For quite a while I have felt misgivings about taking clients to see the interior of the Chateau in Versailles. That is not for any lack of marvelous sights to see there. The pace of re-acquisition of exquisite objects and art that were created for Versailles and sold-off after the French Revolution continues unabated. Virtually every visit reveals something recently acquired and newly on display that is a revelation and marvel to see.
If only you could see them! My concern stems from how impossible it has become to do that, due to the overwhelming numbers of other visitors. Versailles is a victim of its success: its interior spaces are so jammed with teaming masses of visitors that it is a real struggle to see anything other than the crowds. Add to that sad situation the fact that many of those visitors are unruly and inconsiderate, and the fact that gradually the air becomes heavy and unbreathable. Suddenly you are overcome with only one compulsive thought: escape the torture in which you find yourself as soon as possible.
It is high time that the management of the Chateau de Versailles restricts the number of visitors that are admitted at any given time. Not only is that necessary to restore a sense of pleasure in visiting such a remarkable place, it is also vital from the point of view of security. It is easy to imagine unexpected problems (fire being only one) that could cause the crowds inside to panic and rush for the exits. We shudder to think how many people might be trampled, many of whom will be small children. The potential for disaster is real.
Recently we had the pleasure of planning a week of touring in and near Paris for a family with two children, a boy of eleven and a girl aged seven. The parents suggested including a visit of the Chateau in Versailles. We instead recommended a visit of the Chateau in Chantilly, which is a one hour drive north of Paris.
We pointed out that the children would have a much more enjoyable time there, because there never are as many people visiting it as there are at Versailles. And everyone would have the pleasure of seeing a fine example of the luxurious chateaux that were created in France in the 16thto the 18thcenturies, of which both Versailles and Chantilly are leading examples.
If Chantilly is not the equal of Versailles in terms of sheer opulence, we argued, it is no laggard, and, while you visit it, you have ample room and time to take it all in. You can really take your time to look at what there is to see in it, absorb that and enjoy your visit.
And how much there is! Set in a park of nearly 20,000 acres, its chateau is the ancestral home of the Montmorency family, one of the most powerful in France, second only to its kings. It is comprised of two chateaux, the small and the grand. The former was built in the 16thcentury by Pierre de Chambiges in the French Renaissance style, whereas the latter was torn down during the French Revolution and rebuilt in one of the heavier anonymous styles of the 19thcentury.
A walk through the petit chateau reveals some of a superb library of 60,000 volumes, and a suite of exquisitely decorated rooms known as the Apartment of the Princes, which were used by the many successive heads of the family, who were each known as the Condé. Now decorated mostly in the styles of Louis XV and XVI, they include a Hall of Battles filled with paintings of combat fought by the Great Condé. There is also a delightful Salon of Monkeys in which the creatures are depicted in the ‘chinoiserie’ style that became the rage among the wealthy in 18thcentury France.
In the grand chateau there are several galleries filled with art accumulated by the last private owner of Chantilly, the Duke of Aumale, younger son of Louis Philippe, the king of France from 1830 to 1848. Immensely rich, the Duc d’Aumale accumulated over 1,000 works of art, some of which are land mark works of Botticelli, Raphael, Poussin, the Clouets and Ingres. The “Three Graces” of Raphael is worth mentioning in particular.
Our visit at Chantilly took two hours, in which we circulated freely and at our leisure, without being pushed or harried by crowds. It included a stroll in the gardens, some of which were designed by André Le Nôtre, who also designed much of the park and gardens at Versailles. Our clients loved their tour and their children were engaged and interested throughout.
If you are interested in dressage, you can also see the equine show in the afternoon, which takes place in the impressive 18thcentury stables near the chateau that one of the Condé had built, designed by Jean Aubert. That Condé was convinced he would be re-incarnated as a horse, and he wanted decent quarters in which to spend his reincarnated life. We passed on this because the parents feel that training horses to perform equine versions of ballet is not their cup of tea.
On one of the remaining days after our visit of Chantilly, we had planned to visit Claude Monet’s last home and gardens in Giverny in the morning and the Domain of Marie Antoinette in the afternoon. That afternoon the weather turned sour and there was such a downpour that the parents asked if we could not enter the Chateau in Versailles, instead, so that we would not get soaked.
Accordingly, we entered the Chateau in Versailles, replete with crowds as dense as ever. Fortunately, I had my annual membership card for Versailles with me, and we were able to skip the line to pass through security in priority, without having to queue. Nevertheless, once inside, the suffocation began. As we passed from one room to the next, the children were unable to see any of the features I pointed out, and, when we were only half an hour into the visit, the air became so stuffy that one of the children began to feel nauseous.
The most pressing priority became how to get the child to fresh air before he became sick to his stomach. And so ended our visit of the interior of the Chateau in Versailles. I don’t think that fate could have provided a more dramatic illustration of how much more worthwhile it is to visit Chantilly instead of Versailles. As we dropped our clients off at the airport at the end of their stay, the parents repeated to me how much they and their children had enjoyed Chantilly, but not Versailles, and how they would always remember Chantilly as a souvenir of the glory of France.