FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Cream of Chantilly

Posted in France, Paris by folkestonejack on May 27, 2019

One of the most extraordinary collections of art and rare books in France can be found at the Château de Chantilly, around 25 miles north of Paris, in a beautiful palace surrounded by forests. The collection of old masters is the second largest in the country. You might think that this would attract the long queues and crowding that the Louvre often sees, but not a bit of it.

This place is relatively lightly visited and you can often find yourself alone in a room filled with gorgeous paintings that include works by Raphael, Delacroix and Poussin among others. It has to be one of the best kept secrets among day trips from Paris, which is appropriate as I first learnt about the place through the marvelous Secrets of Paris blog many years ago!

Château de Chantilly

The magnificent Château de Chantilly and the art galleries that we can wander around today were the creation of Henri d’Orléans, Duke of Aumale, son of the last King of France, Louis Philippe I. The Duke was one of the great collectors of his age and built up an astonishing collection of artworks and rare books over his lifetime. It’s a striking echo of the past activities of the Bourbon-Condés, the owners of Chantilly from 1643 to 1830, whose collections were confiscated during the revolution and transferred to the Central Museum of Arts (later to become the Louvre).

The Château is the work of the architect Honoré Daumet who was commissioned by the Duke to rebuild the Grand Château after the destruction that took place during the revolution. The new building was constructed on the foundations of the medieval towers and designed to integrate with the Petit Château, a renaissance survivor that somehow made it through the revolution intact. From the outset the new building, constructed from 1875 to 1885, was designed with the needs of the Duke’s collection in mind. This is most obvious in the large picture gallery which is illuminated by natural light coming through massive overhead windows.

The Duke was predeceased by his children and bequeathed the Château to the Institut de France in 1886 with the stipulation that it be opened to the public as a museum and that the artworks be presented just as they were in his lifetime. It is strange to walk around the galleries knowing that nothing has changed in over a century and that you are standing exactly where others have gazed in decades past. Equally, it is a pleasure to see a gallery presented quite differently to how it would be arranged today – a little like stepping back into the 19th century.

The Cabinet des Clouet

The astonishing nature of the art collection is perhaps best encapsulated by a small room known as the Cabinet des Clouet which displays the portraits of 90 French Kings from the 16th century – more than you would find at the Louvre!

On a wander round there are many delightful stories to discover. One of the most curious was the tale of The Madonna of Loreto which can be found in the Rotunda. The painting was originally considered to be a copy of a lost work by Raphael from 1509 until restoration in 1976 revealed the number 133 in a corner of the painting. This matched the inventory number marked on the original when it was part of the Borghese collection in Rome. The discovery saw the work rightly recognised as an original work by Raphael.

The collection of rare books is equally impressive, even if this is a little less obvious to the visitor. The Cabinet des Livres is the largest library in the country outside of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Inside the Cabinet des Livres

A short walk away from the Château you can discover the Great Stables (Grandes Écuries), now home to the living museum of the horse, adjacent to the famous racecourse with its gorgeous nineteenth century grandstands. The impressive stables were commissioned by Louis-Henri, Duke of Bourbon (1692-1740) and may, in part, be down to his belief that he would be re-incarnated as a horse. Whatever the reason, this is one of the masterpieces of 18th century architecture and a delight for us to enjoy today.

The area is the centre of the horseracing industry in France with over 2500 horses undergoing training in around a hundred stables. The first thing that strikes you as enter the great stables is just how much the space lives up to its name. These stables are the largest in Europe, built to hold up to 240 horses and five hundred hounds.

These are no ordinary stables. A better description would be the cathedral of the horse, a description amply illustrated by the three horses thundering out of the stonework above the doorway and a vast 14 metre high stone roof above the stables. The stables are still in use today, so this is no historic relic, with visitors able to take a wander along the stables inside before taking a right turn into the museum. The museum does an equally wonderful job of capturing the magic of the horse kingdom, from historic horse carts to merry-go-round horses presented in a compelling display.

The impressive roof of the stables

On our way out of the stables we had a moment to see one of the horse in training. If you have the time, there are regular shows and demonstrations beneath the 28 metre high dome of the Great Stables, a space which can accommodate 600 people.

In short, a day trip to Chantilly is a wonderful opportunity to be wowed by artworks, a beautiful restored historic palace and artistry of the equine kind. All without the crowds of most Parisien attractions. What’s not to like!?

Practicalities

We kept things simple and purchased a Pack TER Domaine de Chantilly from the green ticket machines located around platforms 15-17 on the ground level of the Gare du Nord (not downstairs where most of the other ticket machines are located). The machines were very clearly laid out and had options in five languages. You use a dial to select your preferred option and the Chantilly tickets are pretty easily located through the menus. The machines only accept credit cards and didn’t seem to have the option to buy more than one Pack TER at a time. The price is a very reasonable 25 euros per adult (a saving of around 10 euros).

