The magnificent château of Vaux-le-Vicomte near Melun is just a hop, skip and a jump from Paris (or a 35-minute train ride from the Gare de l’Est then a shuttle). At any time of the year the harmonious, yellow stone 17th-century building, set in extensive and beautifully manicured grounds, is a showstopper. But every Christmas for the past 13 years, the château has been putting on its festive cloak, gloriously welcoming you in the half light of winter to an experience you won’t forget.
Rows of Christmas trees covered in twinkling lights border the grand drive that leads up to the magnificent facade, where two larger-than-life toy soldiers stand guard at the front entrance. They give you the clue to this year’s theme. In 2018 it’s time for those vintage toys to be taken out of the attics and put on display here in the largest privately owned château in France.
Resist the temptation to rush up to the front door and instead, start at the Musée des Équipages housed in the old brick buildings to the right. In the Carriage Museum, barouches and broughams, town coaches and phaetons are harnessed to full-size models of high-stepping horses that look as if they’ll move off the instant the coachman blows his horn.
Christmas trees fill the extensive stables; a spinning wheel sits in a corner next to old trunks and cases; sacks of presents beside the coaches wait to be loaded and delivered to excited families; Pinocchio looks at a wall of old tools; sledges stand ready to be taken out into the snowy slopes, and a train from the 1900s that makes grown men sigh with envy, bustles around a 20- metre track.
Inside the château the ground floor rooms are arranged around the vintage toy theme. In the Grand Salon, the central round room of the château, a hot air balloon hovers ten metres above a snowy forest while a bear makes his way through the white trees.
The Bear’s Story Room is full of those favourite toys, all borrowed from one private collector. Some are reading; others are attached to pine trees; yet more climb a library ladder. Take your time; some of the bears are hidden away in the trees and decorations.
There’s a life-size Crèche where all the participants are beautiful, dressed in sumptuous silks and taffetas, wearing luminous green clothes and surrounded by pristine white doves and other fantasies never to be seen in Bethlehem. But this is Christmas so anything goes.
The Music Box has three animals dressed in formal wear playing different instruments. A giraffe pipes away on a small flute; a walrus plays what looks like a French horn; a moose tries his hand at the cello. I found this all rather sinister and Alice in Wonderland-like; perhaps you have to be under 12 to appreciate the surreal scene.
The Christmas Table groans with goodies; it must have taken the servant weeks to prepare. At the end of the tour inside the château, you see the kitchens, where those impossibly huge pies were baked, haunches of venison were cooked on spits turned by small boys sweltering in front of the roaring fires, and sweetmeats were concocted.
You’ll have your favorites, but mine was the room that took me straight back to the Night before Christmas, “when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse”. You can imagine creeping downstairs to look at the Christmas tree surrounded by trunks, parcels and packets. A small boy stands on the table to get a better view; overstuffed red velvet chairs sit by a table laid with exquisite china for teatime, while a small train makes its endless journey around the track.
Huge crackling logs blaze in the fireplace of each room and you’re surrounded by the fragrances of Christmas: cinnamon, orange and honey, all evoking a past that belongs more to a fairytale book than reality. But forget reality; you’re here to enjoy a fantasy.
The fun for families continues outside along a path leading off the main gardens where 60 giant lantern toys take you through the surrounding woods. You’ll see prancing horses, glowing bears and some odd animals on bicycles. Do the walk particularly if you’re with your family as every child between 3 and 12 years old will get a gift at the end.
You’ll probably be too preoccupied by the displays to look properly at the château, but it’s one to put onto your list of places you must visit during the main season. Built over 20 years, it was the inspiration of Fouquet, Louis XIV’s finance minister. Fouquet employed a trio of artists who were already well known in France: Le Vau as the main architect; Le Brun to design and execute the superb décor and painted ceilings, and Le Nôtre to lay out the formal French gardens. But Fouquet, whose emblem of a squirrel you can see everywhere on the estate, had little time to enjoy his masterpiece. In 1661 he invited the young King to visit, unaware that his assistant, Colbert, had been steadily dripping poisonous lies about corruption and wrongdoing into the ear of the King. Fouquet was arrested and Louis, hugely impressed by Vaux-le-Vicomte, employed the three artists for his own piece of vanity: Versailles.
Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte
Tel: 00 33 (0)1 60 69 90 85
Location by car:
55 km from Paris by A6 or by A4 then A5b 5 km from Melun.
Trains leave Paris Gare de l’Est hourly on Line P (direction Provins) to Verneuil l’Etang train station taking 35 minutes. At Verneuil, there is a regular shuttle bus to the château (€10 return).
Guided Coach Tours from Paris:
The big companies such as Viator or PARISCityVISION, offer good day tours from Paris, visiting both Vaux le Vicomte and Fontainebleau.
- 24 November to 23 December
Wednesday to Sunday
11am – 5.45pm (6.45pm on Saturdays and Sundays)
- 24 December to 6 January
Daily 11am – 6.45pm
Closed 25 December and 1 January
Château and grounds:
Adults over 18 years €19.50 euros
Children 6 to 17 years €13.50; under 6 years free.
There is a good self-service restaurant, Le Relais de l’Ecureuil and two kiosks in the garden offering snacks and Christmas specialties like hot chocolate, mulled wine, crepes and more. And don’t miss one of the best château shops in France.