The Cream of Chantilly

The Cream of Chantilly

It may be noted for the lace and cream, but it’s the house and gardens that are easiest on the eye. Eleanor Fullalove heads straight for this rural retreat in Picardy when the hustle and bustle of France’s first city gets too much…

You might have heard it said that there are more dogs in Paris than people. Well, just over 20 minutes away by train is Chantilly, a town where people appear to be outnumbered by horses. Even before I’d visited the local Musée Vivant du Cheval and lost count of every equine that had been painted, sculpted or paraded, I was greeted by Black Beauty in the lobby of my hotel – a floor lamp standing 16 hands high.

However, the main attraction in Chantilly is the château, home of Musée Condé and a collection of fine artworks to rival the Louvre, covering the walls from parquet floor to painted ceiling. Amongst them: three Raphaël, three Fra Angelico and three Delacroix… the Duke of Aumale, who inherited the château in 1830 from the last Prince of Condé, was quite the collector, with a keen eye for both paintings and books.

The galleries span more than a dozen rooms and even the Duke’s dining room (now the Stag Gallery) has been taken over by tapestries. Then, there are the Grand Apartments, ceremonial rooms used by the Princes of Condé, all painstakingly restored. But, of course, the work is never ending on a property like this, so there’s every chance that you too might come across someone repainting the panelling in the corner of a room, completely absorbed in the delicate task at hand. In the Music Room on the first floor is more of the white and gold rocaille woodwork typical of the 18th century.

As for the Monkey Room, it is covered with intricate murals of monkeys and Chinese maggots… a design that was considered très chic à l’époque. More surprises, like the chapel with its marble bas-reliefs and stained glass windows, were only just around the corner. The château’s impressive split-level library houses a beautiful collection of rare books, including many illuminated manuscripts, brought together by the Duke of Aumale, who set out to acquire the most precious works available, money no object. Even compared to the ceremonial rooms, there were a lot of gilt edges on display in here. And yet this museum was quiet and peaceful – not a crowd or a queue to be found. But perhaps people were simply spread out…

The château reflected in the water mirrors of the Grand Parterre (designed by André Le Nôtre, gardener of Versailles) is far bigger than it looks within a park so vast that electric voiturettes are indispensable. Or at least they are for those who don’t have the luxury of a whole day to explore every inch of the 284 hectare estate, maintained by a team of 14 full-time gardeners. Sadly, large parts of Le Nôtre’s gardens were destroyed in the Revolution and according to head gardener Thierry Basset, there would have been enough work for four or five times as many gardeners had they survived.

Thierry was waiting for me when I came out of the château and suggested we go for a leisurely drive through the woods of Le Petit Parc where the Princes of Condé used to entertain shooting parties. If the prospect of a VIP guided tour wasn’t exciting enough, there was a crate in the back of the car for his two little dogs. They started yapping excitedly every time we slowed down or pulled over so that Thierry could point out some of the statues hidden in the clearings and explain the most important aspects of his work, a role he sees much like managing an historic monument – all about preservation and balancing history with environmental demands.

Obviously, the need to be ‘green’ is key when it comes to looking after what is left for future generations. So with this in mind, different species of tree have been planted to help protect any single one from succumbing to disease. Pesticide is used sparingly and whole herds of sheep are brought in to keep the grass down. The wild flowers are doing their job too, attracting all kinds of insects and encouraging other wildlife – bird watching is a popular pastime.

It’s not hard to see why Thierry enjoys his work. “It feels like being in another world,” he told me. Yet he’s not overly protective of it – in fact, he and his team are keen for visitors to make the most of what they’ve achieved. “I want people to walk on the grass – it’s the ambience that is important,” he explains. This is why you’ll find wide paths mown all the way around the Île d’Amour with its trellis gazebo and statue of Eros – perfect for couples enjoying a romantic walk together in the Jardin Anglais. Visitors are positively encouraged to stay for a picnic, take off their shoes and feel the grass between their toes. There is even the occasional concert on the lawn. It’s accessible, natural, just as it should be. These gardens weren’t designed for a king, after all, but for Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Condé, and his successors.

Most visitors will end the day at the hameau, a group of five rustic cottages located within the Jardin Anglo-Chinois. When the sun is shining, you can stop and buy an ice-cream with that all important ingredient – Chantilly cream – on top!
Within walking distance of the château and its grounds is the new improved Musée Vivant du Cheval. As I went in, a couple of horses came out for some exercise in the park. The sun was shining and the riders were joined by several joggers, who were treated to the smell of freshly cut grass being wafted by the strimmers buzzing over the racecourse opposite.

The Grandes Écuries (stables built for the seventh Prince of Condé) are located at the entrance to the museum, so I couldn’t resist the chance to nip in and say a quick bonjour to Picasso, Orphéo and co. with their pretty coats and plaited manes. Next door, the Musée Vivant du Cheval was recently transformed with the addition of audio-visual and interactive presentations. There are 15 rooms with different themes, such as the Battle Room, the Hunting Room and the Saddle Room, where comfy velvet saddles and ornate antique stirrups are displayed. Meanwhile, the Racing Room is used for items including a carriage and a selection of prizes, while the Jockey Room contains a weigh-in table and chair.

The vases, mosaics and other paraphernalia – decorated with horses of all shapes and sizes – have come from across the world: America, China, Greece, Italy… There were some fascinating French stories too, about the tens of thousands of horses and mules used to pull carts and carriages around Paris before motor vehicles, for example, and how feeding them (and cleaning up afterwards) caused real problems. Surround sound, film clips and models helped bring it all to life with one small boy having to be dragged away from the display case full of metal toys.

At the end of your visit, you may be lucky enough to see an equestrian show, parade rehearsal or training exercise in the dome with riders demonstrating skills acquired in the highest form of equestrian training in France. By the time the Iberians, Lusitanians and Pure Spanish Horses left the ring after performing for me, there was no doubt in my mind that Chantilly deserves to be just as popular with humans as horses – fine art and whipped cream are wasted on them.


Chantilly Tourist Office, 60 Avenue du Maréchal Joffre.
Tel. +33 (0)3 44 67 37 37

Domaine de Chantilly

This article first appeared in issue 102 of FrenchEntrée Magazine.

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