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December 25, 2016

France: Château de Chantilly and Rick Steves


Château de Chantilly

Château de Chantilly

Rick Steves writes that the chateau in Chantilly, on the northern outskirts of Paris, is “the best French château.” When we planned our visit we feared that such praise from the ever-influential Mr. Steves could be the kiss of death. Would there be throngs of Rick Steves’ guidebook toting tourists smothering the life from the Château de Chantilly? We’ve seen this phenomenon elsewhere in Europe.

We needn’t have been concerned. When we arrived in Chantilly in September of 2016 there were few Rick Steves disciples to be seen. Indeed, the tourism statistics say that only 15% of Chantilly’s visitors are foreign. Fortunately for us, Mr. Steves comments were made in writing and not on his popular TV show, “Travels in Europe.” Since nobody reads any more, Chantilly has been saved from the tourist onslaught.

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Preparations are underway for a wedding in the gardens at Chantilly.

Preparations are underway for a wedding in the gardens at Chantilly.

That’s not to say that there were few visitors in Chantilly. The weekend we visited was the “Journées européennes du patrimoine, the European Heritage Days. During the patrimoine weekend, usually the third weekend in September, many museums and historical sites are opened for free or at a reduced price. It is a very popular event. When we visited Château de Chantilly there were plenty of French tourists taking advantage of the admission price reduction. Fortunately for us the château was merely busy and not overwhelmed. French tourists have countless historic monuments to visit. There’s no need to all crowd in to see Chantilly on the patrimoine weekend.

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We enjoyed our visit to the Château de Chantilly but apparently not as much as Mr. Steves. At the end our tour we wouldn’t put Chantilly’s manor house at the very top of our must see châteaux list. As châteaux go, we prefer the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte an hour and a half to the south by car.

In truth, part of the appeal of the château at Vaux is its back-story. The château was so impressive and extravagant at the time it was completed that King Louis XIV, after seeing the estate for the first time, arrested its owner, Nicolas Fouquet, and imprisoned him for life. (Imprisoning Fouquet after the fête for the king was cold bolded. The decision to make the arrest was made two months before the party.) To acquire the wealth to build something so grand, the King of France figured that Fouquet must have misappropriated funds. There was never strong support to the King’s claims that Fouquet was corrupt. But for Fouquet it didn’t matter. His fate was sealed. With Fouquet out of the picture King Louis hired the architects and designers behind the château at Vaux and had them upgrade his modest hunting lodge at Versailles. Arresting your architectural rivals is one way to keep ahead of the Jones.

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A statue of hounds at the entrance

A statue of hounds at the entrance

Chantilly, Vaux, and Versailles all have a connection. The grounds at all three châteaux were the creation of the landscape architect André Le Nôtre. Le Nôtre’s first major commission was the grounds at Vaux. The Palace of Versailles and the Château de Chantilly came afterwards. Apparently by the time Le Nôtre received his appointment to work on the grounds at Chantilly he had learned his lesson: Too much of a good thing might not be good for your patron. The gardens at Chantilly are less flamboyant than the grounds at Versailles and Vaux. (Le Nôtre might have disagreed. The landscaping at Chantilly is said to be his favorite.)

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Even though Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte is our personal favorite French château, we would not go as far as Mr. Steves and say that it is the best château in France. France has a lot of châteaux. We’ve only visited around thirty of these stately homes. It’s a small fraction of the full list. There are a lot more châteaux to visit before the inevitably arbitrary superlatives can be assigned.

And it’s also not a big surprise that we disagree with Rick Steves on such things. After all, he believes that metropolitan city of Bordeaux is so boring that it does not warrant a full entry in his guidebook. The every-opinionated Mr. Steves has said that if he were offered a free trip to Bordeaux, he’d stay home and clean the fridge.

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Chantilly's château appears through the trees.

Chantilly’s château appears through the trees.

For us, if the Bordeaux tourist office decided that they wanted to offer us free visits, we’d take it in a heartbeat. Cleaning the fridge would have to wait. Despite what Mr. Steves has to say, we have found Bordeaux an interesting place to visit. And there’s another big plus; Bordeaux is not overrun by Rick Steves’ devotees.

But I have digressed and in the process possibly smeared the good image of Château de Chantilly. Chantilly is very impressive and well worth a visit. Rick Steves is definitely right about that.

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One of the two horse heads inside Chantilly's expansive Great Stables

One of the two horse heads inside Chantilly’s expansive Great Stables

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The château in changing light

The château in changing light

On a calm day the water reflects the château.

On a calm day the water reflects the château.

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