Five miles north of Paris, one of France's largest art collections is hidden in a castle that looks like it was taken from a romantic Sleeping Beauty tale. Most people are probably aware of the Palace of Versailles and the Louvre museum, but the castle of Chantilly (Chantilly castle) and its art exhibitions have remained a bit of a mystery. For me who loves beautiful architecture (and maybe also has a little extra love for castles?) the visit to Chantilly was a bit of an annoyance. With all these visits to Paris, why haven't I gone here before?
The castle of Chantilly is located in the small town of the same name. Perhaps you have heard the word Chantilly before in a completely different context? The sugar lover in me definitely had. Whipped cream, the cold-whipped and creamy cream with vanilla sugar, is clearly much more famous than its namesake castle. Whether the cream was named after the castle or after the city, history does not tell. Actually, it's just whipped cream with vanilla and sugar. But in Chantilly, the cold whipped cream is perhaps a little extra perfect. As only a Crème Chantilly can be in Chantilly.
Our visit to Chantilly was far from planned in advance. After an early check out from our hotel and a late night flight home, we had a full day to explore the area. We definitely didn't want to go too far from the airport, as the night before we had experienced the Paris traffic jams during rush hour. (Let's sum up that experience by saying that it was the first time that, despite being out in good time, I still arrived 1,5 hours late for a dinner...) After a bit of googling and a brochure at the hotel, we found the Château de Chantilly, which moreover, it was quite close to the airport. So we headed there.
The castle's glory days
The history behind Château de Chantilly began as early as the 14th century, but it wasn't until the 17th century that the castle flourished. The castle received a facelift in the 16th century and its impressive Renaissance style could compete with Europe's finest castles. Here at the castle, the Montmorency noble family held pompous dinners, theater performances, balls and parties that made the very court of Versailles jealous.
The most dramatic (and historic) dinner at the castle occurred in 1671. During a three-day tribute party to Louis XIV, the butler Vatel killed himself when the fish delivery did not arrive on time. A very dramatic end to a slightly misplanned dinner, if I do say so myself. This dinner has become the most famous dinner in France of all time. Quite in class with our most famous historical dinner, where our Swedish king Adolf Fredrik eats himself to death on rolls.
French Revolution and Reconstruction
Then came the French Revolution. The people had tired of the opulence of royalty and the rights of the nobility. The château was looted and all art was hastily moved to the Louvre before the larger (of the two) château was destroyed in 1799. Not until the late 1800s was the château rebuilt to its present appearance by the Duke of Aumale – Henri d'Orléans. The duke was the son of the last king of France and inherited the estate from his godfather. During his lifetime, the duke not only restored the castle, but also the castle's art collection. When Henri died without heirs, he left the château and all its large art collections to the Institut de France. However, with a premise. They were not allowed to change anything and not let anyone else live here. Which still applies today.
Today at Château de Chantilly you can visit the castle and its beautiful rooms, but also the art museum, the castle park and the large stables and its horse shows. We had plenty of time and bought a ticket that covered everything, including the horse show.
The castle floors and the art
We started our visit by visiting the floors of the castle. Here are halls that in the 18th century were the princes of Bourbon-Condé's reception rooms, bedrooms and music rooms. One room flashier than the other. A large part of the decoration in the rooms remains from the 18th century, but most of the furniture disappeared during the revolution. One piece of furniture that remains, however, is the beautiful intarsia cabinet with stones on top that Prince Louis-Joseph of Condé received in 1774 from the Swedish king Gustav III, as a thank you for his stay at the castle.
Although the rooms are covered in gold leaf and beautiful decorations and furniture, it is the paintings that I remember most from my visit. Château de Chantilly has the second largest collection of ancient paintings in all of France. There are works by both Raphael and Clouet and the walls are filled with portraits of royalty and celebrities of the time. For those of you who want to get a sneak peek at some of the paintings, have Google Arts & Culture some of the works digitally.
The castle park
After an hour or so inside the castle, we headed out into the castle park. Created by the Sun King Louise XIV's gardener Le Notre, the park is a marvel of beauty and engineering. Large fountains and artificial canals for irrigation may not sound so impressive today, but if you consider that these were built before the invention of electricity, everything becomes a little more impressive.
We settled in the Anglo-Chinese garden by the five small wooden houses and warmed ourselves with a coffee. Here at the restaurant"The hamlet” you can order ice cream with the famous crème Chantilly, but the chilly April winds did not entice us to order an ice cream this time.
The big stables
Our last stop before the airport was the castle stables. Although I'm not particularly into horses, I'm glad I didn't miss out les Grandes Écuries - "the big stables". The stable from the 18th century looks like a castle in itself and is said to be Europe's (if not the world's?) largest stable. Here you can enter the giant stables and visit the castle's horses, but you can also watch one of the many horse shows. The show we watched was included in the stable's ticket and for 30 minutes the riding school demonstrated dressage and advanced riding to an impressed audience. In addition to the fine riding school, polo matches and horse races are also held here in Chantilly. It is perhaps not so surprising that Chantilly is often called the "horse capital". There are simply a lot of horses in Chantilly.
A visit to the horses in the stables was a lovely end to a day filled with history, art and gardens. The stable was also the daughter's most appreciated stop. Art in all its glory, but real horses beat most in family entertainment.
Summary of the day
Our visit to the castle took over four hours (on a weekday with few visitors) and yet we could have spent more time both in the park and in the stables. So my advice is not to rush, but rather plan for the visit to take at least half a day.
For children who know English, there is a great brochure to download with information, crafts, crosswords and riddles that will get the whole family going. Don't miss it - you download it here on the castle's official website.
Do you want to read more about the castle of Chantilly?
- The castle's official website, where you can also pre-book tickets – The Domaine de Chantilly
- A film about the castle, the cream and the art of France 24 on Youtube
How do I get to Chantilly?
Chantilly is just 5 miles north of Paris. You can easily get there by train from here Gare du Nord to Chantilly (24 minutes) and then take a short walk to the castle. We took the rental car here, but a car is not recommended if you are traveling to/from Paris during rush hour.
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