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At Home and In Paris

Updated: Jun 5, 2023


 

Chateaux and Jardins Everywhere...


As a little girl, my favorite place to go was Disneyland which opened in Los Angeles in 1955, the year of my sixth birthday and my first violin recital. I was dazzled by the exquisite floral gardens at the entrance and the full-on view of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, a fairytale come true.

The Beauty herself met us as we passed through the stone arches into Main Street US, with its quaint shops and stores filled with treats and toys. Stepping over the drawbridge, across the moat filled with water and surrounded with even more colorful flowers, we could climb the spiral stairs of the castle, but the impressive exterior was unmatched by an interior devoid of much of interest. I was left to use my imagination and what I could remember from the story book Castle and characters.

The Disney castle was actually meant to be a replica of Neuschwanstein Castle of Mad King Luwig of Bavaria. That castle was often referred to as the Cinderella Castle.


You might be wondering right about now what this has to do with anything, especially my work as a writer. I think anything that stimulates imagination and provides inspiration has everything to do with being a writer. Getting away from my desk makes me more productive when I return and any positive memories of childhood need refurbishing from time to time Since becoming fully vaccinated and acquiring our trusty automobile, which we had named Evie (because the last two letters on her license plate were E & V), we had made it our mission to visit every Chateau and Garden close enough for a day-trip on each of the two days per week that our man Jeffrey is at the apartment at least 4-5 hours.with Mickey to keep him from being too lonely.

We have been very fortunate to have the accommodating weather this Summer and Fall. Almost all Tuesdays and Fridays were mostly sunny, around 72-degrees (20 degrees C), and the skies were as blue as can be, free from pollutants, and often filled with my favorite -- what I call “Magritte" clouds.

We've been astonished to realize that there are so many Chateaux -- the French word for Castles -- within a short distance of Paris, usually taking us through farmlands or forests. Each road reaches a small village overseen by a Chateau that had originally belonged to various members of the King’s Court -- the Barons and Marquis and the other landed gentry from the time of the Middle-Ages through the Renaissance and the reign of Kings Louis the XIV, XV, and XVI. Our Favorites were found little more than 50 km from Paris in various communes, mostly in the Department of the Yvelines in the Île-de-France region in north-central France.I was hoping that somewhere I would find the Castle of my childhood.


After a visit to the most famous Chateau Versailles, with its endless gardens and a newly refurbished interior accomplished during the Covid closure, we also found the expansive park and the treelined walks on the grounds of the Chateau Marly.



The Marly gardens are so vast, from the entrance we chose, we never did make it to the remaining structure that had been a modest residence for a famous man disinterested in entertaining.


The Chateau Sceaux was for us a previously unknown find. Like Versailles, the Gardens were the work of Le Notre and the water element running in three directions from the Chateau were awesome, to say the least.



As you can probably guess, although the interiors of nearly all the Chateaux were luxurious, newly renovated, and sparsely visited during the weekdays, (especially with the shortage of tourists), we were most enthusiastic about walking through the gardens with their flowers, trees, statuary and water elements in the form of ponds, canals, moats, fountains, rivers and lakes.There were benches and grassy areas for lounging or even picnicking, and the oxygen was plentiful. Without a soul to be seen within these many hectares of parkland, we walked un-masked to our hearts delight. On one of our sojourns, we finally made it to Chateau Fontainebleau in the Department Seine-et-Marne, a long awaited visit to

one of the largest French royal châteaux. This medieval castle and subsequent palace served as a residence for the French monarchs from Louis VII to Napoleon III.




Next came our visit to the wonderful Medieval Chateau Rambouillet, located quite close to the Cathedral in the City of Chartres, which we had visited during the Lumières before the Pandemic.This Chateau was originally a fortified manor dating back to 1368. Francis I died there in 1547 and King Louis the XVI took possession of this amazing edifice and its game preserves, known as La Foret d'Yvelines. He even built the Laiterie de La Reine to keep Marie Antoinette entertained.


After a storied history throughout the revolution, the imperial leadership of Napoleon I, and various other owners, in 1944 General Charles de Gaulle made the Chateau his headquarters just days before the liberation of Paris. Ever since it has been home to many international summits including the G-7, and has been the retreat for French presidents and a frequent place in which to entertain heads of state.






It was when we visited Chateau Rambouillet that we discovered a wonderful restaurant with tables by a stream in a garden by a small lake in the forest. This little jewel was called Les Terasses de Clairefontaine.




We also passed by The Chateau and Parc de Dampierre which we visited on our next trip, in part to take advantage of this wonderful restaurant once again before the end of the season! Ah, seasons! They still exist here in France and have been a continuous source of joy and delight for us former Los Angelinos. When we returned on our next trip to visit the Domaine de Dampierre en Yvelines, we found that the beautiful chateau was completely closed to the public and under renovation, having recently been acquired by a private concern that was in the midst of converting the estate into a conference center as well as preserving it as an historic site for the public to visit. However, the gardens were accessible, varied, vast and marvelous to explore. There were Canadian geese, grazing horses and mules, and ponds, lakes, and streams with breathtaking reflections of the clouds in the skies and the trees on the banks of the river, all just beginning to change color, while the flowers remained in full bloom.




