Even the most hardcore city lover needs a change of scenery from time to time. While there is a seemingly unending abundance of sights and activities in Paris, it's comforting to know that spontaneous excursions and day trips can easily be had, thanks to the region's well-linked transportation system and the vast number of castles, towns, forests, and villages surrounding the capital.
The Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte attracts its fair share of day-trippers and tourists, and with good reason. If you want to see what the great minds of architect Louis Le Vau, landscape architect André le Notre and painter Charles Le Brun can come up with when working together, then you've come to the right place. A mere 55-minute drive from Paris, this 500-hectare privately-owned French Baroque chateau and its immaculate gardens is a perfect getaway for the weary city dweller.
Built in the mid-17th century, the lavishness of Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte shows the ambition and refinement of its owner, Nicolas Fouquet, King Louis XIV's finance minister. He was 26 years old when he purchased the estate in 1641. By 1657, he had commissioned La Vau, Le Notre and Le Brun to build him a castle, which they did, and brilliantly so. The chateau was dazzling. It was grandiose. It was, as the saying goes, "fit for a king". Its beauty became its downfall, because Jean Baptiste-Colbert accused Fouquet of using public funds to build his castle. Fouquet was arrested and imprisoned for life, his wife exiled, and Colbert (gleefully, one would imagine) took Fouquet's position. King Louis XIV then recruited Le Vau, Le Notre and Le Brun to build him a castle of his own: something a little bigger than Vaux-le-Vicomte --- the Chateau de Versailles.
Take a tour of the private apartments and the state apartments for a look at the richly decorated rooms, complete with tapestries, furniture, and works of art.
Climb to the Dome for a breathtaking view of the estate and the countryside surrounding it - it's a long way up, but it's a view you won't regret seeing. A word of caution: you'll be 25 meters above the ground, so give it a miss if you're afraid of heights, or claustrophobic (the staircase can be steep and narrow).
The basement part of the castle allows you to visit the servant's area, kitchens and cellars. Roped off to the public, with mannequins decked in servant costumes, it's an eerie yet interesting display of the everyday routine of life in the castle. After the servant's quarters just before going outside to visit the gardens, a room in the basement plays an audiovisual display of the garden's landscaping techniques, in a clever presentation of Le Notre in conversation with Nicolas Fouquet.
This delightful audiovisual show will no doubt get you doubly excited to walk through André Le Notre's beautifully landscaped work of art. Guided walks in the garden are also possible - they last an hour and 30 minutes. Ask at the ticket counter if you're interested. Pass by the Horse and Carriage Museum and marvel at the antique carriages and coaches.
And as if the castle wasn't magical enough already, Saturday nights from the months of May to October offers you a rare chance to see the palace as it would have origianal looked at night: 2,000 candles are lit up within the castle and throughout its grounds. Surrounded by candlelight, in such a grand castle, this could easily be a day trip you'd wish would never end. (This is subject to weather conditions; do check the website first for any change in schedule.)
The chateau is open only from March to November, but during the Christmas season it opens to the public with beautiful Christmas displays and events, with Christmas trees and decorations in each room, real fires burning in the chimneys, and an enchanted forest set up in the Grand Salon. You can even rent period costumes for children and let them get a taste of chateau life! Check their website for details and tickets. A normal visit to the castle is breathtaking enough, so the castle decked in full Christmas regalia is bound to be unbelievably special.
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