Everyone loves Paris, right? So we are seldom alone while enjoying the beautiful sights of this city. We drown in other tourists as we swarm to the Louvre, Notre Dame, and Versailles — especially in the summertime and early autumn. That is why my weekday trip to Vaux-le-Vicomte was the happiest of surprises. I took the train from the Gare de Lyon to the town of Melun, about 50 km southeast of Paris, then a taxi to the château. (Either arrange for a return pickup with your driver or later ask someone in the museum shop to call one.) Upon arrival, I stepped out into the mid-17th century and, without being jostled by a herd of tourists, my imagination was free to ramble.
Nicolas Fouquet, superintendent of finances for Louis XIV, called upon the skills of architect Louis Le Vau, landscape gardener André Le Nôtre, and painter Charles Le Brun to collaborate on this magnificent structure. The story is told that when Fouquet held a party for the king, the opulence of the château outshone the king’s own magnificence, and moved Louis to arrest Fouquet and confiscate his riches. Scholars say, however, that Fouque had already fallen into disfavor, the king’s attitude egged on by the up-and-coming Jean-Baptiste Colbert who had accused Fouquet of embezzling money from the crown. The king seized almost all of the château’s treasures and sent the trio of Le Vau, Le Nôtre, and Le Brun to oversee the expansion of the gardens and palace of Versailles.
Over the many years, the château changed hands several times, before becoming abandoned for 30 years, falling into disrepair. In 1874, Alfred Sommier bought the estate at public auction and began a labor of love to restore the gardens and buildings — a work carried on by his children.
The original furnishings and tapestries are mostly gone. But what is left is the marvelous architecture and decorative painting, an expansive space without the lines and crowds, I feel as if I’m discovering each corridor and room for myself. The adventure is intimate and personal, as I wander lost in thought.
See for yourself. (And look for Fouquet’s family emblem, the squirrel. Their motto: Quo non ascendet…”What heights will he not sale?”)