Spring is definitely sprung here: the signs to be seen are all around, from the bank of daffodils bordering the new path round the hippodrome, to the blossom on the Norwegian maple trees outside our 3rd floor windows. I’ve seen some of these things before as a visitor, it’s true – in fact I’ve spent 3 out of the last 4 Easter weekends in Saint Cloud, but I don’t think I was appreciated how beautiful spring is here until my first season as a local.
A visit from my sister recently gave me an excuse to do some of the many touristy things to be done here – and to learn a bit more about French history in the process. As it turns out, there is no shortage of chateaux to be seen in our part of Ile de France…
Most of it was burnt down in the Franco-Prussian war, and only a few outbuildings are left, but there’s still a lovely park with gardens to visit, which offer an impressive view over Paris. The chateau had an illustrious history: originally owned by an Italian banking family, Henri III was assassinated here by a monk called Jacques Clement. After that, Louis IV’s brother the Duke of Orleans (known simply as ‘Monsieur’) bought it. He had married none other than Princess Henrietta of England, daughter of Charles I (also granddaughter of Henri IV). She didn’t live very long though, and died here at the age of 26 amongst rumours of poisoning. Later, the chateau was bought by Louis XVI for Marie Antoinette, who extended it and furnished it with the latest fashions. (I agree, there does seem to be a bit of an unfortunate theme here… ) Finally, Napoleon took a liking to it and set up residence there, and it was there in 1870 that Napoleon III declared war on Prussia, leading to the chateau’s final demise…
2. The Chateau of Saint Germain en Laye
I was excited about seeing this chateau, the home of Francois I (contemporary of Henry VIII and as significant a figure in French history) as I had read some novels which covered the period, and seen the outside on a couple of occasions on my way through Saint Germain en Laye. Imagine the disappointment when my sister and I arrived bright and early expecting to step back into the 16th century, only to discover that the National Museum of Archeology has occupied the building since 1867! And indeed we have Queen Victoria to thank for the fact that the building was not knocked down at that time, as it had fallen into ruins. Her interest in it stemmed from the fact King James II lived there for 13 years whilst in exile, by all accounts in not very hospitable conditions. Anyway, we paid 5€ to enter the archeology rooms and spent an hour or two amongst paleolithic tools trying to imagine the splendours of the past.
(The chapel where Francois I got married is no less impressive for hosting some additional archeological finds, and very reminiscent of the Sainte Chapelle, by the same architect…)
3. The Chateau of Rueil-Malmaison
This last was where we started out actually, as it happened to be the only chateau open on a Monday when our sight-seeing started. This is the chateau that Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon, bought and renovated, and was subsequently the headquarters of the French government while Napoleon lived there. (Wikipedia tells me Napoleon was ‘furious’ with Josephine for having bought it with his money while he was away, a fact not mentioned on the audioguide…) In size it is pretty small for a chateau, more like a stately home, but lavishly furnished and the gold on the painted dinner sets is dazzling!
And so now fully chateau-ed out, we felt we had earned tea and waffles on an unexpectedly sunny Rueil cafe terrace…