Day Trips from Paris: Le Château de Monte-Cristo
Yesterday’s ‘Indian Summer’ morning provided the perfect opportunity to take a peek into Alexandre Dumas’s home, Le Château de Monte-Cristo, which is situated by the Seine, West of Paris. As the Château sits in the heartland of the Impressionists, I thought that this unexpectedly glorious morning would also provide the opportunity to experience their palette of light and colours in situ. By 9 a.m. I was at the Gare Saint-Lazare, the very train station which served the Impressionist painters 150 years ago, and headed for Marly-le-Roi.
Dumas chanced upon the hilly Port-Marly in 1844, while walking home from Versailles to Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where he had moved to escape the distractions of Paris. Unfortunately, having become the city’s idol, everyone followed him there! He duly offered the local farmer a generous lump of money for the land, then proceeded – at horrendous cost – to turn it into “a miniature paradise on earth”.
The author meant his Château to serve as a secluded retreat, but what Honoré de Balzac called “the most royal bijou residence in existence” was always thronged with visitors, who came to see Dumas’s collection of eclectic furniture, wall hangings and bibelots (trinkets). Reportedly, some 550 out of the 600 individuals who showed up at Dumas’s housewarming on July 25 1847 were gatecrashers.
World of Fantasy
Making my way through the gardens ‘à l’Anglaise’, past grottoes, rockeries, waterfalls and pools, I found myself in front of Le Château d’If, an exquisite miniature storybook castle. This was Dumas’s work space, the one place where he could shut himself off. Never mind that it hardly resembles the real-life Château d’If – the fortified prison off the coast of Marseille depicted in The Count of Monte Cristo. The author’s world was one of fantasy, which carried over to the façades of this little pink castle, which carries the titles of 88 of his works among its proliferation of dainty decorative motifs.
Alas, visitors cannot enter for safety reasons, but Dumas’s room is in full view through a glass door. The desk visible today actually belonged to his son – dramatist Alexandre Dumas fils, best known for the novel and play, Camille. The original desk was sold off the year after Le Château d’If was completed, along with its entire inventory, as Dumas pere had already burnt up his fortune. The whole estate followed suit the year after, although Dumas was able to extend his stay there until 1851.
The pseudo-Renaissance, honey-coloured Château de Monte-Cristo itself looked wonderful against the blue sky. Its façade features portraits of many great writers and philosophers, including Dante, Homer, Virgil and Dumas’s favourite, Shakespeare. Dumas himself appears above the entrée principale, with the motto “J’aime qui m’aime” (“I love who loves me”).
I was apprehensive that the interior would be somewhat empty, but was pleasantly surprised to feel Dumas’s presence everywhere! The house itself is unexpectedly cosy, thanks to its small dimensions and low ceilings – it is a place to live in, not merely for show. The Autumn sunlight flooding the dining room through the French windows was a particular delight.
Journeying from room to room, exploring Dumas’s life, passions and legacy, was much more than a ‘brief encounter’. It was like travelling through the biography of a man brought alive – starting off with his origins as the offspring of a French aristocrat and plantation owner, Marquis Antoine Alexandre Davy de la Paillèterie, and a black Haitian slave, Marie Cessette ‘du mas’ (‘from the farm’). Alexandre’s mix of intense blue eyes, olive complexion and black hair served him well, judging by the portraits on display. And his looks must have impressed the string of mistresses who filled his tumultuous life, not least Adah Menken, the highest paid American actress of her time, who was also exotic-looking and a writer.
The number of children sired by Dumas remains a mystery, but the two whom he officially recognised are conspicuously present in the Château – the aforementioned Alexandre Dumas fils and Marie-Alexandrine, his children by Laure Labay and Belle Kreilssamner, respectively.
Dumas’s literary career is organised by genres, The Three Musketeers taking centre stage among his novels. Dumas wrote hundreds of novels, arousing suspicions which are still aired today, that he was using ghost writers. His numerous plays, some of them adaptations of his novels, could be very lengthy, but people were still willing to queue up for hours and then sit through a play for many more – from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. in the case of Queen Margot.
His personal travels were of the same scale – a trip around Russia led Dumas to North Africa. He returned with a Tunisian artisan who created the Château’s Alhambra-style Moorish room, a gem which was restored in recent times thanks to King Hassan II of Morocco.
Finally, I encountered the gourmet chef who entertained his numerous guests weekly to ‘Dumasian’ dishes. I would be curious to try his omelette aux huîtres (omelette with oysters), or potage de cailles en profiteroles (quail soup with profiteroles), although I am less sure about his stuffed elephant’s feet or fillets of kangaroo, both of which Dumas entered into his monumental Grand Dictionnaire de cuisine. “I wish to finish the 500 volumes of my literary work with a cookery book,” Dumas stated but, sadly, he did not live to see it completed – that task was passed on to his fellow writer, Anatole France, after his death.
Dumas was forced to sell his “paradise on Earth” in 1849, and it subsequently enjoyed several owners, including – to my surprise – the English School of Paris during the 1950s! Earmarked for demolition in 1969, it was rescued by the joint efforts of the Friends of Alexandre Dumas Society and the towns of Marly-le-Roi, Le Pecq and Port-Marly, who bought the estate, restored it and opened it to the public in 1994.
How to Visit the Château de Monte-Cristo
Transport: Bus 10 from Marly-le-Roi SNCF railway station or Saint-Germain-en-Laye RER station to Les Lampes. Open daily April 1 to November 1, 10 a.m.- 12:30 p.m. & 2 p.m.- 6 p.m. Closed Mondays. Sundays only from November 2- March 31, 2 p.m.- 5 p.m. www.chateau-monte-cristo.com
Office de Tourisme du Pays des Impressionistes, 2 Avenue des Combattants, 78160 Marly-le-Roi; Tel: +33 1 30 61 61 35.
Where to Eat
Au Vieux Marly, 3 Place du General de Gaulle, 78160 Marly-le-Roi. Open daily, 12 p.m.-6 p.m. Closed Mondays and during August.
Le Village, 3 Grande Rue, 78160 Marly-le-Roi. Open daily 12:30 p.m.-1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.- 9 p.m. Closed Mondays, Saturday lunch and Sunday evening. Booking essential. Tel: +33 1 39 16 28 14.
Where to Stay
L’Hotel le Parc, 29 Grande Rue, 78160 Marly-le-Roi. Tel: +33 1 39 58 47 29.
Originally published in the December-January 2013 issue of France Today
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