An Hour from Paris: the Beautiful and Tragic Château de Vaux le Vicomte

An Hour from Paris: the Beautiful and Tragic Château de Vaux le Vicomte

I headed to Vaux le Vicomte on a rainy Monday with my French host family, and if I were a Lonely Planet guide I would proclaim it to be, “The perfect day trip for those who tire of the crowds at Versailles and Giverny.” (Ahem, me.)

And while the château is opulently beautiful, its most interesting feature is its dark history.

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Nicolas Fouquet, minister of finance to Louis XIV, bought the château in 1658. He commissioned the legendary trio of architect Louis Le Vau, landscape architect André le Nôtre, and painter-decorator Charles Le Brun to carry out construction, and they spent four years meticulously building one of the most lavish countryside estates France had ever seen.

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To secure the necessary lands for the enormous gardens of Vaux-le-Vicomte, Fouquet purchased and demolished three villages and then hired the 18,000 villagers to build the château.

Once the castle and gardens were finally completed, Fouquet hosted a grand soirée to show off his grand new home and gardens. Naturally, he invited his boss, Louis XIV.

Louis XIV, the Sun King, was a king known for his capricious jealousy. Once he laid eyes on the garden he was so overcome with envy that days later he imprisoned Fouquet for life, arresting him on the charge of “misappropriation of funds.” To add insult to injury, he then hired Le Vau, Le Brun and La Nôtre to begin a new project together – the château de Versailles!

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As Voltaire famously wrote, “At six in the evening on August 17, Fouquet was the king of France; at two in the morning he was nothing.” « Le 17 août, à 6 heures du soir, Fouquet était le roi de France ; à 2 heures du matin, il n’était plus rien. »

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And while the interior of the château is beautiful, the real treasure is the gardens. They are what inspired Versailles, after all.

I was kicking myself because I had only brought my 50mm camera lens, meaning I was unable to get a panoramic shot of what makes these gardens so magnificent- the optical illusion effect called anamorphosis abscondita that Le Nôtre so smartly employed. Luckily Wikipedia claims you can only notice the effect in person, but still.

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So what happened to the château in the end? After years of neglect, it was going to be demolished. But in the late 1800s a sugar baron purchased the estate and spent 30 years completely restoring it. The fifth generation of the same family looks after the castle today.

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When I was leaving the château something really bizarre happened- I stumbled upon a group of Buddhist monks dressed in yellow robes. While to most this would just feel like, well, stumbling upon a group of Buddhist monks, to me it felt like a symbol of my time in France coming to a close and the beginning of a new chapter in Southeast Asia. How’s that for poetic foreshadowing?

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Overall I really enjoyed the château. And you hear this Louie? I think the gardens are even better than Versailles. So there.

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Practical information: 

Château de Vaux le Vicomte

77950 Maincy, France

Tel : +33 (0)1.64.14.41.90 – Fax : +33 (0)1.60.69.90.85
chateau@vaux-le-vicomte.com

Open everyday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed December 25 and January 1. See more information here. Also the château is a pricey excursion at 16 euros per adult, but family, student and senior discounts are offered.

Also, the castle restaurant sells the world’s best salted butter caramel yogurt ever to grace the earth. Get some if you’re there. Yogurt au caramel au beurre salé. SCEA La Ferme du Manège 76640 Hattenville, Normandie. 02 35 96 71 23

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P.S. This is my first post in which I used Lightroom for photo-editing, which I got on a free one-month trial. The trial’s almost up so can you notice a difference or is it not worth purchasing? Merci!

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The Most Parisian Park in Paris, the Jardin du Luxembourg

The Most Parisian Park in Paris, the Jardin du Luxembourg

Spring is an undeniably beautiful phenomenon, especially when you live in Paris. After the long, overcast winter the sun finally shines, the flowers burst open in color and the city-dwellers stroll Paris’ many parks feeling a little… lighter. As I learned this spring, there’s nothing like feeling sun on your face after enduring months of living under eternally overcast skies. (more…)

Adventures in Foie Gras Land

Adventures in Foie Gras Land

So during our whirlwind road-trip down the French Atlantic Coast to La RochelleÎle de Ré and Biarritz, we decided to take a vacation inside of a vacation in Foie Gras Land, more commonly known as the Dordogne.

The Dordogne is one of the many gastronomic heartlands in France, that specializes in foie gras, duck and truffles. (All of which I adore, for your information.) After so much travel, we were all ready for a few days of fluffy beds, relaxation and good old-fashioned gluttony. Let’s not forget- my poor mother drove a rental car from Paris to Spain! (more…)

Life as a Paris Expat

Life as a Paris Expat

When Charles Dickens wrote the line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” he must have been living abroad. In fact, there’s a strong chance he was working in Paris as an au pair.

Over the past year I’ve learned that expat life certainly has its ups and downs, which somehow feel stronger than the vicissitudes of life back home. When things go wrong, it’s extra frustrating- the French post lost your box of summer clothes, you can’t figure out how to unlock your phone and your banker doesn’t speak a word of English (who, ironically, is the one person in France who wants to speak to you in French). And all the while your family’s across the ocean and it can take a long time to set up a network of friends and acquaintances.

Life abroad can get frustrating and lonely very quickly. (And in those moments, god bless Gchat.)

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But the highs are also so much higher. Everything’s new and exciting. What is commonplace to a local, (take for example, going to the bakery each day for a baguette), to you is quaint and so French.

