Vaux-le-Vicomte is magnificent: a glorious, vast château standing in its own impressive grounds south-east of Paris near Melun. Built of warm yellow stone, it was designed by the architect Louis le Vau for the charming, politically astute Nicolas Fouquet (1615-1680), the powerful Superintendent of France for Louis XIV. Today it's owned and run by the de Vogüé family.
Nicolas Fouquet was a colorful character who, to his detriment, overshadowed his master, the Sun King. His great masterpiece, the château of Vaux-le-Vicomte would prove to be his undoing.
Vaux-le-Vicomte is picture-perfect, so it's not surprisingly been used for various films such as The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas. (History and literature fans should make the trip to his house, the Château de Monte-Cristo, just south west of Paris.)
With easy access from Paris (55 km and a short train ride), a restaurant, extensive shop, superb gardens, events and a particularly child-friendly atmosphere, Vaux-le-Vicomte makes an ideal short trip from the capital.
Your Visit to the Chateau
You approach the château with its surrounding moat down a long graveled walkway. At first, it’s the sheer beauty of the warm stone buildings that catches your attention. Then you take in the gardens that spread out beside and beyond the buildings. Approaching, you realize that you can see the gardens through the front entrance rooms which were originally open to the elements.
Wildly Ahead of His Time
This is just one of the remarkable innovations that the architect Louis Le Vau introduced to make a 17th-century masterpiece. He rejected the former architectural style of a single set of rooms running from one end to the other with its lack of privacy as people walked through each room to get to the next. Instead Le Vau designed the house with double rooms running from the entrance room and the oval salon to either side. To the east were the King’s rooms (in an era when the King traveled frequently, every aristocrat had to have apartments ready for a royal visit); to the west Fouquet’s.
The visit is a walk through the high fashion of the 17th century. You see suites of rooms such as the King’s set of three rooms. There’s the buffet room where meals were served with a table covered in magnificent serving dishes and glasses – a daring new idea at a time when no dining rooms existed. You see superb bedchambers, walls covered in priceless tapestries, beds, and furniture of the richest and most ornate kind. Not an inch goes undecorated. The ceilings, along with some of the walls, are decorated in classical style, with buxom naked women depicted as Muses, allegorical figures, and strange mythological beasts. In Fouquet’s Bedchamber, the ceiling painted with sun-related imagery around Apollo bringing Light to the World was later to be found at Versailles.
There’s a library, vestibules, grand staircases to make a sweeping entrance, and salons to receive visitors in. It’s all decorated with gilt and red velvet, superb furniture and a remarkable collection of paintings by the artist Charles Le Brun.
Watch the Restoration
One of the great rooms, the Chambre des Muses, has a ceiling depicting The Triumph of Loyalty. Painted in oil on canvas by Charles le Brun, it is currently being restored and will be complete in June 2017. The restoration is taking place in situ, behind a transparent plastic curtain so you can see the restorers at work – a rare chance to watch the skill and care restoration takes. Its estimated cost is €450,000 and is been entirely financed by Alexis Gregory, an American businessman who is also an art collector.
Watch the restoration here.
See the Kitchens
Go down to the basement kitchens which give some idea of the organization needed to feed the grand guests.
The Magnificent Gardens
The whole estate covers 500 hectares (1,235 acres) and it's surrounded by 12.8 km (8 miles) of walls. Walk out onto the south terrace and you see the formal gardens laid out in 40 hectares (100 acres), designed by André Le Nôtre who worked in collaboration with Le Vau. The gardens here predate the spectacular ones he designed for Chantilly, Fontainebleau, and Versaille. The gardens are one of the glories of the French formal style of designing and planting with elaborate flower beds intersected by paths. Walk the length of the lawns down to the Grand Canal, taking in the different views, the formal plantings, the lakes, and flowerbeds. Or follow one of two special itineraries that take either 45 minutes or 1 hour 45 minutes. If you’re in a hurry, tired or just want to see everything, take a golf cart and drive yourself around. At times the fountains play, worked by gravity and a formidable engineering work which is manually operated. The vistas continue up to a hill where a colossal statue of Hercules dominates the scene.
If you can, plan a visit on a summer evening, when 2,000 candles light up the gardens and house, just as they did on August 17th, 1661.
The Carriage Museum
The carriages and model horses bring 17th-century travel to life with plenty to keep children happy.
Château de Vaux-le-Comte
Tel.: 00 33 (0)1 60 69 90 85
Location By car: 55 km from Paris by A6 or by A4 then A5b
5 km from Melun
Trains leave Paris Gare de l'Est hourly on Line P (direction Provins) to Verneuil l'Etang train station taking 35 minutes. At Verneuil, there is a regular shuttle bus to the chateau (10 euros return).
Check travel details and timetables here.
Open 2017: Daily March 25th to November 10am-6pm.
Special Christmas opening times (2016): November to December 31 weekends and school holidays 11am-6pm.
Closed: December 25th
Admission Château and Garden and Carriage Museum: Adult 15.50 euros, 6-16 years, over 65 years, students, 13.50 euros
Family ticket (2 adults and 2 children) 47 euros
There are candlelit evening visits every Saturday from May to October which are entrancing. The house and gardens are lit by 2000 candles as you step back in time.