The journey out to Chantilly takes just 22 minutes. The timetable is a bit quirky, so it’s worth taking the time to check in advance of your trip. The gates to the chateau don’t open until 10 so we opted to take the 8h49 from Paris Gare du Nord in the direction of Compiègne with the 9h07 in the direction of Amiens as a back-up. After this, there was over an hour’s wait for the next train (10h37). A similar pattern emerges in the afternoon – the timetable showed trains running at intervals of 30-45 minutes for a few hours and then a surprising gap of 75 minutes between trains in mid-afternoon.

Gare de Chantilly-Gouvieux

On our arrival at Chantilly-Gouvieux we headed out by foot on the well sign-posted route to the Chateau. Some of the promotional material we had seen suggested this was a 15 minute walk but we took a good 30 minutes and while we were not racing, we were hardly slouches either! The walk was quite lovely with views of the race course, the exterior of the great stables and the chateau surrounded by water.

When we reached the chateau we had a little wait for the 10 o’clock opening. There are two ticket buildings – one with automatic ticket machines (right) and one with staffed counters (left). We had to use the latter to exchange our Pack TER tickets for Domaine tickets. All fairly painless, but with only one counter open it took a little time with a few groups to process ahead of us.

As our visit took place on a week day we thought it would be quiet, but hadn’t counted on four school parties and a pensioners coach outing. However, once inside we didn’t really encounter any crowding at all and only stumbled upon the occasional room of children listening intently to an explanation of the treasures on display. Once the initial crowd gathered at the gates had been let in at 10am we never saw any queues to get in. For most of the time we were there the area around the gates was incredibly quiet. I suspect that weekday afternoons are rather quiet!

The ticket office is located in the small building to the right

The official website states that tours of the Duke and Duchess of Aumale’s private suites were available in English at 11.30 every day but on our visit we were told that only tours in French were available. This was a disappointment at first, but as we made our way around the chateau we soon realised that we had underestimated the time needed to appreciate the historic rooms and galleries properly. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. In total, we spent three hours visiting the chateau and taking in the great stables at a canter but felt we could have done with longer to explore the grounds and enjoy the museum of the living horse.

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Coulée verte

Posted in France, Paris by folkestonejack on May 26, 2019

One of the most extraordinary green spaces in Paris, the Coulée verte René-Dumont, can be found high above the streets of the twelfth arrondissement on the trackbed of the long closed railway line from Bastille to Vincennes. This linear park, also known as the Promenade Plantée, was the pioneering creation of landscape architect Jacques Vergely and architect Philippe Mathieux in 1988.

The elevated park was officially inaugurated in 1993 and its ground breaking re-use of an abandoned line has gone on to inspire similar projects around the world, such as New York’s High Line, The 606 in Chicago and Philadelphia’s Rail Park. A campaign to develop something similar in the UK, the Peckham Coal Line, has already captured the imagination of the local community.

One of the routes up to the Coulée verte

Our visit to the walkway fell on a Sunday afternoon. We soon discovered just how popular the park was as we joined the relatively slow procession on the – at times – relatively narrow pathway. Everyone seemed to be up there and who could blame them? It was a lovely day and this was clearly the perfect spot to sit and read, walk the dogs or take a wander with the family. The large green space at the Reuilly Garden was busy with families, couples and optimistic sun-worshipers.

There was also another good reason for all the activity on the Coulée verte that I had overlooked – the European elections were taking place and the old station building at Reuilly had been transformed into a polling station for the 12eme arrondissement. It would have to be the most impressive place to vote that I can recall.

The station building at Reuilly was opened, along with the line, in 1859 and remained in use until goods traffic on the line ceased in 1985. Historic photos from 1900 show a beautifully maintained station with well tended green borders. The contrast with the overgrown and unloved station of 1985 couldn’t be greater, so it is lovely to see it so beautifully restored and now very much at the heart of the community.

The ancien gare de Reuilly

Our walk took us from the Viaduc des Arts to a point near Rue du Sahel (helpfully marked up on the official map) before we headed up to street level and hopped on the metro at Bel Air.

The Coulée verte turned out to be every bit as wonderful as I could have hoped with wonderful views of the neighbourhoods it passes through, lovingly well kept gardens and delightful artistic additions. At times it can be really hard to remember that this was ever a railway, particularly when standing in front of a feature like the long duck ponds.

Among the surprises along the way are an office block occupied by the local police, a relatively modern creation from the 1990s, which is topped by a sequence of statues copied from Michelangelo’s dying slave and a cheeky sequence of painted bollards in the tunnels nearish the Rue du Sahel. However, the real highlight was the walk itself. It’s so easy to let city life fall away and just relax in to a leisurely walk. Highly recommended.

