One of my favorite things to do on an extended visit to Paris is to take a day trip to a historic site. Last Sunday was a gorgeous spring day and the perfect opportunity to visit the Château de Chantilly, a 23 minute train ride from the Gare du Nord in the Oise region north of Paris.
After a lovely walk from the station through a park, a monumental structure arose in the distance. I was sure it was the castle, but as I drew closer and saw the Chantilly racecourse and grandstand, I realized that this huge building housed the famous Grand Écuries, the "Great Stables" for which the estate is noted. Built between 1719-1740 by the architect Jean Aubert, this magnificent edifice gives "horse barn" a whole new meaning. In its heyday, the stables held 250 horses and 500 dogs to accommodate the almost daily hunting parties that were the primary amusement of the Prince of Condé and his guests. Today, the building houses the "Living Museum of the Horse" and is the site of horse shows and events throughout the year.
But I still hadn't seen the castle! I kept walking and soon the château and its moat appeared. This time there was no confusion as the spire and towers were proof positive that this was indeed the residence of French royalty since its inception as a fortress in the middle ages until it was bestowed upon the Institute of France in 1897.
The Château de Chantilly has a long and fascinating history since the first fortification was constructed in the 11th Century to protect the route between Paris and Senlis. The actual château was begun in 1386 by Pierre d'Orgemont, chancellor to Charles V, and it remained in the family for three generations until 1484 when Pierre III, being childless, willed the property to his nephew Guillaume de Montmorency.
The Montmorency family was a very powerful one in the kingdom, especially Anne de Montmorency (1493-1567) who was known as "The Constable". Under his aegis many important expansion projects were undertaken, most notably the construction of the Petit Château designed by the architect Jean Bullant. In 1632, the grandson of Anne de Montmorency, Henri II, was involved in a revolt against King Louis XIII and was decapitated. As further punishment the King confiscated Chantilly keeping it in royal possession until 1643 when it was restored to Henry II de Montmorency's sister who was also the wife of Henri II de Bourbon Condé. It's complicated, I know, but please bear with me! The Bourbon Condés had a son, Louis II (1621-1686) who was known as Le Grand Condé. It was he who transformed the domain by having the grounds landscaped by André Le Nôtre, the future landscape designer of Vaux le Vicomte and Versailles. The marvelous canal and gardens were the venue for many fêtes and parties and were visited by such figures as Molière, La Fontaine, Madame de La Fayette and Madame de Sévigné.
The descendants of Le Grand Condé continued his tradition and made many architectural contributions to the estate. In 1792 after the fall of the Bastille, the acting Prince of Condé, Louis Joseph, formed an army of emigration known as the Condé army. The French Revolution was in full swing and the collections in Chantilly were seized and taken to the Louvre in Paris. The château itself was turned into a prison until, in 1799, the buildings were sold and ultimately razed to the ground.
In 1815, Prince Louis Joseph returned to France and endeavored to restore his apartments and recover part of his collection. In 1830, his son, Louis Henri Joseph, Duke of Bourbon, died childless and Chantilly passed to its penultimate owner, his great-nephew Henri d'Orléans, Duke of Aumale, who was eight years old at the time. After a distinguished career in the military the Duke returned to Chantilly and undertook a total rebuilding of the château and its grounds. During his lifetime, which involved a 22 year exile in England after the 1848 Revolution, he amassed an extensive library (30,000 volumes) and art collection which became part of the newly restored castle and remain major attractions to this day. In 1884 the Duc d'Aumale bequeathed Chantilly to the Institut de France and a year after his death, in 1898, the Condé Museum was opened to the public as per his request.
Fast forward to the 21st Century and modern visitors like myself who visit Chantilly to gaze in amazement at the opulence of this bygone era. Thanks to generous donations from the Aga Kahn and the World Monuments Fund the château's magnificent interiors and gardens have been restored to near perfection. Ongoing work meant that the water in the moat was drained and the chapel was closed to the public but visitors were still treated to splendid examples of antique furniture and decor as well as an art collection that is second only to the Louvre in French old master paintings and book illuminations. I loved the Grande Singerie, a small room entirely decorated with paintings of monkeys engaged in human activities that was absolutely charming. I was also amazed to see 3 oils by Raphael including his exquisite "Three Graces".
What better way to end a visit to the Château de Chantilly than by tasting the local specialty, crème de Chantilly? I enjoyed a dollop of the delicious sweet whipped cream on top of an ice cream cone as I walked back to the station to catch the train back to Paris. It was a delightful day!