Chantilly

On The Road Travel Essays

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Chantilly

The town is popular with visitors for: its cream, lace, horseracing, thick woods, and its chateau. "Chantilly" comes from Cantilius, a Gallo-Roman who built a fortress here when France as a Roman province; the site is thus very old.

The Chateau  A Renaissance-style dreamhouse, built on two islands in a small lake. From the very beginning it has been associated with extravagant eating, drinking, and all the pleasures that French nobles could buy.

The Connetable de Montmorency: This is the man who started work on the chateau that we see today, though it was preceded by thickly fortified castles in medieval times. "Connetable" means "constable," an important position in 16th-century France; the man's name was Anne de Montmorency ("women's" names are used occasionally by men in Latin countries). As constable of France, Montmorency wielded great power — under six successive kings. Through his five sons and seven daughters, he married into the most powerful noble families and even into the royal family. Even Catherine de Medicis, Queen of France, known for her jealousy of people in power, liked him. Why? Because he managed to find a cure for her sterility — thus making possible the birth of a royal heir.

The constable possessed: 600 plots of land ("fiefs"), 130 chateaux of various sizes (not all as big as Chantilly), 4 mansions in Paris, and hundreds of horses. Whenever he came to Court, he had an entourage of 300 courtiers.

In 1528, work began on the chateau. The palace was added on to and altered various times over the centuries, but the Renaissance style was preserved.

Death of Montmorency: This came when France was wracked by wars between Catholics and Protestants. Montmorency was on the Catholic side during the Battle of St. Denis, and the Protestants were determined to get rid of him. But he was physically very strong: it took five sword thrusts, two blows with a pick, and a cannonball in the spine — and he was 75 years old!

Wining and Dining: These were among the major activities at the chateau during the age of Louis XIV. In 1671, Louis and his Court (a total of 5,000 people) came to visit. Special barracks had to be built for the men in the park, creating a small village. Sixty tables were set up in the chateau for meals three times a day. An army of cooks and waiters handled the food arrangements; they were headed by a man named Vatel, who was given the title, "Controller General of the King's Mouth." For 12 days, Vatel was working too hard to sleep. One evening, the roast failed to arrive at two tables; Vatel was so worried he couldn't sleep that night. Next morning, the fish failed to arrive. Depressed and exhausted, Vatel couldn't face this new blow of fate. He went up to his room, put the butt of a sword against the wall, and ran himself through.

The Stables: The "Grandes Ecuries" are as large as the chateau itself. These stone stables were built in the 18th century by the Duc de Conde (Montmorency's later successor). The stable sheltered 240 horses and 420 hunting dogs, requiring dozens of grooms and keepers. These animals were used in stag and boar hunts in the forest nearby. These woods account for the popularity of this location through the centuries, and to the fact that castles were built here in the first place. Noblemen loved nothing more than to hunt — a way to test their manhood and get away from the wife. Thus, they wanted their chateaux, villas, and estates to be near good hunting woods, full of game. The stables are still used today for the racetrack.

Racetrack: One of the prettiest in France. Famous cross-country horse races take place every year in the early fall. Crowds come to attend the starting, with TV coverage and much public discussion of the event. (The "aristocracy" of much of Europe can be seen here then.)

Parts of the Chateau: There are two parts of the chateau: the smaller is called the Petit-Chateau, and was built in the 16th century (Montmorency's original dreamhouse); the larger is called Grand-Chateau, and was built in the 19th century. Inside is contained the Musee Conde, one of the most remarkable in France. When the chateau was bequeathed to the French Academy by the Duc d'Aumale, one of the conditions was that the museum's masterpieces were never to be loaned to any exhibition; thus, we must come to the chateau to see them all. The museum contains: paintings, tapestries, one of France's greatest illuminated manuscripts (the 15th-century Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berri — a Prayer Book), a collection of miniatures by the first great French painter (Fouquet), and, in the Jewel Room, the "jewel" of the collection (literally): a huge pink diamond known as "Le Grand Conde."

Forest  The Parc de Sylvie was designed by Le Notre — who designed the gardens at Versailles. Inside the park is the Maison de Sylvie and the Hameau (compare it to Marie Antoinette's hameau at Versailles).

