Nestled in the countryside near the town of Melun, Chateau de Vaux le Vicomte is located about one hour away from Paris by car. This historic 17th-century chateau built by French finance minister Nicholas Fouquet makes for a perfect daylong excursion for tourists who wish to immerse themselves in French history and culture.
It’s not surprising that Vaux le Vicomte, which took 20 years to build, has been perennially popular with both residents and tourists since it first opened to the public in 1968.
The antithesis to a stuffy museum, it’s a living piece of history to be experienced and enjoyed. Its unique architecture and design set a model for the construction of the Palace of Versailles.
Ten Reasons to Visit Vaux le Vicomte
1) Vaux le Vicomte is a short car or taxi drive from Paris
Tourists to most European capitals tire of crowds and long lines (especially in the heat of summer) so driving through the countryside to a park-like setting can be restorative. This is particularly the case since the pandemic.
Chateau de Vaux le Vicomte is more intimate than other great chateaux, like Versaille. “It’s not so crowded that visitors have to push and jostle for space,” says Parisian tour guide Balwinder Prabhakar.
Remarkably, the chateau has been owned by the same family for five generations (and still houses some family members).
2) The chateau has the first formal French garden, designed by Andre Le Notre
One of the most striking and historically significant elements of the property is its extraordinary landscape design.
Landscape architect Andre Le Notre was key to the design of this project, which includes the first formal French garden with its spectacular symmetry. From every angle and perspective, visitors are able to enjoy another aspect of its beauty that only reveals itself as they stroll along its paths.
3) Transparent north and south portals of the chateau connect visitors with the gardens beyond
French Baroque architect Louis Le Vau (who also worked on Versailles) designed the stately chateau so the approaching visitor could see directly through its arched doors into the breathtaking gardens. Such a design reinforced the harmony between the building and its natural setting.
During the 19th century, these openings were covered with wooden doors for practical reasons. But the family owners have restored this magnificent visual element.
4) Vaux Le Vicomte has the first formal French dining room
Another “first” is that of what may have been the first formal dining room or salle du buffet. Alexandre de Vogüé, one of the family co-owners of the chateau points out that prior to this meals may have even been served in bedrooms.
Here and throughout the home, visitors can enjoy the paintings, sculptures, furnishings and tapestries of the period. Although most of the contents of the house were looted by King Louis XIV, the family owners have gone to great lengths to reacquire significant pieces. French painter Charles Le Brun was the artist and decorator responsible for the original interior design of the property.
An immersive audio guide, synchronized to your walk through the rooms, recounts the interesting history of the chateau.
A spectacular video display (see our YouTube link at the end of this post re-enacts the lavish reception for the King that was held at the property in 1661.
4) The garden-like setting at Vaux le Vicomte is conducive to relaxation
Visits to Vaux le Vicomte are self-paced. You can tour the inside of the residence with an audio guide, stroll outside in the fresh air of the gardens, or even may be tempted to take a nap in the sun.
5) Pause and take a sip at the champagne bar
The beautiful setting, which also houses two restaurants, invites visitors to sit down and enjoy the views.
On Saturday candlelight evenings during summer (which must be booked in advance), guests can sip a glass of French champagne with macarons from the champagne bar, Le Songe de Vaux, as they sit on deck chairs overlooking the garden.
6) The ovoid-shaped dome was a technical feat when it was built
A trip up the spiral staircase inside the dome offers a unique aerial view of the property.
7) Rent an electric golf cart for convenience
Mobility impaired visitors or have teens along on the trip? The grounds are immense. Surrounded by a moat, this is the largest private property in France listed as a Historic Monument that is open to the public. Even walking from one end to the other can take at least 20 minutes. Zipping around on an electric golf cart can be fun and easier on the feet and could be the solution if you are short on time.
largest French private property listed as a Historic Monument open to the public
8) Kids have a blast wearing period costumes
Young children can don period costumes and tour the property with a comedian.
9) Saturday night fireworks are spectacular
The estate has created a spectacular show in honor of the 400th anniversary of Fouquet’s loyal friend, Jean de La Fontaine.
On summer candlelight evenings, guests can extend their stay and participate in magical dinners followed by a fireworks display with more than 2000 candles lighting up the evening sky. These celebrations “re-live” the lavish reception held here for Louis XIV on August 17, 1661, shortly before Fouquet was arrested and brought to trial for embezzlement.
10) On location: You’ll recognize the sites you see from popular movies
More than 70 films were filmed on location at Vaux le Vicomte, including The Man in the Iron Mask with Leonardo DiCaprio. We found this whimsical creature in a visit to the cellar. When you return home, it’s likely that you’ll be able to revisit the chateau on Netflix.
A short but interesting part of the backstory
Finance minister Fouquet was loathed for his extravagant displays of wealth and opulence. He made a big mistake when he threw a lavish party at Chateau de Vaux le Vicomte and invited the King. The King was green with envy at seeing such splendor compared to his own Louvre Palace. As a result, he decided to imprison Fouquet, confiscating the property and then hiring the same architect and landscaper to build Versailles.
The King, the Squirrel and the Grass Snake: Now Streaming on MHz Choice
Until you can visit Paris, watch the story and see the magnificent setting in a now-streaming French feature film!
The King, the Squirrel and the Grass Snake (Le roi, l’écureuil et la couleuvre), a two-part feature film, first aired on French TV. It depicts the history of this incredible chateau and the drama surrounding its first owner, Nicholas Fouquet.
The film is now streaming on MHz Choice with English subtitles. The story begins with the construction of the chateau, showing how it brought together the best architectural, landscape and decorative minds of the period.
When Fouquet (played by Lorànt Deutsch), invites the young King Louis XIV (Davy Sardou) to an over-the-top banquet at the chateau, the King becomes enraged at his finance minister’s flamboyant display of wealth. At the urging of a self-serving hatchet man, Jean-Baptiste Colbert (Thierry Frémont), the King accuses Fouquet of embezzlement. He eventually puts Fouquet on trial and remands him to the squalid fortress of Pignerolles for the rest of his life.
Even if you know the sad conclusion to the story, there are enough twists and turns, along with some romance, to keep you engaged to the end. It might even pique your interest in learning more about 17th-century French history.
*You can watch the two-part film on MHz Choice.
Take an exclusive tour of Vaux le Vicomte on YouTube with co-owner Alexandre de Vogue
See a YouTube Video of the re-enactment of the lavish party thrown by Nicholas Fouquet:
All photo credits: Jerome Levine (Note: Photos of the grounds were taken prior to the latest restoration of the property.
IF YOU GO
An earlier version of this updated and expanded article first appeared in the Chicago Tribune.
COVID – 19 Information (Updated 7/25/21)
- The castle and gardens are currently open Wednesdays through Sundays until October 3, 2021 (closed Mondays and Tuesdays). See more detailed information about opening dates and hours.
- To limited capacity, online reservations are required. Masks are compulsory for children ages 11-18.
- Effective July 21, similar to all other French museums and cultural institutions, European Union visitors will be required to show a valid health pass as well as proof of identity. Other visitors will need to show proof of vaccination with a vaccine approved by the EU(Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Janssen).
- See COVID-19 traveler information from the U.S. Department of State.
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