The next Chateau on our agenda took us closer to the Renaissance style of the Disney Castle of my childhood dreams, Chateau Maintenon.The history of Marquise de Maintenon is a fairytale come true. Françoise d’Aubigné was the widow of the poet Scarron. She was initially hired to be the governess of the illegitimate children of King Louis the XIV and Madame de Montespan. After several years of devotion to her work, she earned the respect, recognition, and finally the love of the Sun King. They were secretly married. However, their secret was the talk of the Court. The news even reached the Pope, who sent the couple wedding gifts. The story of Madame de Maintenon is one of a governess who became King's wife, and the French know her as the uncrowned queen of France.

This Chateau has some stupendous gardens, and the walks by the riverside lead to some remarkable ruins of the Aqueduct which was in the process of being constructed by the King to bring water to Versailles, but construction was interrupted when the nine year war of the League of Augsburg broke out. In 1695, the King’s coffers were empty and the work on the project was stopped for good.





Next in the line was a slight detour from our usual path to visit a Medieval giant on the top of a mountain. We found ourselves walking up a very steep, switchback hillside in the Department of Oise to visit the splendid Chateau Pierrefonds. This castle is sometimes referred to as Merlin’s Chateau. Actually, Duke Louis of Orléans, the brother of Charles VI, built this fortress at Pierrefonds in 1397 while battling with the Duke of Burgundy for royal power. He thus confirmed his ascendancy and took control of trade between Flanders and Burgundy. The interiors of the Chateau were impressive, restored to their intimidating grandeur, filled with medieval objets d’art,and overlooking the valley and the town with its many lesser chateaux below.





Back on track in the Department of Yvelines, we next paid a visit to the Chateau des Maisons-Lafitte.This Château was built between the Seine and the forest of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, with its garden front oriented to the southeast. Originally it was comprised of the garden, a small park of 33 hectares, and a large outer park of 300 hectares.The Chateau, currently under restoration by the State, is a unique example of Baroque architecture. The interior, bare to the bones except for an exhibition of contemporary photography in the basement when we visited, stood out because of its fabulous and distinct moldings, unlike any other I have seen to date .



Sadly, it appeared that much of the original land and the many lesser manor houses had been sold off, and the stable that housed the horses that played a part in the development of the hippodrome ( at one time incomparable in the region) was demolished. Still, the visit was well worthwhile and we can look forward to visiting once again when it is restored to it’s original beauty. To our delight, we also discovered another wonderful garden restaurant nearby, Les Jardins de Vieille Fontaine. Yum!!




Finally, the trail of French architectural wonders lead us to the piece de resistance, The Chateau of Breteuil, located in the town of Choisel in the heart of the valley of Chevreuse in the Yvelines.


The family’s history, which is closely linked to French history, is now brought back to life by 50 waxwork figures from the Musée Grévin in Paris, each one depicting historical scenes as well as many of Charles Perrault’s Fairy Tales, displayed throughout the outbuildings in in the underground caves.



So it came to be that this Chateau is known as The Fairytale Castle of Charles Perrault , most well-known as the author of Contes de ma mère l'Oye (The Tales of Mother Goose) including Cinderella, Tom Thumb, Puss in Boots, Blue Beard, Little Red Riding Hood, and my childhood heroine, Sleeping Beauty. In the 300 acres of parkland, there is the remarkable Trees Walk, several Gardens, both French and English, a Maze, a playground, and picnic areas. In his book ”In Search of Lost Time”, Marcel Proust described Henri de Breteuil under the transparent pseudonym of Hannibal de Bréauté, with the same initials, H.B.


Two of the most interesting aspects of the history of this Chateau concern historical female figures.The earliest was the daughter of Marquis de Breteuil, Gabrielle Emilie de Breteuil the Marchonese du Chatelet. In her room, we saw portraits of her alternating with those of Voltaire and one of the two together (below.) She was a woman of science in the 18th Century, having been schooled with her brothers by order of her liberal minded Father, and she is most well known for her translation of the works of Sir Isaac Newton from the original Latin into French.



Another significant woman to contribute to this house was Winnaretta Singer, also known as Princesse Edmond de Polignac. She was the daughter of Isaac Singer and was an American-born

heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune. She used her inheritance to fund a wide range of causes, including a musical salon where her protégés included Debussy and Ravel performed, and numerous public health projects in Paris where she lived most of her life.


Singer entered into two marriages that were unconsummated, and openly enjoyed many high-profile relationships with women. Even so, her 'lavender marriage' to Edmond Polignac the composer was one of mutual respect, friendship and affection. They shared their love of music and the arts, and she supported his career as a composer, just as he encouraged her talent as a painter until his death (See the self-portrait of Singer to the left.) To tell her story would be worthy of a piece on its own, but suffice it to say that her vast contribution to the restoration of this Chateau before and after her death in 1943 was surely seems to be a significant factor in its continued ownership by the Breteuil family to this day.


Finally, I will end this scenic post, seated at the exit from the caves underneath the fantasyland that is the Chateau de Breteuil, by returning to the place where I began -- with Disneyland and the beloved fairy tales of my childhood. Here, in my newly adopted country -- At Home and In Paris -- I have discovered a new kind of "theme park" where one can spend a good long retirement enjoying the magnificent art and architectural museums housed within and composed of the chateaux with their gardens,forests and welcoming villages that surround them throughout all of France. I feel so lucky to be able to savor the beauty of French history as it lives and breaths once again in each castle, fortress, and garden.


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