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Strolls through French History by HOLIDAY MAGAZINE & DELSEY PARIS
For centuries, French aristocrats were the trendsetters and
influencers of their time. Today, places that were once the exclusive domain of
the rich and powerful are open to everyone but are still marked by their
legacy. Learning something about the history of the following places in Paris
and its environs will add to your enjoyment of them.
The private mansions in Paris’s fabled Faubourg St.-Germain now house government ministries and foreign embassies, but for many decades (from the 18th century to the late 20th), this Left Bank enclave was the snooty, stylish, self-contained domain of old noble families. Explore its streets (e.g., Rue St.-Dominique and Rue de l'Université) with a volume of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time or a Balzac novel in hand and try to visualize what this aristocratic quarter, once the home of legendary high-society salons, used to be like. Today, there may be more tourists than royal bloods, but the area is still as lovely as ever, with its handsome buildings and famous cafés (Le Flore and the Deux Magots) and the spire of the Saint Germain des Prés Church marking its center.
Created by Philippe Égalité, the Duc de Chartres, as a private garden, this Paris park was long known as "Chartres' folly." A "landscape of illusion," it was home to some extraordinary structures created by the painter Louis Carrogis de Carmontelle, among them a Dutch windmill, a Chinese pagoda, a pyramid and fake medieval ruins. Some of these follies still exist, like the basin surrounded by columns, while others, such as the Renaissance arcade from Paris's original Hôtel de Ville, were added later.
Beginning in 1861, eminent Second Empire families began to build mansions near the park. The area was settled by some of the luminaries of French artistic and literary circles, among them Alexandre Dumas and Sarah Bernhardt. Today, this elegant park is a playground for picnickers, daydreamers and happy children. Within walking distance are some of Paris‘s most fascinating small museums: the Nissim de Camondo, where one
antique-collecting family lived for several decades, a tribute to French decorative arts; the Cernuschi, an excellent museum of Chinese art; and the Jacquemart-André, the preserved mansion of a wealthy couple who collected Italian art.
Parc de Sceaux
The Parc de Sceaux, designed by André Le Nôtre (creator of the gardens of the Chateau de Versailles) is only a short train ride from Paris. This huge park is still home to the Orangerie designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, but the extravagant
festivities introduced by the Duchesse de Maine in the 18th century are long gone. Modestly named "Les Grandes Nuits de Sceaux." these wild parties attracted French high society to the park to ooh and aah at the fireworks displays and opera and ballet performances. Between banquets and costume
parties, Voltaire managed to write Zadig there. Today, visitors can escape from Paris to ooh and aah themselves at the blossoming cherry trees in April, to see an exhibition in the museum housed in a handsome 19th-century château or just stroll around the vast sloping park and admire the fountains.
Pavilion Henri IV
Fun fact: Louis XIV and Béarnaise sauce were both born in the same place: the Pavilion Henri IV, next to the former royal palace in St. Germain en Laye, easy to reach from Paris. The pavilion became a hotel and restaurant in the mid-19th century. Its luxurious setting and fine cooking made it a favorite with the French elite and such visiting royalty as Georges V and Alphonse XII.
Victor Hugo scribbled just a few words in the visitors' book after dining on the pommes soufflées (puffed potatoes), but Alexandre Dumas wrote The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo there. The town’s majestic château is now home to the French National Archaeological Museum. The park, with a fine view of the Paris skyline, is perfect for a post-prandial stroll after eating at the pavilion.
Chantilly is best known to the world as the place where whipped cream was invented, but it was also domain of the Princes de Condé and the site of the first racecourse in France, built in 1833. Since then, the track has continued to host the renowned
Prix de Diane and Prix du Jockey Club races. The aristocratic sport transformed this sleepy town into a magnet for the upper classes, who built villas there and in neighboring towns.
The Duc d'Aumale revamped the town's impressive castle, where his famous guests included Empress Sissi, wife of Napoleon III. Today, attractions other than the races include the museum in the massive château, whose marvelous collection counts a number of masterpieces, including Raphael’s “The Three Graces.” The château’s stately gardens are a peaceful refuge.
Whither the artists, so go the aristocrats. Painter Charles Mozin led the way to this delightful Norman fishing port in 1825 and was followed there by the likes of Camille Corot, Eugène Boudin and Claude Monet. The attractions? Its pristine beach, the
new popularity of sea bathing and a nudge from Louis Philippe I, who was followed to Trouville by his fellow aristocrats.
A casino/theater, opened in 1847, made the town even more attractive to the upper classes, but today, Trouville has
been overtaken in popularity by its close neighbor and rival, Deauville. Trouville is still well worth a visit, however, for the charm of its old houses, restaurant-lined port, picturesque hillside neighborhoods and “new” (1912) casino.
Another Norman seaside resort, Dieppe was the site of a revolution of sorts in 1824 when the Duchesse de Berry waded into the English Channel wearing a long wool dress, accompanied by two lifeguards and the doctor from the town's new hotel. All of French high society followed in her wake, turning Dieppe into a favored destination for aristocrats and other elites.
A few remnants of that golden age still stand, among them the Empress Eugénie-designed waterfront esplanade, the former royal hotel and a small theater. A good time to visit is during the International Kite Festival, which takes place in September every other year, filling the sky over the waves with fanciful, colorful banners. The Musée de Dieppe in the medieval fortified château on the hilltop focuses on the history of the town and has a large collection of paintings, ranging from the 15th century to the present.
Montmorency, in the Val-d’Oise department near Paris, was the favorite country retreat of holidaying aristocrats for two centuries, from the 17th, when Madame de Sévigné fell in love with the renowned Montmorency cherries grown there, to the 19th, when visitors rode donkeys into the orchards to pick their own. Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote of it his Confessions: "This place – not wild so much as solitary – transported me in spirit to the end of the world.”
Bearing the name of one of France’s oldest noble families, the town is still full of wealthy residents. Among its present-day attractions are the 16th-century Flamboyant Gothic St. Martin Collegiate Church and the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Museum, located in the writer’s former home, where he composed many of his books, including The Social Contract.