Follow in the footsteps of Marie-Antoinette and take a self-guided tour of Paris and nearby surroundings to discover where the tragic queen left her mark…
The castles in and around Paris where Marie-Antoinette lived and played
The royals moved from castle to castle and Marie-Antoinette left her mark in many of them. At the Chateau of Rambouillet, in a forest on the outskirts of Paris, the queen had a marbled dairy built. Don’t miss the extraordinary Chaumière aux Coquillages, or Shell Cottage, built for her friend the Princess de Lamballe.
At the chateau of Fontainbleau, the queen commissioned a ‘Turkish Boudoir’. Originally created by the Rousseau brothers in 1777, the boudoir is the last remaining example of the “Royal Turqueries”, reflecting the Orientalism style that was fashionable at the time. Designed with symbols inspired by the Levant, the décor and fabrics are delicate, feminine and exquisite. It was to be a room to allow her to ‘bouder’ or sulk away from the rest of the court. Sadly however, she never got to enjoy it. The work was put on hold when the French Revolution broke out and wasn’t completed in her life time.
Head to the sumptuous Palace of Versailles. It’s a short journey out of the city to see the home where the Queen spent much of her time and truly left her mark. You really get a feel for her taste and style in her State rooms and private rooms. Full of pale silks and beautiful wood carvings, paintings of cherubs and flowers. Here the queen lived with her husband Louis XVI in a monumental gilded palace which dazzled the world when it was created. It continues to do so to this day. No photo does justice to its opulence. The 700 rooms were home to some 3000 courtiers, but up to 20,000 people would be present for events, dinners, parties.
To escape life in the spotlight, Marie-Antoinette spent a lot of time at the Petit Trianon a small, more intimate palace in the grounds. Initially it was a gift from Louis XV to his mistress Madame Pompadour. Gifted to Marie-antoinette by her husband, it became her private refuge. And of course The Queen’s Hamlet, her escape from the tedium and rules of the palace, where she sometimes dressed up as a shepherdess. The queen aimed to create a tranquil space of rustic beauty with little cottages, barns and farm animals. It functioned as a working farm too with a dairy, so that the royal children could be educated in the ways of agriculture and food production.
Visit the Osmotheque perfume museum, the world’s largest scent archive. It’s famous for recreating Marie-Antoinette’s perfume using spices, honey, oils and aromatics.
Chateau de Bagatelle
The park and the chateau de Bagatelle were created in just 64 days in 1775 as a result of a bet between Marie-Antoinette and the King’s brother, the Count of Artois. Bagatelle in French means ‘trivial’ or ‘trifle’. The area was once used for hunting and when the count purchased it, Marie-Antoinette bet him 100,000 Livres he couldn’t create somewhere to receive her after she returned from a 2 month journey. However, he hired 900 workmen and spent one million Livres – and won his bet. The magnificent rose garden has 10,000 roses from 1200 different species. There are gigantic trees, waterfalls, caves and a 19th century Chinese pagoda. Concerts and exhibitions are held there in the summer. The castle has undergone a restoration (planned to reopen to the public in 2022).
Finding Marie-Antoinette in Paris
In the Louvre museum, admire paintings of the queen including by Elisabeth Vigée le Brun. She was Marie-Antoinette’s personal portraitist despite being a commoner and a woman, unusual for an artist then. She painted more than 30 portraits of the queen. There are more of her paintings at Versailles. In the Tuileries Gardens, the queen would have strolled often as the royal couple lived at the Tuileries Palace. It was destroyed in 1871.
Not many of the Queen’s garments remain, they were destroyed during the French Revolution. But some are kept at the Palais Galliera Fashion Museum which has the world’s leading collection of 18th century dresses
The Queen’s favourite Paris shops
Stroll the Rue Saint-Honoré where Marie-Antoinette’s favourite dress-maker Madame Rose Bertin had a boutique first at no. 234 and later in front of the St Roch church. They would meet almost every week and Rose was dubbed ‘minister of fashion’ by the queen’s detractors. Visit Lubin perfumerie was opened by Pierre-François Lubin who was trained from the age of 10 by Jean-Louis Fargeon, supplier of the Queen’s perfume and beauty products. He created a pair of scented gloves for her using scents from hyacinths, violets, musk jonquils and carnations. When the Queen was in prison, Lubin would take her parcels of her favourite toiletries from Fargeon.
Sulpice Debauve, the King’s chemist, made chocolate buttons for the queen, called pistoles in which he disguised the taste of her medicine. After the Revolution, he opened Debauve & Gallais chocolatiers. To this day they make pistoles (but no medicine of course!).
Pop into Patisserie Stohrer on rue Montorgeuil, the oldest cake shop in Paris which opened in 1730. It’s entirely possible the Queen may have indulged here, the shop was opened by her father-in-law’s pastry chef. At Nina’s in Place Vendome taste the Queen’s favourite tea which is made with fruit grown in the Louis XIV’s vegetable garden in Versailles.
Not far from the Louvre visit the Conciergerie, once a medieval royal palace. In the French Revolution it became a centre of detention and Marie-Antoinette’s prison. Here you can visit her prison cell, it’s the sort of place where you’ll get goose bumps.
From here she was taken to Place de la Concorde to be executed, it was called Place de la Revolution at the time. She was buried in 1793 with the King in the graveyard of the Madeleine Cemetery. Their bodies were exhumed and interred at the Basilica of Saint-Denis, a jewel of Gothic art. The Chapelle Expiatore marks the spot of her first burial on Square Louis XVI. Inside the chapel is a reproduction of her last moving letter to the king’s sister.