Visitors to Paris should not miss this really simple one-day outing, taken directly from the pages of my guidebook, Daytrips France, 6th Edition.
A Daytrip from Paris
The Île-de-France region is justly renowned for its many splendid châteaux. Some of these, especially Versailles, are monumental in scope while others, such as Fontainebleau, leave the visitor endowed with an immensely satisfying sense of history. For sheer beauty, however, the dream-like Château of Chantilly is by far the most outstanding. Many even consider it to be the loveliest in all France. This is surely reason enough to make the easy daytrip, but Chantilly gilds the lily with yet more sumptuous attractions. There are enchanted gardens, a magnificent forest, one of the nation's best art museums, stables that resemble a palace, a world-famous racetrack, a great horse training center and — of course — the delicious whipped cream and black lace for which the town is noted.
Chantilly has an illustrious history going back to a Roman named Cantilius. The present château — actually two separate châteaux joined by a common entrance — is the fifth on the same site. Its larger part, the impossibly romantic Grand Château, is a late-19th-century pastiche while the older Petit Château dates from the 16th century. It was here that a well-known event (or story!) occurred in 1671, when Louis XIV came calling for a three-day visit — along with five thousand of his retainers. The greatest chef in France at the time, François Vatel, was employed at the château and had to feed all those hungry mouths on virtually no notice. Things went wrong and finally, when the promised fish failed to arrive in time, the overwrought Vatel ended it all with a sword thrust through his body.
Trains leave Nord Station in Paris almost hourly for the 30-minute ride to Chantilly-Gouvieux. Return service operates until early evening. There are also slightly slower trains on the RER commuter service.
By Car, leave Paris on the A-1 Autoroute, switching to the N-l near St.-Denis and then to the N-16. Chantilly is about 40 km (25 miles) north of Paris.
Good weather is essential for a visit to Chantilly. Avoid coming on a Tuesday, when nearly everything is closed. The local tourist information office, T: 03-4467-3737, W: chantilly-tourisme.com, is at 60 Avenue du Maréchal-Joffre, between the train station and the town. Bicycles may be rented nearby. Chantilly has a population of about 11,000.
FOOD AND DRINK:
There are several good restaurants and cafés between the train station and the château. At the attractions themselves, some choices are:
Les Goûtes Champêtres (at Le Hameau, in the park of the château) Lunch in the gardens, or just a dessert with real Chantilly cream. X: mid-Nov. to mid-March. €€ and €€€
Carrousel Restaurant (at the Grandes Écuries) Lunches in the elegant courtyard of the Horse Museum. T: 03-4457-1977. X: Tues., weekdays in winter. €€
La Capitainerie (in the château) A self-service cafeteria for light lunches. T: 03-4457-1589. X: Tues. €
Numbers in parentheses correspond to numbers on the map.
Leave the Chantilly-Gouvieux train station (1) and follow the map to the Hippodrome (racetrack) (2), where the prestigious Prix de Diane and Prix du Jockey Club races are run on the first and second Sundays of June. This beautifully situated course has been attracting Paris society since 1836. Continue on to the:
*CHÂTEAU DE CHANTILLY (3), T: 03-4462-6262, W: chateaudechantilly.com. Open March–Oct., Wed.–Mon., 10–6; shorter hours Nov.–March. Closed Tues. Last entry 45 minutes before closing. Park open every day. Château and park: €€, park only: €.
Chantilly’s magnificent château rises from the middle of a tiny lake like a fantastic scene from a fairy tale. As a special treat and for a small extra charge, you can ride on the Hydrophile, an electric boat on the Grand Canal that operates from April through October.
Cross the bridge and enter the Musée Condé, a museum that occupies the entire château. The sumptuous collection of art, along with the estate, was bequeathed to the Institut de France in 1897 by its last owner, the Duke of Aumale, fifth son of Louis-Philippe, the last king of France. A guide booklet in English is available at the entrance.
The rooms to your right, in the Grand Château, contain the picture galleries and may be seen at your own leisure. Laid out in a charming 19th-century style, the walls are covered from top to bottom with an amazingly good collection of canvases. To see the rest of the château you will have to take a guided tour, included in the admission price. Don't miss the private apartments in the Petit Château, especially the Chapel and the Library, whose greatest treasure is the *Trés Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, one of the greatest masterpieces of the Middle Ages. Because of its fragile condition, this is rarely exhibited, but copies are on display.
Leave the château and walk straight ahead into the park. Once in the woods, turn right and follow the map past the tiny Chapel of St. Paul to the Maison de Sylvie (4), a house with a long history of romantic affairs. The paths now lead through an enchanted forest, complete with statuary in little clearing, to Le Hameau (5), a rustic hamlet where the nobility played at being peasants. This was the prototype for Marie-Antoinette's famous hameau at Versailles. Continue around to the formal gardens and waterways (6) designed by that great landscape artist, André Le Nôtre, who was also largely responsible for the gardens at Versailles.
The picturesque Jardin Anglais (English Gardens) (7) come as a great contrast. Stroll through them to the Ile d'Amour (8), an idyllic little island, then continue on to the Jeu de Paume (9), which is sometimes open.
One last sight remains at Chantilly, just outside the palace precincts. This is the Grandes Écuries (10), a stable built like a fabulous palace. The story is told about the Duke of Bourbon, owner of the château during the early 18th century, having this luxurious barn erected because he expected to be reincarnated as a horse and wanted to assure his future comfort. Whether this event actually occurred is not known, but the posh interiors are open to visitors as the Musée Vivant du Cheval (Living Museum of the Horse). Demonstrations of dressage, a great treat, are given several times daily. T: 03-4457-4040, W: musee-vivant-du-cheval.fr. Open April–Oct., Wed.–Fri. 10:30–5:30, Sat.–Sun. & holidays 10:30–6; Nov.–March, Wed.–Fri. 2–5, Sat.–Sun. & holidays 10:30–5:30. €€.
Text, maps and B&W photos copyright © 2005 by Earl Steinbicker. Top color photo by Tango7174, used under GNU Free Documentation License.
Link added Dec. 26, 2011:
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