 

APPENDIX: ADDITIONAL SIGHTSEEING AROUND CHANTILLY

(COURIER: If there's time, take your group to two other sites near Chantilly: Senlis and Royaumont.)

Royaumont  This abbey is important because it gives the visitor a good idea of the splendor of a great medieval abbey. It's important to keep in mind that medieval abbeys (monasteries) were not the sparse, rough, and otherworldly places where quiet prayer and contemplation went on. Many monasteries were, but the great ones were more like palaces. Many of these abbeys owned large tracts of land, collecting rent or a portion of the income from peasant farmers. Sometimes abbeys owned whole towns and cities, thus exercising political authority. The Abbey of Royaumont was one of the great ones, founded in 1228 by King Louis IX ("St. Louis" - the one French king who was also a saint, led a Crusade to the Holy Land), and completed seven years later. Succeeding kings continued to lavish money on the abbey, and members of the royal family were buried here. (Most of the tombs were later transferred to St. Denis.)

In 1763, the Abbot Prevost, author of the popular novel Manon Lescaut, had an attack of apoplexy (a stroke) while at the abbey, and everyone thought he was dead. The physicians started to perform an autopsy, when suddenly the body moved! They thought at first it was a miracle, but it turned out to be a death spasm, and the abbot then died a "second" time. In 1791, during the French Revolution, the abbey was taken over by the state, and in 1869 became the property of a religious order, the Sisters of the Holy Family of Bordeaux. Restoration of the abbey was undertaken, and continued throughout the 19th century. Today, the abbey is a cultural center, where recitals, dramatic performances, concerts, and art exhibits are held.

Interior: The abbey consists of several parts, but the most interesting are the cloister (covered with vines, with a lovely garden), the Refectory (dining hall - the masterpiece of this Gothic building; St. Louis himself served the monks at mealtime, as a monk read from the Bible), and the old kitchen (with arches supported by four pillars, and featuring the statue of the Virgin of Royaumont, 14th century).

Senlis  A very old town, rich in French history. For one thing, it is the "birthplace" of the long Capet dynasty of French kings (a dynasty with several branches). The town started out as a Gallo-Roman fortress built to defend Roman Gaul from barbarian incursions. Gradually, the early Frankish kings chose to live here because of the excellent game in the surrounding woods. They embellished and augmented the fortress and turned it into a palace. In 987, during the Dark Ages, in this palace, the Archbishop of Reims proposed to the noblemen assembled to choose a new king, that Hugh Capet be made "Duke of France." From Hugh Capet sprang the long succession of French kings that ended in 1793 with the beheading of Louis XVI. Over the years, French kings stopped coming here, preferring instead to hunt in the forests of Fontainebleau, southeast of Paris.

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame was begun in 1153, ten years after Notre-Dame in Paris was started. Most of it was completed only 40-odd years later, 1191 — whereas its namesake in Paris went on for several centuries. The richness of Gothic design and ornament make it an interesting place to visit. The facade of the transept illustrates the Flamboyant style, and is more impressive than the main facade.

Chateau Royal, nearby, is even older, but perhaps more interesting is the Hunting Museum a few yards away: housed in an 18th-century building, the museum contains exhibits of horns, hunting costumes, trophies, and engravings of this "sport of kings."

Gallo-Roman Walls surround the Old Town of Senlis. Their foundations go all the way back to the original Roman fortress built here against the barbarians. There used to be 28 towers on the walls, but only 16 remain (in various states of preservation).

(COURIER: You might give your group some free time to explore the walls and the park next to them.)

Old Streets of Senlis: The rue du Chatel is the "main street" of the Old Town. Its most melodramatic moment came in 1789, when a big festival was taking place. The townspeople marched along the street, and among them were members of the various guilds of the city. A member of the Guild of Clock Makers, named Billon, had been convicted of embezzlement and booted out of the guild. As the procession came down this street, Billon took his place at a window in a building looking down. As his former fellow-members of the Clock Makers' Guild trooped by, Billon opened fire with a rifle — killing the drummer, the head of the guild, and various other members. As townspeople rushed into the building to seize him, he held his ground, throwing a bomb at the crowd. He was finally caught, but only after 26 people lay dead, and 40 injured.

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