Versailles to Vaux le Vicomte
Versailles is almost always on the top of the list of places to visit outside of Paris. But there are even more magnificent buildings and estates that offer insight to the past lives of French nobles, the rich, powerful and the fallen. Beginning with Versailles, these are my favourites. I have included websites where possible so you can visit and obtain details as you require them.
Chateau de Versailles
There are no excuses for excluding Versailles especially if you are allowing time for a visit outside Paris. I have nearly lost count of the times I have been to Versailles and I am not alone, many Parisians buy year long passes. They don’t always visit to join the hordes of spectators in the palace as my Parisian friends tell me they use the pass to access the gardens for various family gatherings. We once spent two nights staying in the town of Versailles so we could enjoy our visits at a slower pace and other times we have simply visited on day trips from Paris.
Apart from the grand chateau, take time to walk through the incredibly cute ‘utopian’ village that Marie Antoinette created on the estate. It is just as much a fantasy area for us today as it was for her then. It is a ‘replica’ village of those times but of course this village is sans the rubbish and debris that would have been lying around villages of that era. For Marie Antoinette it was for her a refuge from the goldfish bowl that life in the palace enforced.
Then there are the sweeping gardens, statuary and the aptly named ‘The Grand Canal’ that attracts the French for its boating opportunities or simply languishing on its banks with friends and families whilst enjoying a picnic.
Allow plenty of time and try to buy tickets ahead on line so you don’t have to queue.
Chateau de Fontainebleau
Home of many Kings and preferred by Napoleon to Versailles. The chateau displays more varying styles and periods in its interiors than any of the other royal abodes.
We opted for buying a combined transport ticket with an official France tourism office – but they don’t guide you around once you are there, it is simply a mini bus ride and entrance ticket. You pick up the English commentary on a portable audio guide. Fortunately on the day, our driver/guide was of more use as he organised for us to see the special collection of Chinese art and furniture in rooms not always open for the general public. This collection of rare Chinese art and objects is a sore point with the Chinese governement – they want it back!
Some tours here combine a drive through Barbizon, a nearby village that has long been home to artists. A bit touristy looking from our brief glimpse but maybe worth a short stay if you also like walking in the forest which is one of the reasons Parisians have bought homes here as weekenders. The forest is entered easily at one end of the village’s main street.
NB The town gave its name to the Barbizon school of painters that included Corot, Millet and Daumier. Millet’s studio can be visited in the town.
Vaux le Vicomte
A tragic story unfolds when you visit this estate. I will leave that for you to discover. The curators have gone to great lengths to tell the tale repeatedly throughout and cleverly employ holographic film techniques and waxwork models to set the scene. A childrens tour was in progress the day we visited and a guide was dressed in a period costume which worked a treat to hold the childrens’ attention. The well liveried stables kept children and adults alike engaged.
If you are fit enough take the stairs up inside the wood beamed Dome, it is really worth it and you can take photos of the exceptional landscaped parterre gardens by Le Notre (his work is also in the Tuilleries – and if you are a garden buff, the Tuilleries has a tribute to Le Notre, prolific landscaper of those times).
I loved the kitchen below stairs, so clean and organised that there are no reminders of drugery here. It glows with highly polished copper, two enormous marble mortar and pestles and a 5 metres long cooking range and all the other traditional accroutrement for food lovers like myself.
Our experience to get there involved a train to the town of Melun and then a taxi from the station. For your return transport to the train station, the Gift Shop staff are willing to phone a taxi for you. We discovered the hard way, that the special ‘Vaux shuttle bus’ to and from the station only operates in high summer July-August. Hopefully this helps you avoid our transport catastrophe. The upside, and there is always an upside – going late May meant that we did not have to line up for tickets or jostle with crowds once in the chateau.
Chateau de Malmaison
The preferred home of Empress Josaphine Bonaparte. An elegant relatively small and enjoyable Château set in the beautiful grounds of the Bois-Préau, about 15km west of central Paris. Watch out for this museum closing at lunch time.
This was a favoured and final home of Josephine. I love it’s decor in the First Empire style. Between 1800-1804 Napoleon Bonaparte would visit her here between campaigns. After their divorce Napoleon and Josaphine were still on good terms and he continued to visit Malmaison where she lived until her death in 1814.
I could not believe this convoluted description of the way to Malmaison, ‘to reach Malmaison, take the métro to Grande-Arche-de-la-Défense, then bus #258 to Malmaison-Château. If you don’t mind walking, take the RER to Rueil-Malmaison and walk from there, or to make a slightly longer feature of it, follow the GR11 footpath for about two kilometres from the Pont de Chatou along the left bank of the Seine and into the Château park’.
So what did we do! we took a taxi from Paris, we just could not see a better way to do it.
Fondation Claude Monet at Giverny
It is all about the flowers and lily ponds for many, so most visitors come in the spring and summer. It is some time ago we visited but our recollection is that apart from seeing Monet’s studio and environment, we loved his well preserved kitchen and dining room whose historical settings inspired us to buy the Monet cookbook as it features menus, recipes and photos of the house and estate.
88 ks from Paris. You can take a train to St Lazare to Vernon, about 45 minutes or go with a tourism company in a bus. If you are travelling independently you could save time by pre purchasing a ticket from a Paris FNAC store. They sell tickets to most performances, galleries and museums. Just walk into a store or use a search engine to find the nearest FNAC to where you are staying. All hotel concierges will know their locations.