Vaux-le-Vicomte is our last chateau — oh I am sure we will stumble across another on our travels and look in, but we will probably not again build a day around seeking out a chateau to visit. We have driven by several in Burgundy and visited Sully and Chateauneuf en Auxois. In the Loire, we have toured Chennonceau, Chambord, Azay le Rideou, and Cheverny. Cheverny, which we found by just a bit of aimless driving through the countryside turned out to be a happy surprise. And from Paris we have visited Versailles, Fountainbleau, Sceaux, Ecouen, Vincennes, , Rambouillet, and Chantilly. And of course the Louvre is a chateau. All interesting and all worth seeing, but after a bit, much of a sameness. So Vaux-le-Vicomte is our last intentional chateau and it was a great one to go out on. Perhaps our last chateau and perhaps also our best chateau.We might not have gone at all but for the raves it received on http://www.tripadvisor.com — so we decided to tackle it this summer as one of our day trips from Paris. If you are interested in going, or even just taking a vicarious on-line visit, their own website gives an excellent feel for the place: http://www.vaux-le-vicomte.com/
While the website hints at shuttles from the Melun train station — there were none the day we traveled to the chateau in early July. It was a pricey cab ride to the chateau and a cab had to be called to get us back to the station at the end of the day. In France, when you call a cab, you pay for the trip to fetch you as well as the onward trip; we felt lucky that the cab only had 6.50 Euro on the meter when it arrived. So Vaux-le-Vicomte takes a bit more work to achieve than the others we have visited. But it is worth it.We arrived at lunchtime and had a very nice terrine and salad at the small cafeteria and outdoor tables near the coach house and stables. There is also a fancier dining room on site for evening meals. Unlike the publicly owned chateau, there is no picnicking allowed on the magnificent grounds — and to help assure this, there are no benches provided on the long hikes distant and hidden from view of the chateau itself. There are benches here and there in the gardens. We stayed until the place closed at 6 and this was not enough time to see everything we wanted to see. If you go, plan to spend a full day there. Much of the year, there are also candlelight tours sometimes with fireworks. While I am sure this is tres romantique, I think I would want to arrive early enough to tour the gardens in daylight.While the chateau itself is well preserved and impressive, it is the gardens that make this THE chateau to visit. They stretch from the chateau to a grassy hill about a mile and a half away.It doesn’t look like a mile and a half because it was carefully designed using forced perspective to create a series of optical illusions. If you set out for what seems like a quick stroll to the grotto, you find yourself confronted with a landscape that unrolls and retreats as you achieve each pond or flowerbed or fountain. Because it is set on a series of terraces, from a distance the eye skips over significant spaces and joins distant gardens or paths as if they were contiguous. For example, the canal is not even visible from the chateau and when fairly close, it looks like but a few steps to the grotto. When you reach the point above the ‘frying pan’ pond you discover that it is farther than it seemed and will require a very long walk around the end of a canal that stretches for about a kilometer.The canal is fed by one of the rivers that flows into the estate. We chose to walk to the left down to the end of the canal. The canal was full of carp but we didn’t see any water birds on the estate at all which is quite unusual for French chateau. The grottos are classic follies of this era with romantic stalagtites and stalagmites surrounding sculptures of the gods. When looking back up towards the Chateau from various points along the way, there are times when the house is barely visible. Here is the view from the top of the grotto space just below the lawn with the enormous statue of Hercules that marks the end of the gardens. Here is a shot from the canal that separates the grottoes from the main gardens. The chateau barely peeks above the landscape. After reaching the far ends of the gardens and the grotto we set off to the other end of the canal to get back into the main landscape. This is a very long stretch. The chateau was built by Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIVth’s minister of finance, in the middle of the 17th century; he purchased and demolished 3 villages to obtain the land employing the 18000 people thus displaced on the estate. The chateau and the gardens were designed by the preeminent architects and landscape designers of the 17th century — Le Vau, Le Brun and Le Nôtre. Le Notre created the artful design of the terraced gardens.
Louis XIVth in an attempt to equal the splendor of Vaux le Vicomte, hired these three to transform a hunting lodge into the great chateau of Versailles.
The chateau is beautifully preserved: here is the sitting room of the mistress of the house. The adjacent bathroom includes a hip bath, bidet and commode/toilet. And here is one of the bedrooms. There are several creative attempts to engage visitors in the history of the chateau and its builder. Children’s costumes may be rented for a couple of Euro so that young visitors can dress the part. A series of tableau on the lower levels tell the story of the tragedy of Nicolas Fouquet, a young Louis XIV’s minister of finance whose grandiose chateau and position in government aroused the jealousy of Colbert who turned the King against Fouquet. After a magnificent party at Vaux-le-Vicomte, Colbert convinced the King that only by having his hand in the government till could Fouquet have afforded this grand estate; the nobles who made up the court — where Fouquet was not allowed the evidence to defend himself, were implored to give the death penalty but apparently to the King and Colbert’s chagrin, enough of them couldn’t bring themself to this unjust verdict that Fouquet was merely jailed and had his estate confiscated. This is a picture of the trial displayed in the chateau. This is of course, given that it is Vaux le Vicomte, a home court sort of telling of the story. Yes Colbert prospered by the fall of Fouquet, but it is at least possible given the great corruption in the taxation system of the time that the charges had some truth. Here is the pathetic Fouquet in the historic tableau.The historic scenes were beautifully done. I am not generally a great fan of this sort of thing as my French is not terrific, but these were fascinating. And where there was text on the walls between the rooms elaborating the history, there was also an English version. The tableau themselves were quite realistic with life size figures. In this one, Fouquet is being confronted and arrested. The faces of the key figures appear to have a sort of rear projection so that they look like real faces which are animated as they speak. In one scene there is a ball room with figures posed and a screen in which couples dance; it is very well done. We ended up watching it for several minutes with others equally fascinated. It really looked like we were standing at the edge of a room watching dancers.For an extra two Euro one has access to the dome atop the house; this turned out to be both interesting and spectacular. There is a display of tools and designs for construction in the attic on the way to the staircase to the dome.And of course we could see many of these structures as we climbed.The dome itself afforded spectacular views of the estate. So our last chateau — certainly one of the most enjoyable chateau visits. And unlike Versailles you are not likely to face long lines or crowds. Definitely put it high on your list of day trips from Paris.