Located at the eastern edge of the Paris suburbs, the medieval fortress of Chateau de Vincennes stands, grim and imposing. It served as a hunting lodge back in 1150, and later as the home of royals from the 12th to the 18th century.
However grim the castle appears, several royal marriages and births of Kings were held here. It was in essence a 'fortified royal residence', and also provided shelter for the King from the chaos of the 100 Years' war.
All that changed in the 16th and 17th centuries, where expansions were made to re-establish it as a fortress rather than a royal residence. Louis XVI moved the court to Versailles once it was completed in 1670, and the Chateau de Vincennes was used first as a porcelain manufactory (which later moved to Sèvres). Afterwards it served as a prison, holding many infamous personages within its walls, like the Marquis de Sade, Diderot, Jean Henri Latude and the disgraced Minister of Finance Nicolas Fouquet.
Most people flock to the Chateau de Vincennes for its reputation for being the tallest fortress in Europe. The entire visit will only take about two hours, so this makes the chateau a nice half-day escapade outside the city. It stands 52 meters tall in height, and is protected by a long wall, flanked by three gates and six towers standing 42 meters high. A stone-lined moat surrounds the entire castle, 27 meters wide.
Make sure to visit the donjon first: the massive structure has a total of eight vaulted levels, accessible by a spiral staircase, with walls as thick as ten feet (3.2 meters) and a central pillar supporting the vault's ribs. Its ground floor was used as a servant's quarters or a place to store food, while the first five floors possess similar central halls and adjoining rooms. The donjon houses a museum by France's Defense Historical Service.
Have a walk along the castle's enceinte, or surrounding walls. Spanning 1200 meters long, it's about the size of a small town. Nine towers are found along the enceinte, and despite the severity of their appearances and obvious military functions, they were actually designed as residences or dwellings. Three of these towers (Tour du Village, the eastern Tour des Salves and the southern Tour du Bois) served as entrances to the towers during the day. Today, the Tour du Village serves as the main entrance to the Chateau de Vincennes.
Leave the austere castle walls and cross the court over to the Sainte Chapelle, the Gothic chapel, which was founded in 1379 by Charles V. It was designed based on Paris's Sainte-Chapelle. The Vincennes chapel has only one level, instead of two, as does its Paris counterpart. The Sainte-Chapelle layout is that of a traditional chapel. Its north-side annex houses the sacristy and a treasure house on the upper floor. The chapel has two oratories, for the King and the Queen. Installed in the King's oratory is the Duke of Enghien's tomb, who was a prisoner in the castle and shot to death in 1804.
Its stained glass windows were made by the glassmaker Nicolas Beaurain in 1555, and it is listed as a historical monument.
When the chateau's function made its transition from a residence to a fortress, pavilions were built for the royals to stay in. The pavilions are closed to the public, so this exceptional monument can only be visited during the Journées du Patrimoine, a period when closed-off sites are opened to the public. They now house military libraries and the archives of the Ministry of Defense's Historical Service.
It's fairly easy to get to the Chateau de Vincennes even though it's located in the suburbs - just hop on the Metro Line 1 and get off at the Chateau de Vincennes station, or take the RER A to Vincennes station. The castle is open from 10am-5pm (up to 6pm in the warmer months), but the Sainte-Chapelle opens from 11am - 3 or 4 pm depending on the season, so make sure to time your chapel visit during the hours when the light pours through the beautiful stained glass windows!
While you're there, take a stroll down the Bois de Vincennes, the largest public park in the city. Built by Louis Napoleon between 1855 – 1866, it has an English landscape garden, a horse track, and the Lake Dausmenil.
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