Though France has plenty of Chateaux that impress, wow and take your breath away – some are more special than others. The Chateau de Chantilly in Picardy, a short journey from the centre of Paris, is one of them…
Potted history of the Chateau of Chantilly
Castles have stood for many centuries on the site where the current Chateau de Chantilly stands today. Surrounded by lakes and forests, it’s surprising to know that it’s just 55km from the centre of Paris. Several prominent families have been the owners including Constable Anne de Montmorency, companion to Francois I, the Renaissance King of France, creator of the Chateau de Chambord. Montmorency, like many nobles of the day, followed the King’s Renaissance style and had the medieval castle updated, constructing the Petit Chateau, today the oldest part of the castle.
Eventually it passed to Charlotte de Montmorency, wife of Henri II de Bourbon, Prince of Condé. Their son, Louis II de Bourbon, known as ‘the Grand Condé’, organised a courtly life in Chantilly that rivalled Versailles, with magnificent balls and huge fireworks displays. The dinners he held were legendary. In 1671 he organised a three-day extravaganza to honour Louis XIV managed by his steward Francois Vatel. When a delivery failed to arrive, the second disaster during the feast, the overwrought steward committed suicide thereby creating one of the best known dinners in French history.
Grand stables and updates
The Great Stables were built in 1719 for the hunt-loving Duke de Bourbon. The town of Chantilly got an upgrade by the same architect. The Grand Chateau was destroyed in 1799. The last of the Bourbon-Condé family was beheaded on the orders of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1804 and the castle passed to Henri d’Orleans, Duke d’Aumale and son of King Louis-Philippe in 1830.
He rebuilt the Grand Chateau in 1857 to house his vast collection of art and treasures. He was known to the be greatest collector of his time. When he died he left the entire domaine to the State. The Condé museum opened to the public in 1898. And little has changed since then. And that makes this Chateau an absolute treasure.
Inside the Chateau of Chantilly
Some of the world’s great paintings can be seen at Chantilly from works by Botticelli to Raphael, Van Dyke and Watteau, Delacroix and Titian. Royal portraiture, Italian, Dutch, French and Renaissance paintings vie for attention. Wonderful stained glass, tapestries and books including a copy of the famous Tres Riches Heures of Jean, Duc de Berry are held here (though you can’t see this precious, fragile book but a digital version is available).
Visit the apartment of the Duke and his wife, filled with paintings, furnishings and artefacts. It’s incredible to think that if the Duke, who died in 1897, was to return he would recognise the rooms, the places where the paintings are hung, the furniture, his favourite reading chair. The Chateau is a snapshot of a long gone time, exquisitely and sumptuously decorated and beautifully preserved.
In Vatel’s former kitchens there is now a restaurant. Another restaurant is open in the grounds during spring to autumn months. At both you can try the famous Chantilly cream, said to have been invented in the castle kitchens. Take it from me – it tastes better there than anywhere!
The Gardens of Chantilly
The gardens cover a stonking 115 hectares. Several themes can be seen from the French-style garden created by Andre Le Notre in the 17th century to the Anglo-Chinese Garden in the 18th century and the English Garden in the 19th century. There are statues and grottoes, lakes and a hamlet reminiscent of Marie Antoinette’s hamlet at Versailles. In fact it’s claimed this is what inspired the queen. It’s a brilliant garden for strolling with shaded walkways and secret paths.
You can take a boat ride, see peacocks, take a Segway or electric cart ride and watch the horses exercising.
The Great Stables of Chantilly
The Great Stables of Chantilly are mind-bogglingly beautiful. They are a chateau in their own right with stunning architectural details. Today the building houses the Museum of the Horse – surely the horse-loving Duke de Bourbon would have approved. Paintings, artwork, books and horse paraphernalia fill the rooms.
Visit the stables and meet the horses in their seriously impressive rooms. Equestrian shows are held year round. Combining poetry, acrobatics and humour, the horse team put on an awe-inspiring dressage display beneath a 28 metre high majestic dome in the Great Stables. It is a magnificent performance of horsemanship and the bond between man and horse.
I’d recommend you allow a whole day for the visit – there’s a lot to fall in love with.
How to get to the Chateau Chantilly from Paris
The Chateau de Chantilly is in the department of Picardy, region Hauts-de-France. From Gare du Nord take an overland regional train to Chantilly-Gouvieux. It takes a little over 20 minutes. From here it’s a 25-minute stroll to the château through the pretty town. Or you can take the no. 15 bus towards Senlis and get off at the “Chantilly, église Notre-Dame” stop or wait for the free, but infrequent shuttle bus DUC (Cantilian Urban Service). The bus stop is outside the station. Taxis take about 5 minutes and you can also hire bikes at the station. Check the Chateau de Chantilly website (below) for access details year round.
Top tip: pick up a round trip ticket from Gare du Nord covering travel and entry to all of Chantilly’s attractions at a special price. At Gare du Nord purchase the “Pack TER Domaine de Chantilly” ticket.
Parking is available at the castle.
More details at: www.domainechantilly.com and discover more things to do in the area with www.french-weekendbreaks.co.uk
Get my free road trip book to discover the best of the Hauts de France region from beautiful beaches to historic cities, medieval villages and glorious castles: www.french-weekendbreaks.co.uk/motorbike-touring-france