Voltaire's Chateau in Champagne
The charming Château de Cirey sits comfortably in the lush countryside of the River Cirey valley in the Haute Marne department of Champagne. To one side there’s a large farm with red brick outbuildings and a gated entrance. To the other stands the warm yellow stone building where Voltaire spent 15 years with his lover and friend, the highly educated and beautiful Emilie du Châtelet.
The château is a relatively modest building, suitable for the French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher who escaped possible imprisonment in 1734 after publishing Letters On the English Nation (Lettres philosophiques). The book criticised French institutions and compared them unfavorably to the more enlightened English model, forcing Voltaire to flee from Paris. Emilie du Châtelet offered him a refuge in the countryside at her husband's château. The friendship became an affair, apparently approved of by her husband who occasionally also stayed there.
It wasn’t the only time Voltaire fell foul of the authorities. He had been forced to flee to England in 1727 after a dispute with a major aristocratic family and lodged in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden to be near his English publisher. It was a crucial time for the Frenchman. He was welcomed by the English noble families and studied Britain’s political system. Constitutional monarchy was a far cry from the French absolute model and it was this that got him into hot water later in France.
Emilie was the perfect intellectual counterpart to the writer who produced over 2,000 books and pamphlets as well as Candide, his best known satirical novel. She was fluent in Latin, Italian, Greek and German by the age of 12, and was taught mathematics, literature, and science. It was an unusual upbringing even in the Age of Enlightenment, and she became known as a mathematician, physicist, and author. Her greatest achievement was translating Isaac Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy adding a commentary. It is still the standard translation in France of the seminal work.
Visit the Chateau
Voltaire fell in love with the château as well as with the mistress and while living here set about improving and extending the building. A gallery was added and a flamboyant doorway that looks onto the main entrance.
The first room you see, the hallway, is small. Cold even in summer, it's a plain room with stuffed deer' heads on the wall just like any country estate. The rooms you walk through on the ground floor are beautiful, their polished wooden floors gleaming, the furniture suitably grand, and the tapestries providing both warmth in the winter and grand pictures of biblical scenes. But it’s the details that catch your eye: instruments used in scientific experiments; devices to interpret Newton’s theories on energy; an elaborate china jug used especially for hot chocolate; a pretty dog basket; lavish table settings, and grand flower arrangements. And it’s the feeling of intimacy, of being in a real house belonging to real people, albeit now the ghosts of the past, that makes the château such an attractive place to visit.
The Kitchens of Voltaire's Chateau
The kitchens, in the basement of the château, could have come straight from a film set. A vast fireplace big enough to take a whole lamb revolving slowly on the spit; a huge cast iron kitchen range, heated by wood, to cook vegetables, boil water, warm dishes and heat the little irons that kept the clothes of the very fashionable lady of the house crease free. Hams hang from the rafters; bunches of herbs stand in pots by the sink; pots of jam stand on shelves, a cold cupboard is full of cheeses.
You can almost feel the heat from the fire and hear the voices of the staff and the clatter of the brightly polished copper pans as the cooks prepare the game pies, roasts and elaborate dishes fit for the feasts that the guests enjoyed in the dining room upstairs.
The Private Theatre in Voltaire's Chateau
Go up a narrow staircase to a room under the roof and you come to what was Voltaire’s passion: his private theatre where he could first direct and then watch performances of his plays. It must have been great for Voltaire, but quite an ordeal for the actors. Voltaire sat in a box set half way up the wall, ready to descend at any time to remonstrate with the performers who were his friends. It’s a wonderful space with a tiny stage, showing, when I was there, the inside of a country cottage with a wooden table and chairs and a back window looking out onto a forest.
The bucolic Park surrounding the château stretches into the distance. It all seems far from the 21st century with its gently flowing stream and fields of contented cattle. The only modern touch is the iron sculpture of a man standing looking seemingly two ways.
It's the perfect place for a picnic, so stock up in the town you are staying in and make it a proper visit.
Practical Information on Voltaire's Chateau
Château de Cirey
33 rue Emilie du Châtelet
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 25 55 43 04
Guided Tours only
July, Aug in English: daily 2.50pm, 5.05pm 5.20pm
May, June, Sun afternoons and bank holidays
Sept Sun afternoons (tours in French)
July, Aug daily 2.30pm-6.30pm
May, Sun, Sun afternoons and bank holidays
Sepy Sun afternoons
Chateau: Adult €8, 10 to 12 years €4.50; under 10 years free
Park Adult €3; under 18 years free
How to get to Cirey
Cirey-sur-Blaise is on the D2 between Doulevant-le-Chateau and Juzennecourt.
The village is 16 km (9 miles) from the village of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, known for its associations with Charles de Gaulle. So make a day of it and visit the following as well
- The country home of Charles de Gaulle, a delightful small house full of gifts, both beautiful and quite hideous he was given during his time as President
- The Memorial Museum to Charles de Gaulle, which tells the story of the great man as well as showing World War II and its consequences for France and the European Union
Where to Stay
- Read guest reviews, check the best prices and book hotels in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises with TripAdvisor
- Read guest reviews, check the best prices and book hotels in nearby Chaumont with TripAdvisor
More Information on the Region and the Department
Champagne Region Tourist Board has information on the region. You can find downloadable maps, brochures, circuits, trails, and short break suggestions on the website
Haute-Marne Tourist Board for more information on the department.