This past week I decided to take a day trip to Chateau de Vaux le Vicomte. We have been seeing photos all over town promoting the fountain and fireworks displays at the Chateau during the summer. Wanting to avoid the crowds however, I decided to go during the day and during the week.
The Chateau has an amazing and intriguing history. Originally a small Chateau located between the two royal residences in Fontainebleau and Vincennes, it was purchased in 1641 by Nicolas Fouquet, an ambitious 26 year old member of the Parlement of Paris. When he was appointed by Louis XIV as his superintendent of finances, Fouquet decided it was time to build a Chateau worthy of his ambitions. He then purchased three villages around the Chateau and had them razed to make room for the expansion of the Chateau and Jardins. He was kind enough to employ all the displaced villagers in the upkeep of his Chateau. Fouquet brought together landscape architect Andre Le Notre, French Classical architect Louis Le Vau and Artist Charles Le Brun to design and build his vision. Together, these three brilliant minds created a Chateau and Jardins that would become one of the most influential in 17th Century Europe and began what was known as the Louis XIV Style which combined Architecture, Interior Design and Landscape Design.
In August of 1661, Fouquet hosted a Fete for the King at his new Chateau. So lavish and grand was the Chateau, that rather than impressing the young King as was his hope, the King instead had him arrested shortly thereafter and imprisoned for life. The Chateau’s contents were confiscated by the King and the Chateau fell into disrepair. The King, realizing the talents of Le Notre, Le Vau and Le Brun, brought them all to Versailles where they began their lifetime of work creating Louis XIV’s legacy. Fouquet died in prison but his wife, who was exiled when he was imprisoned, was able to recover the Chateau after 10 years. Later, with her son and husband dead, she finally decided to sell it and today it remains privately owned but open to the public.
Those of you who have read my posts on Versailles, know how much I love it – especially the gardens. Given that, my expectations were not very high for my visit – even with its amazing history. I am happy, no thrilled, to say that my expectations were off and that this was one of the most exquisite Chateaus I have ever visited! Now let me add some perspective. Arriving at the Chateau from the road is less than amazing. It is on the smaller size as Chateau go, but it is none-the-less quite beautiful. As I approached it and began to take in the Chateau along with its surroundings that is when my mind began to be blown. This is the most elegant merging of Chateau and Jardins that I have ever seen. Versailles is extraordinary, but one cannot possibly begin to take it all in at once. Vaux Le Vicomte has a symmetry and balance of Chateau and Jardin that allows you the ability to take it all in at once which is really breathtaking. And while you get the sense of being able to see it all, the Jardins actually continue to unfold as you walk them revealing hidden treasures along the way. The interior of the Chateau, if I can be honest, was a little bit of a let down. It was beautiful, but there was something missing that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Charles Le Brun’s painted ceilings and other works were treasures to behold. But I think the fact that so many areas were in disrepair, and that there remains almost nothing from the original Chateau, it had a feeling of being staged. For an additional €3 one could scale a small spiral staircase to the top of the dome and view the entire Jardin and surrounding forests which I highly recommend. An added benefit to this little side trip (apart from the panoramic views) was being able to see the original superstructure that was created to support the massive dome and ceilings. Having seen the interior, I was excited to explore the Jardin.
Le Notre employed a forced perspective technique in the design of the Jardins giving one the sense that things are closer than they actually are. From the entrance to the Jardin at the back of the Chateau, one can see in the distance a statue of Hercules surrounded by lawn and then forest. From the Chateau it seems a short enough walk but in actuality it is further than one thinks. Le Notre had the statue made far larger than a normal statue thus giving you the feeling that it is closer than it really is. I could go on at length about his masterful use of perspective, but I would rather leave you my experience of his creation which I think was his true purpose. I was completely seduced by this magnificent Jardin, which has been restored to its original state. Quiet and welcoming, it was easy to feel completely alone and almost nurtured by the perfectly manicured grounds. The integration of plants, flowers, trees and water features was simply blissful. The soft crunch of the gravel under my feet was almost deafening while at the same time I seamed to be enveloped by my surroundings. The atmosphere seemed denser here as if the air itself was pressing against me. I felt a deep sense of calm as I made my way deeper down the central path. Upon reaching the first fountain, I turned back to look at the Chateau and couldn’t image the view being any better. Changing a single leaf or stone would damage this seemingly perfect tableau – even today some 350 years after its completion.
As I continued moving away from the Chateau, I came upon a ridge that was completely invisible from the Chateau. It gave way to the Grand Canal which traverses the Jardin and is almost 1/2 mile in length. On both sides of the Canal, the ridge walls were ornately decorated with freezes and fountains. I took the stones steps down to the edge of the canal and turned left so I could walk around the canal and make my way to the statue of Hercules. The canal is fed by a natural river which was harnessed for this exact purpose. The sound of the water seemed the only thing able to pierce the silence as the ancient forest began to rise higher and higher around me. At the far end of the canal the Jardin gives way to the natural forest giving it the illusion of being larger than it actually is. In the distance I could see a beautiful stone bridge that could have been centuries old. The Grotto on the opposite side of the canal opposite where I turned left, is so beautifully decorated that my only wish was that the fountains were on – but not today. I walked up the long and ornate stone stairs to the edge of the great green lawn that surrounded the statue. Still further away than I imagined as was Le Notre’s intention, I walked along the edge of the dense forest that framed each side of the lawn. At the foot of the statue I was mesmerized by his stare, frozen in time in this most peaceful of places. When I turned to look back at the Chateau I realized that were I in his place I would not be unhappy with such an exquisite view. I never wanted to leave.
I did not expect to fall so in love with Vaux Le Vicomte, but as is the case with love, you never know when it will strike. If you have an opportunity take an afternoon to visit this gem and enjoy its beauty. You can visit the Chateau’s official website by clicking here.