But as always in life, the people are ultimately more important than the place. What I love most about living abroad is the other expats you meet: funny, fascinating individuals from all over the world who are always game for another shot of gin. Who share the same philosophies about life and youth and adventure, and pushing yourself to live live live as much as possible. They’re people with stories more compelling than mine could ever be: engineers and foreign diplomats and journalists working overseas, born in Seoul but raised in Warsaw and London. They’re bankers who dropped everything to be pastry chefs, midwestern girls with big dreams who just wanted to soak up Paris. They get me. I get them.

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In darker moments I feel insecure about my choices, especially in comparison to others back home. I don’t have a steady career or a boyfriend or a lease. (And I definitely don’t have a baby.) And what’s worse? I don’t want any of those things just yet. For now, I just want to be free. I want to drink buckets in the streets of Bangkok and slurp oysters fresh from the French Atlantic. I want to look back and regret nothing. I want to be old and wrinkled and realize that even though I made mistakes in life, I can say, “You know what, I lived.” I may have traipsed around the rues of Paris in states unfit for public eyes and told a French boy to “embrasse-moi” in the middle of the road, but damn it, I lived.

Sometimes I find it strange that while I have no money, but I’ve never been happier in my life. My future’s shaky but I don’t really care. I just want to see and roam and drink and soak up all of the life around me. Because you’re only young once- and sadly, this age is so, so short.

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On most days, I find myself smiling without noticing. I spend most days doing nothing much at all: writing, reading, practicing my baby French and cooking classic French grandmother recipes. I check out new art exhibitions, I write my newspaper column, I drink sangria in backyards. I sip noisettes in cafés as I writes lists for everything I want my life to be.

Which isn’t to say I’m sick of being the help, and frankly my job drives me absolutely insane on certain occasions. (Living where you work and working 6 days a week? Not so fun.)

My next plan is to go to Asia, as you may have read. I have a one-way ticket booked to Hong Kong and I’ll come home when I run out of money. Beyond that, I have no idea where life will take me. That thrills and scares me at the same time, because I have a fear that Chicago will suck me back in and I will go back to my happy but deeply ordinary life. Ideally I would keep living abroad as an expat, learning about the world one metropolis at a time.

I hope this post doesn’t come off as arrogant- it has taken me a long time to get to this point (let’s just say the winter was very long). But for what it’s worth, I’m loving life in Paris and will be sorry to take the next step.

If you enjoyed this post please consider sharing it! Also, I’d love to keep you updated on my adventures in baguette-land and beyond, so feel free to subscribe to Ashley Abroad via RSS or by email in the sidebar.

The Real Cost of a European Road Trip

The Real Cost of a European Road Trip

As much as I adore traveling by train in Europe, there’s nothing like having the flexibility of a car when you’re exploring a new region. So when my mom and sister flew over to Europe to visit me, we decided to renting a car was the only logical option for our week-long trip around France and Spain.

And unsurprisingly, it wasn’t cheap.
(more…)

Getting Ritzy in Biarritz

Getting Ritzy in Biarritz

On my my fairly budgeted French road trip with my mom and my sister, I knew there was one destination where we would have to go all out- Biarritz.

Biarritz is a French resort town known for its glitzy past as a 19th century seaside destination, when it was graced by European royals such as Queen Victoria and American royals such as the Vanderbilts. (more…)

The Only Americans in La Rochelle, France

The Only Americans in La Rochelle, France

When traveling Europe, one finds that English-speaking tourists are quite plentiful in big cities like Florence, Paris and Rome. In Paris especially, us Americans are basically a dime a dozen.

But in the lovely French harbor town of La Rochelle? We were actually kind of a novelty. In fact my mom, little sister and I were the only non-French speaking tourists who seemed to be visiting at all.

La Rochelle, located squarely on the French Atlantic, is a tourist-friendly town known for its 10th century harbor, sea views and oysters.

Considering I had read so much about La Rochelle’s famed oysters, I couldn’t believe our luck when we came across an oyster vendor selling his wares on the cobblestone streets right across from our hotel.

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And for the bargain price of €5.50 for 6 oysters, who wouldn’t want to try?

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The oyster vendor came over with a bucket of bread and butter, as well as a plastic knife, and showed us how to remove the oysters from their shells and drizzle lemon on them. (Actually he was technically just teaching my sister considering I used to work at an oyster bar in San Francisco, ahem.)

My sister slurped her oyster down (which incidentally was her first oyster ever), and sweetly remarked, “They kind of taste like the ocean.”

I later relayed that message to the oyster seller, who nodded his head and sagely responded, “C’est une bonne observation.

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The next morning, we saw La Rochelle in a new light- literally.

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After some wandering, we made our way over to the Sunday morning market. As always, few things in France charm me more than the markets: the black chalkboards scrawled with chalk cursive, the piles of fresh, seasonal vegetables, the locals arguing about how long bread should be cooked. (My vote? Pas trop cuite.)

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And being a port town, there were plenty of my favorite fish up for offer…

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We spent the rest of the morning and afternoon day-tripping to the darling Île de Ré (post soon!), and when we returned in the evening all we wanted to do was some good old-fashioned sightseeing. And when we passed by a Ferris Wheel, we decided to take a spin on it- because where else to better photograph a port-town sunset?

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My little sis and I loved the terracotta roofs paired with the little lighthouses, and the panoramic views of harbor.

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And of course, took some windblown portraits of each other.

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Once our feet were back on the ground, we meandered around the harbor and enjoyed a few last moments in La Rochelle, made golden by the setting sunset.

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After our time in Paris hearing so much English, it was fun to feel special for a few days. And à mon avis, it’s always fun to wander 10th century harbors and eat oysters.

Have you ever been the only of your kind (i.e. American, Australian, etc.) in a foreign city? Wasn’t it fun?