Just a mere half-hour by train from Paris’s big-ticket wonders – its museums, its bridges, its neverending parade – there’s another world waiting. While over in Versailles, the eager crowds are certain to build once again as tourism returns, here in this secret enclave, grand historic sights beckon that are every bit as splendid, without the madding hordes. This stunning town’s gardens inspired no one less than Marie Antoinette to have her own infamous garden created in likeness; the town’s dedication to all things elegantly equestrian, meanwhile, have seen it dubbed the horse capital of France.
This is Chantilly. The name itself conjures up the decadence of Chantilly lace and thick Chantilly cream, but it’s much more than just the birthplace of these two famous concoctions. The town lies less than 40 kilometres north of France’s capital, in the Parisian basin in northern France, making it the ideal location as a base for a leisurely weekend or more. Aristocratic dandies and bohemian artists alike made it their getaway du jour for much of the 19th century, and it has retained a grace and courtliness about the place to this day.
The intricately gilded walls, impossibly detailed crystal chandeliers and perfect parquetry of the Grand Château most definitely calls up visions of Versailles; don’t miss a stop to marvel at the towering Cabinet des Livres, a two-storey traditional library featuring a truly magnificent selection of historical tomes and illustrated manuscripts. The corridor from the chapel is also a truly atmospheric spot, delicately lit through 16th-century stained-glass windows adorned with the story of Cupid and Psyche, while the Princes’ royal suites in the 16th-century Petit Château are furnished to period. Let your imagination wander a little, and it’s easy to slip back through the centuries to when decadence ruled here.
Outside, the castle’s mathematically manicured gardens are a highlight in themselves, and even more of a drawcard for historically inclined greenthumbs than the castle. Both the castle and gardens are set amongst extensive ponds and lakes, drawn up with incredible precision considering this was a time when aerial views were still the stuff of fiction. The 19th-century English garden and its temple of Venus has most probably since a thousand weddings or more, most probably, while the 18th-century Anglo-Chinese garden marks courtly Europe’s obsession with the East at the time.
However, it’s the French-style formal garden that receives the most attention, designed by King Louis XIV’s own landscape architect André Le Nôtre back in the 1600s – the godfather of the French formal garden at the very height of his powers, who squeezed in this beautiful work in 1663 between designing and building the infamous gardens of Versailles before, and creating Paris’s Champs-Élysées afterwards. Have a bite to eat in Le Hameau restaurant in the grounds, and you are in the centre of the little hamlet that inspired Marie Antoinette to add her little hideaway, Le Petit Trianon, to Versailles’ grounds.
You can explore the grounds – known as the Domaine de Chantilly – on foot, by buggy, by wooden boat, or most specially, on horseback, which is particularly fitting considering one of this lovely town’s main claims to fame. For those wanting to stretch their legs much further, the Chantilly Forest itself, which surrounds the town, is a very popular hiking and nature trail destination for Parisians wanting to take the air. For international tourists, it’s rather a hidden gem, and a literal breath of fresh air when included in an itinerary of sightseeing.
The equestrian capital
Still an arresting and beautiful sight, the Great Stables were once the largest stables in all of Europe. Its 18th-century architecture was commissioned for the king’s cousins, the princes of Condé, and suggests more palace than stable. Its majestic arena now welcomes most visitors to the region to at least one equestrian show during their stay. The ‘haute-école’ art of horse training practised here translates to a grand spectacle of exactitude and seamless human-horse communication.
Since 2013, guests can also learn more about these arts within the stables complex at the fascinating Museum of the Horse; they can even venture out to experience Chantilly’s prestigious and historic racing traditions at the famous Chantilly Racecourse, with the races forming an important part of the town’s life and livelihood since races began here in 1834. This is the biggest horse-racing and -training community in France, with around 100 training stables based in Chantilly.
A beautiful stay
Being so close to Paris, there is naturally a wide selection of accommodation available for visitors, from three- to four-star hotels for the conference set, through to luxury hotels left over from the 19th-century profusion of villas and sandstone-hued townhouses built for the leisurely bourgeoisie. For once-in-a-lifetime opulence, though, it’s the Auberge du Jeu de Paume, part of the always wonderful Relais & Châteaux network, which steals the show.
Fat, soft beds await in 92 perfectly coiffed suites; velvet, flocked wallpaper provides the backdrop for high teas in the afternoon and breakfast amongst the curlicued wrought-iron in the courtyard. And the entire affair is actually set within the grounds of the Domaine de Chantilly, an exquisitely short stroll from the château itself. The Michelin-starred restaurant here, La Table du Connétable, serves lunch or dinner overlooking the lawns and lines of the château’s gardens, and the on-site wellness centre, Spa Valmont, offers both suitably fabulous treatments, as well as an indoor pool, sauna and Turkish bath.
A simple weekend here then a hop back into Paris would be selling your Europe vacation itinerary short. This is the southern part of the gorgeous and rather naturally blessed Hauts-de-France region. There are plenty of forests and hiking areas within reach, as Chantilly is situated within the Parc Naturel Régional Oise-Pays de France. This is also a highly historic area, with the medieval sights and famously cathedral of Senlis just 10 kilometres further, and a trio of history-filled abbeys (Chaalis, Royaumont and Moncel) a little beyond that. When it comes to vacations for families, there are well-known theme parks in the area too – Parc Astérix is the country’s second-biggest amusement park, after Disneyland Paris.