I love a good castle, especially with furniture inside. (That is the very definition of a good castle. Bad castle= missing one wall, cold, damp, moss and frogs within.) In my lifelong mission to visit every good castle in Europe, we got ourselves on a train to visit Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, 55 miles southeast of Paris. It has a compelling story.
The noble who built it, Nicolas Fouquet, was a man of unstoppable confidence and ego. He was born rich and then married two rich women in a row. At a time when an ambitious zillionaire could buy himself a job, he became the superintendent of finances in 1653 for that proudest and gaudiest of kings, Louis XIV.
Much of the job involved deal-making. Fouquet negotiated with multiple financiers for loans to the crown, and sometimes he had to put up his own money. The records were hard to keep, and a tad confusing. But he still had time to build a pleasure dome just southeast of Paris.
With grand chutzpah, Fouquet hired three huge design stars of the day to create his chateau. The architect was Louis Le Vau, the landscape designer was Andre Le Notre, and the interior designer and artist was Charles Le Brun. Working together, they created a 1236-acre estate, including the 15,000 square foot chateau, which was well gilded within. Like most chateaux of the time, it had a wing for the king, who guested with various bigwigs when he traveled.
But Louis XIV’s first visit was a disaster. On August 17, 1661, Fouquet threw a lavish soiree for the royal guest. Moliere premiered a new play. And fireworks exploded, in more ways than one.
The king was humiliated. He found Vaux-le-Vicomte grander than his own country shack, Fontainebleau. The chateau was too big, too fancy, too golden, too flashy, too over-the-top. To add to the king’s discomfort, his Minister of Buildings, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, suggested that much of the funding for the spread had been looted from the royal treasury by his host, the superintendent of finances. (Though this was never proven. Fake news?)
In any case, two weeks later, Fouquet was arrested and tossed in jail where he stayed until his death 19 years later. Colbert got his job. The king seized the property, and confiscated 120 tapestries, his favorite statuary, and all orange trees. As Louis XIV liked to say, “It is legal because I wish it.” (It has a familiar ring to it, no?)
He then hired the same trio of superstar designers to build him a much larger estate which would become Versailles. His pride was restored.
Vaux-le-Vicomte is now owned and run by descendants of the family who who bought it in 1875. It is splendidly furnished, right down to the 17th century forklift used to move the orange trees. The gardens are so big that we rented a golf cart to see them all.
And what a heart-stopping moment when we ducked into a stone grotto and bumped into three live people dressed for that evening in 1662. Ghosts? No, actors on a break from filming Season 3 of the French television series “Versailles.” The photogenic chateau has starred in 22 movies, including “Moonraker” and “The Man in the Iron Mask.”
But Vaux- le- Vicomte playing the role of Versailles? Louis XIV must be twirling in his graves — all three of them. After his beheading, different parts of him went to different churches. It wasn’t legal, and he didn’t wish it.
(Some photos courtesy of parisinfo.com and weshare.hk)