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Palace of the Salamander King

Posted in France, Paris by folkestonejack on May 26, 2019

Our long weekend in Paris gave us a perfect opportunity to get out from the city and see the ‘true abode of Kings and the Palace of the ages’ at Fontainebleau which has a history going back to 1137. My grasp of French history is pretty limited, so I had no idea that one of the key players in its restoration was Napoleon who refurbished the palace in a manner worthy of the ancien régime after its sacking in the revolution.

A view of the Palace from the Grand Parterre

The magnificence of the rooms in the palace can’t be overstated. There are so many rooms that simply take your breath away as you enter with their ornate decoration and craftsmanship. The rooms of the Napoleon Museum are equally compelling, albeit in a different way. It is quite something to see Napoleon’s cloak and hat, along with his travel kit and some of the imperial regalia used in his coronations in Paris and Milan.

One of the things you can’t help but notice as you explore the palace are the symbols that its occupants stamped upon the place. King Francis I (1515-1547) used the salamander as his personal emblem, accompanied by the motto Nutrisco et extinguo (I nourish and I extinguish). The symbolism of the salamander, able to walk through flames unharmed and extinguish them, was meant to show the triumph of virtue over the evils of the world.

The salamander is especially evident all the way down the beautifully decorated renaissance marvel that is the Francis I Gallery. Salamanders can be seen on the stucco decoration, carved onto the walnut wainscoting and on the chairs that line the space. From the moment we learnt about it, salamander spotting became quite a feature of our exploration of the palace. You never had to wait too long before encountering another!

A salamander on the Golden Gate

In contrast, Napoleon sought to draw a parallel with the mighty Roman empire and adopted the eagle (for its association with military power) and the bee (for its association with long life and hard work). These symbols can be seen in some of the restored rooms of the Imperial residence and in the museum, though the royals were understandably eager to remove these when they returned to Fontainebleau after the restoration of the monarchy.

Now that we’ve seen Fontainebleau, I think I will have to add the Château Royal de Blois and the Château de Chambord to my wish list for a future adventure (and more salamanders!).

Practicalities

We took a double deck TER train from the Gare de Lyon in the direction of Montargis, using a 1-5 zone Mobilis ticket costing 17.80 euros per person (following everyone else and compositing it using the square looking machines at the end of the platform before boarding). The journey takes about 40 minutes. On arrival at Fontainebleau-Avon station we took the ‘Ligne 1’ bus destined for Les Lilas, getting off at the ‘Château’ stop right outside the gardens. All incredibly easy.

The official English language website advertises a ‘Discover the Palace’ guided tour in English which includes rooms such as the Francis I Gallery, the Ballroom and the Stags Gallery, stating that some of these are otherwise closed to the public. However, on arrival at the Palace the ticket office said that there were no such tours in English – only the audio guide. It was hard to establish what you miss by exploring on your own, other than to say that you can currently see the Francis I Gallery and Ballroom on your own, but not the Stags Gallery.

We had thought that we would participate in one of the French language tours to see the the Impérial Théâtre but the timings turned out to be a bit strange with only two tours offered each day at 16h15 and 17h15. As this would have meant many hours of hanging around after our morning exploring the chateau we decided to pass up on this occasion. Nevertheless, as first time visitors we easily filled three hours with our steady progress through the rooms and would have been slower still had we used the audio guide exhaustively in every room.

The ticket prices are incredibly reasonable at 12 euros for an adult plus 4 euros for an audio guide. The nearest equivalents in the UK would easily be at least double that price.

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Le weekend

Posted in France, Paris by folkestonejack on May 25, 2019

The disruption to the railways that accompanies most bank holiday weekends is usually enough to dissuade us from travelling too far from home, but for some reason we overlooked that a while back and booked a trip to Paris. The plan for our 48 hour stay was simple enough – visit a couple of palaces, take in the Tutankhamun exhibition at La Villette and finally get round to walking along the Promenade Plantée.

Bear with wings outside the Gare du Nord

It is hard to believe that the channel tunnel has been open for 25 years. It is easy to take for granted now, but I remember only too well the time and expense of a trip to Paris in 1993. The awkward combination of a flight to Paris Charles de Gaulle and a coach into the city centre makes quite a contrast to the smoothness of the journey by train from London St Pancras to Gare du Nord.

The journey between cities was as smooth as it could possibly be and before we had time to adjust we were in the French capital, standing under the wings of the ‘Angel Bear’ installed at the time of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2015. The presence of this 7 metre tall polar bear, painted in red for danger, is intended to remind us of the fragility of the environment.

Our hotel on this occasion is the slightly eccentric 25 hours hotel opposite the entrance to Gare du Nord which has rooms with some pretty quirk decor, an elaborate system of light switches and balconies overlooking the entrance to the station. It’s a convenient place to stay when much of our itinerary revolves around travel to/from Gare du Nord. I quite like it, but I can see that it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea.