1. Château de Versailles
One of the world’s plushest and most famous temples of monarchic luxury, this vast palace hardly needs an introduction.
Extravagance simply oozes from its hundreds of rooms, which require a full day of appreciation. Stroll the 74-metre-long Hall of Mirrors, where the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, and make like Marie-Antoinette with a turn around the extensive gardens, which are embellished with fountains, terraces and parterres.
In the Vexin National Park, just 30km from Paris, you’ll find the retreat where Vincent Van Gogh, the tortured great master, spent the last few weeks of his life – the most prolific of his career. Many of his best-known works hail from this period, replicas of which are displayed on the retreat’s walls, in the locations where they were created. The retreat’s other former artistic residents include Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne and Charles Daubigny – a museum dedicated to the latter can be found just down the road, as can the Absinthe Museum.
3. Château de Fontainebleau
Another temple of decadence is King François I’s former hunting lodge at Fontainebleau, which dates from 1528. François was a bit of an Italophile and well-acquainted with Leonardo da Vinci, from whom he acquired the Mona Lisa. So it’s unsurprising that the lodge is famous for its architectural approach, which featured the input of Italian architects and craftsmen, who transformed the humble building into a grandiose palace.
Soak up the lodge, château and park, perhaps by horse and cart, before stopping at the salon du thé in the palace’s Orangerie.
4. Fondation Monet, Giverny
Claude Monet wasn’t only a master Impressionist, he was also a green-fingered genius. The wonderful gardens at his former house in Giverny, where the artist lived for 40 years, are an ode to his aesthetic talent. Rose bushes bloom beside lily-padded ponds and Japanese bridges curve over the water, which is overhung by willow trees. It’s like stepping right into one of Monet’s iconic ‘water lilies’ masterworks…
5. Parc de Thoiry
Yes, it’s another château – but in addition to palatial architecture, Thoiry boasts one of Europe’s first-ever animal reserves, which is open as a safari park. Drive the safari trail amid zebras and bears, and come face-to-face with rare monkeys and wild cats in the park’s adjacent zoo.
Renaissance furniture fills the velvet-draped boudoirs of the picturesque castle itself, which has perfectly manicured topiaries surrounding its stone façade.
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