Chances are you’ve seen Vaux-le-Vicomte but didn’t realize it. Actress Eva Longoria and NBA star Tony Parker married there. 70 movies to date have been filmed in this sumptuous château including Moon Raker, The Man in the Iron Mask, and Marie-Antoinette. The BBC series Versailles was also filmed in this opulent château…fitting as Vaux-le-Vicomte was the inspiration for Versailles.
I was familiar with Vaux, its link to Versailles and Louis XIV but hadn’t visited. That recently changed while in Paris. It makes an ideal day trip—only 55 km from the city. To fully enhance your visit, a quick review of french history during Louis’ time is beneficial…this allowed me to put myself in Louis’ shoes…not an easy task.
A little French history—Fouquet and King Louis XIV
In 1641, Nicolas Fouquet purchased Vaux-le-Vicomte with the intention of renovating the ‘modest’ castle. Affluent to begin with, he become extremely wealthy upon the death of his first wife. Fouquet was ambitious, with a goal to rise to the top of the court. Life was good when he was named Superintendent of Finances for Louis XIV…two years later in 1656 work on Vaux began in earnest.
The work of the ‘ultimate dream team’
Fouquet created a ‘dream team’ consisting of Louis Le Vau, architect extraordinaire, Charles Le Brun, accomplished painter and interior designer, and master gardener, André Le Nôtre.
Le Vau created a magnificent château surpassing all others in elegance and taste…inside and out. Creil limestone was used for the château, stone and brick, for the magnificent outbuildings. The elevated ground floor with three arched portico’s on both facades allowed a sweeping view to the meticulous gardens that beg for exploration.
Le Brun painted a series of masterpieces on the ceilings, their rich palettes added to the brightness of the majestic rooms. He purchased only the best…chandeliers, furniture, objets d’art, and supervised the weaving of 120 tapestries designed as wall coverings. Le Brun executed the concept of covering walls with mirrors…soon to be imitated.
Le Nôtre created the first Jardin Français, still fashionable centuries later. Looking out from the south terrace, the formal garden and lawns seem to extend uninterrupted for miles. He was a master of optical illusion. The box hedging in the parterres mirrors embroidery…there are numerous ponds with impressive water features, sculptures, colorful flower beds, and private grottos. Small lakes reflect Vaux’s facade.
Vaux-le-Vicomte was a perfect blend of architecture and nature.
Keep your enemies close
As agent to Cardinal Mazarin, the King’s Chief Minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert had access to Louis’ ear. Ambitious and jealous of Nicolas, he painted a negative picture of Fouquet when given the opportunity. Colbert didn’t care for Nicolas’ extravagance…perhaps he was skimming money from the crown. He planted the seed in Louis…Fouquet never saw it coming.
The first and last party—August 17th, 1661
Colbert encouraged Nicolas to invite the King and court to a lavish party in the almost finished château so they would see first hand the cost involved in creating such magnificence.
Fouquet and his guests walked through the opulent château, strolled the meticulous gardens, and viewed a play by Molière. A sumptuous feast and fireworks topped the evening. Nicolas and his second wife thought the fête a great success.
Never outdo the King
Already suspicious of Fouquet, Louis wanted him arrested…visiting Vaux added fuel to the fire. Versailles, the hunting lodge he inherited from his father paled in comparison to Vaux. He was determined that someday Versailles would be the most admired palace in the world.
Fouquet was arrested for embezzlement on September 5th, 1661 after spending only a few nights in his château. Fouquet’s trial (without a lawyer) lasted three years ending in a sentence of life imprisonment. Many believe the charges were unfounded but the King’s decision was final. Fouquet passed away in 1680 at the age of 65 after spending 19 years in prison.
If it’s good enough for Vaux-le-Vicomte, it’s good enough for Versailles
Louis moved quickly after Fouquet’s arrest. His family was exiled and Vaux was seized. Most of the furniture, artwork, all tapestries, statues, even the orange trees were taken to Versailles and the Louvre, the Royal seat in Paris.The dream team of Le Vau, Le Brun, and Le Nôtre were soon working their magic on the Palace and grounds of Versailles.
From 1673 to 1875—waiting for the right owner
Vaux was returned to Fouquet’s family in 1673. His wife Marie, held onto the 1235 acre estate until 1705 when maintenance and taxes proved too much to bear. It was sold twice finally landing on the auction block in 1875 after sitting abandoned for 28 years. The château and outbuildings needed restoration, Le Nôtre’s garden…unrecognizable.
A new beginning in 1875
Alfred Sommier was the lone bidder…restoration on the 17th century château and grounds started immediately and no expense was spared. He purchased 17th century pieces, always on the lookout for objects that originally came from Vaux.
The château has been passed down through Sommier’s family line…direct descendants, the de Vogüé family are the owners. They continue the ongoing preservation started by Monsieur Sommier. In 1968, Vaux-le-Vicomte was opened to the public and is currently the largest private estate in France listed as an Historical Monument.
A modern day visit—history comes alive
Having seen photos of the château and grounds, I knew they were impressive but I was bowled over seeing them in person. There is one word to describe both—Magnificent.
My visit coincided with an exhibition Vaux-le-Vicomte at the Movies. This provided the opportunity to go behind the scenes of the movies and series filmed at Vaux. The opulent costumes on display took my breath away. So detailed, so gorgeous.
Le Nôtre Garden
The grounds are enormous. Before setting out, I recommend climbing the steep steps up to the dome where you will be rewarded with a panoramic view of the gardens. I literally gasped when I first took in
the view and it helped me map out the garden in my mind.
If you have limited time or difficulty walking, golf carts are available for €25 (45 minutes). I walked the grounds and kept turning to see the château…Le Nôtre was The Master of optical illusion…
There are two restaurants on the premises. I had lunch at The Relais de l’Ecureuil (cafeteria) and the food was good (this is France after all).
The Gift Shop has a vast array of merchandise…nice merchandise…very nice merchandise. Some of it came home with me.
Visit the Carriage Museum and Le Nôtre exhibit housed in the stable block. With all kinds of rare carriages, coaches and memorabilia…you could spend hours there. If you adore gardens, the Le Nôtre exhibit is a must see.
Admission: €7-€16.50. Additional €3 for the Dome.
The Audio guides are available in 9 languages and worth renting. It really enhances the visit. €3.
Hours: 10-7 but can vary for a special event.
Parking is free.
Train: Gare de l’Est—take Line P. Taxis are available for the short ride to the château. There is a shuttle bus as well (didn’t use it so can’t comment).
Planning the second visit
I am already planning the next visit…this time with hubby in tow. I can’t wait for him to see it. Fingers crossed he’ll make it up to the dome.