Where to go Instead of Versailles

My little French secret?

Versailles isn’t worth it.

When all the tourists pour into the golden castle of our history text books, they leave ample space in Chantilly for me, and now you.

Lured by the promise of a fairytale-esque moat and sparse tourists, my mom and I visited Chantilly with high hopes.  Located just 45 minutes away from Paris, the quaint yet elegant town of Chantilly offers a delectable sampling for everyone: spacious parks, a romantic château with a politically fascinating history, delicious cream, and extremely pampered horses.

Oh yes.  Horses.  But we’ll get to that.

After the quick train ride from Gare du Nord, my mom and I arrived in Chantilly, and for the first time in weeks, I breathed fresh air one simply cannot find the the smothering city of my beloved Paris.  It was immediately clear that the town was not lacking in greenery, and given the lovely weather, we decided to walk to the castle. Clear printed signs and maps guided the way along a tree-lined path towards an expansive green field, where we came across an enormous, regal building.  At this point, my mom and I believed we had spotted the castle. “It’s gorgeous,” my mom remarked.  “Not quite what I had imagined, though,” she continued, her brow furrowed.

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I agreed.  Something felt undeniably “off.”  Perhaps the abundance of horse statues tipped us off.  Or maybe the horse-decorated gates.  The horse-engraved exterior walls seemed rather curious as well.  Eventually, it dawned upon us: No, no this wasn’t the castle.  We had simply arrived at the stables housing some of the most pampered horses in the world.  Apparently, Chantilly is the equestrian capital of France and home to a world famous racecourse, where they host the annual Prix de Diane for the horse racing elite all over the world.  Chantilly is also home to the Grands Écuries (Great Stables), which contain the Living Museum of the Horse.  Who knew?  (This is what happens when you don’t do your research ahead of time).

Allegedly, previous owner Louis Henri, Duc de Bourbon, Prince of Condé believed he would be reincarnated as a horse after his death.  Alors, he insisted architect Jean Aubert construct stables suitable to his lofty rank.  Obvious choice, no?  At least our mistake is a little more understandable.  We may not have found the castle, but we did find stables fit for a king.

What to Expect When Visiting Chantilly:

What you’ll come to realize by reading my blog posts is that I enjoy the quiet moments of travel.  The corners where the air is thick with memory, and history glimmers in the fading sunlight.  And, unlike the tourist-infested Versailles, we have yet to mar the Chantilly experience.

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The Musée Condée: home to the largest collection of artwork (after the Louvre)

Beyond the stables and at first hidden from view: le château.  No worries, we found it.  Within the castle walls you’ll find the museum, which contains paintings and manuscripts dating back to the 15th century.  The collection even includes Raphael’s infamous The Three Graces.

Keeping guard
Keeping guard

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You may also wander through the decadent hallways to view their private apartments, decorated with 18th century furniture, providing a sweet, luxurious taste of this opulent lifestyle.

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But for me, forever an English major at heart, nothing compared to the library.  Home to 17,500 printed volumes, the collection may not seem as impressive as the Trinity Library of Dublin, but it will certainly leave you breathless.  Because (I swear I’m 22) the scent of a musty book is one thing–the scent of thousands could bring me to tears.

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Breaking with tradition

The hallways of Chantilly made me pause.  Never before, in all my traveling, have I come across stained glass windows quite so stunning.  What they lacked in color they made up for in their rarity.  In contrast with tradition, the artist utilized 44 pieces of grey stained glass to depict the ancient Greek mythological love story between Cupid and Psyche.  He then interspersed grey with dashes golden hues, enameling a maiden’s flaxen hair, horse’s mane, or sunlit scene.  They compelled me, and in a rare act of patience, I examined the images and corresponding stories of every last window, dragging my feet from one end of the corridor to the other.

Gardens to get lost in

French and English gardens alike couple man-made art with nature in a truly astounding way, and Chantilly is no exception.  Statues alongside flowerbeds, sculpted trees lining the flowing river–it all seeps together in the garden.  It’s neither man nor nature, but wholly and apologetically both, and more beautiful because of it.

domaine de chantilly vue aérienne- copyright J.L.Aubert
Photo Credit: Domaine de Chantilly Website

So go, explore the meadows and admire elegant statues spotting the land, including the Temple of Venus and the “Island of Love,” (it sounds better in French), home to the statue of Eros.

A sampling of cream and lace

Finally, at the end of a long day of touring, sip a steaming mug of hot chocolate with the cream this town is known for. A trip to Chantilly would not be complete without it!

See Versailles, Experience Chantilly

To be fair, even the tourist-crazed Disney-like extravaganza of Versailles retains some moments of authenticity.  Still, sometimes, if we concentrate, we can occasionally glimpse in the November mists an 18th century powder-wigged man strutting along with self-importance and an unhealthy appetite for indulgence.  Or a lonely, zealous queen, craving sanctuary in her Hamlet.  The moments still exist, but they grow rarer and rarer with each passing footstep through Versailles.  For now, Chantilly, although undoubtedly a “destination,” has retained its character.  This past spring I wandered along the wildflowers, passed farm animals, and watched the meandering river float on towards the castle.  45 minutes passed before greeting another tourist.  That, to me, is why we travel.  Not to see, but to experience.

Photo Credit: Domaine de Chantilly website
Photo Credit: Domaine de Chantilly website

See the gilded, glorious castle of Versailles.  See it and understand the prestige that inspired the bloody French Revolution.

And experience Chantilly, a castle of wonder and beauty, a place yet to be ruined, and a constant reminder of the unique culture and complicated French history–without the tourists of Versailles by your side.

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