closer to the Revolution lets learn a little more about one of the women who unwittingly brought it to a head – Marie-Antoinette.

Next stop – The Petit Trianon at Versailles

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The phrase ‘tous les jours’ means everyday in French. Well, at least that is what I have been taught. Apparently though it means ‘everyday but Tuesdays.’ You see I chose a Tuesday to visit the beautiful village and chateau at Maintenon and found it closed, despite the fact that the website happily implied ‘ouverte tous les jours!’ No bother, I figured I would go to the chateau at Malmaison whose website also touted ‘ouverte tous les jours!’ Apparently the chateaux of France have not learned how to accurately use their websites because Malmaison was closed, too.

After I uttered a few choice swear words in French and English, made my way home, had wine and a nice dinner, I decided to tackle Maintenon again the next day. The chateau was open, the gardens (designed by none other than Le Notre) were closed. I can accept that. I am pressed for time before I leave for the US and know from my numerous visits to chateaux throughout France that you can usually get a pretty outstanding view of the gardens from the upstairs windows. Maintenon did not disappoint as you can see from the pictures. The most amazing part of the gardens at Maintenon is that at the far end is Louis XIV’s aqueduct that he built to bring water to his beloved chateau at Versailles. Unfortunately, when Versailles was built there was no water source to supply its numerous fountains and waterfalls. As such they were only turned on as the king approached and walked by and then were immediately turned off. Louis hoped to rectify this issue by building a series of aqueducts to bring enough water to supply his over the top garden. Unfortunately Louis’ project was never completed due to funds being redirected towards the War of the League of Augsburg. But, I get ahead of myself. Lets first find out why Louis XIV expressed any interest in this small country estate at Maintenon at all.

The chateau at Maintenon had been in existence for 400 years before it was sold to Francoise d’Aubugine in 1674. Francoise was also known as the Widow Scarron who eventually became the governess to Louis XIV’s illegitimate children with Athenais de Montespan. She initially lived with the children at 25 Boulevard Montparnasse, now in the middle of Paris, at the time considered the country! I actually live not too far from Boulevard Montparnasse and can promise you I very much live in Paris and there is no hint of the country anywhere near here unless you count Parc Montsorris down the street.

Athenais de Montespan, the king’s chief mistress (yes, he had levels of mistresses) had seven children with Louis and therefore the Widow Scarron had a very busy job as their governess, especially when you consider that their Mother and Father spent most of their time at court in Versailles. It was after giving birth to their fifth child that Athenais began to be concerned with the amount of time Louis and the widow were spending together. The widow, by all accounts, was ‘a spirited, attractive, virtuous and inaccessible woman…’ At one point the widow actually encouraged Louis to be more faithful to his Queen, Marie-Therese.

To reward the Widow Scarron (Francoise d’Aubugine) Louis provided her with a generous sum to purchase the chateau, lands and surrounding farms at Maintenon. He also gave her the title, Madame de Maintenon. She went back and forth between the court in Versailles and her beloved chateau. In 1683, months after the Queen’s death, Louis secretly married the Madame de Maintenon, surely one of the most bizarre stories in Louis fabulous life. Because the Madame de Maintenon had no aristocratic upbringing Louis never formally made her Queen and their marriage was never announced publicly.

By all accounts Louis, for the most part, was a successful king as France thrived under most of his reign. He was unfortunately pre-deceased by all of his legitimate children and was succeeded onto the thrown by his great-grandson. He died on September 1, 1715 just days before his 77th birthday. Louis was buried at the Basilica Saint Denis, our first stop in the blog and on these adventures, but as you may recall all the monarchs bodies were disinterred during the revolution, the period of French history we will visit next, and last.

Next stop – Paris!