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Vying for Visitors: Vaux vs

Last week, when researching Baroque architecture for an article in French Property Insider, the privately-owned (by Alfred Sommier’s great-grandson, Comte P. de Vogüé) château Vaux-le-Vicomte popped up as a prime example. Even if you don’t know the correct meaning of the word Baroque, then you might use it loosely to describe something extravagant, complex or even bizarre. That sums up the art and architectural style of the early 17th to mid 18th centuries in Europe (during the reigns of Kings Louis XIV and Louis XV), marked by bold, curving forms, elaborate ornamentation, dramatic balance of disparate parts. You may certainly be familiar with Baroque music and if you’ve ever seen Baroque pearls, they are irregular in shape.

The research whet my appetite for a visit to the château, not having been there in years. It wasn’t difficult to orchestrate a group outing with visiting family and friends on Easter Sunday. Not only was the château open for visits, but was promoting an Easter egg hunt and other events taking place.

A pessimistic colleague warned that the weather is always lousy on Easter Sunday, but the optimist in me retained positive thinking for a glorious day — and so it was one of the prettiest days to have crossed our lives. The blue skies went on forever and the warm sun rays soaked in some badly need vitamin D.

To get there from Paris without a car, you can either take the RER D line or hop a regional train from the Gare de Lyon to “Melun.” Across the street from the station at Melun in front of a pharmacy and a restaurant, a Châteaubus shuttle will take you to the château. The shuttle schedule is not that frequent, so plan accordingly so you won’t miss it.

Some of our group took a car with a plan to meet at the cafeteria-style restaurant “L’Écureuil,” in one wing of the outbuildings. They were stuck in traffic getting out of Paris then got lost on the country roads making them 1.5 hours late. No problem…we weren’t the only ones with the same great idea to visit Vaux-le-Vicomte, hence the line for the cafeteria was very long…and worse than long, the wait was 1.5 hours to reach the food and check out. (The wait was caused by the absence of a cashier who obviously took his own lunch during the peak hour, a very poor system of ordering the daily special and what seemed to be the lack of supervision. To add insult to injury, the food was terrible and expensive consi

The château Vaux-le-Vicomte was built between 1658 and 1661 for Nicholas Fouquet, the finance minister of Louis XIV. The architects were Louis LeVau and Jules Hardouin-Mansart, the gardens were designed by André LeNôtre. Fouquet was jailed shortly after the opening celebrations of the château, and Louis XIV afterwards employed the same designers for his palace at Versailles.

The Leonardo DiCaprio movie, “The Man in the Iron Mask” (based on Dumas’s novel), takes place in the 1660s, when Louis XIV was just beginning to improve his property at Versailles. The story goes that in 1698, a mysterious man was imprisoned in the Bastille. Almost no one seemed to know who he was, although residents of the French prison were usually important people who had fallen out of favor with Louis XIV. This man had been a captive of the government since at least 1687, and for all that time his face had been hidden by a mask. Parts of the movie were shot at Vaux-le-Vicomte. The king’s envy of the château led him to have Fouquet arrested and some people believe that it was Fouquet who became the Man in the Iron Mask. In the basement of the château is a replica of the imprisoned man in an iron mask…a bit creepy considering that adjacent is the beautiful kitchen and staff dining room!

After you’ve toured the main house in a circuitous fashion that brilliantly takes you out the back overlooking the magnificent grounds, take a stroll to enjoy the formal French garden with its perfectly designed and cut hedges and regal fountains. It was a perfect day to take a repose in the sun on the grass while the kids battled with flexible foam epees wearing 17th-century costumes.

Before leaving the château, where you are routed through the obligatory gift shop, there is a museum of a unique and private collection of 18th and 19th-century horse-driven carriages.

Most tourists put a visit to Versailles at the top of their list and of course, there is no dispute that Versailles is the grandest château of France, but in spite of this privately-owned monument’s failings (a few lessons from Disney wouldn’t hurt!), it should not be missed.

For all information including the schedule for the Châteaubus visit the official Web site at http://www.vaux-le-vicomte.com/

A la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds
Editor, Parler Paris

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P.S. Don’t forget to join us tomorrow at Parler Paris Après Midi from 3 to 5 p.m. at La Pierre du Marais! For more information, visit /parlerparis/apresmidi.html

P.P.S. For a sumptuous Sunday, on April 22nd, come to On Rue Tatin, Susan Herrmann Loomis’ 15th-century Norman retreat! Visit /frenchproperty/conference/on_rue_tatin.html for more information and to make your reservations.

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