Travel Diary: Paris part 3 – Chateau de Vincennes, and farewell Paris!

In which our heroines are reunited, and discover the most perfect castle that Catherine has ever seen.  And then they go on a Ferris wheel!

August 23rd, written on the train to Rennes

I did, eventually, succeed in escaping Versailles and returning to Paris, where after several laps of the Opera Bastille, I managed to find my friend, freshly arrived from Germany.

By this time, I had over 40,000 steps on my pedometer and I was commensurately tired, so we just had a quick dinner and then headed back to the apartment to recover.

Yesterday, then, we got up in the morning with every intention of having a slow day. After breakfast, we thought we might walk down and have a look at the Chateau de Vincennes.  This walk was interesting, because it took us outside the Boulevard Peripherique, the border of Paris.

There are signs like this all over Paris, but this was one of the few featuring a woman - and a woman explorer, at that!

There are gardens like this all over Paris, but this was one of the few named for a woman – and a woman explorer, at that!

Outside, the houses don’t stop, but one is officially in the village of Vincennes, which has flowers everywhere.

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It also has weird modern sculpture.

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OK then…

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Naturally, it also has the obligatory tree-lined avenue that I have learned is what you do when you are approaching a Royal Chateau.  (This was my third Royal Chateau in as many days, so I could be said to have some experience in the matter.  I am trying to collect the whole set…)

We had intended just to spend a couple of hours at Vincennes and in the gardens, but we simply couldn’t.

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The thing is that Vincennes is – perfect. It is the platonic ideal of a medieval castle. I’ve never seen anything so much like an illustration from a Book of Hours.

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In addition to being a perfect castle, it is also very nearly perfectly empty, even in August, the peak of tourist season.  I can’t understand why – it’s a beautiful castle, it’s on the Métro, for goodness’ sake, and… apparently everyone would rather go to Versailles.  What is wrong with them?

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Vincennes was built by Louis IX in the 13th century, but was traded in for Versailles by Louis XIII in the 17th century.  Why?  I do not know.  But whatever the reason, it does not leave me with a very high opinion of Louuis XIII.  (Incidentally, I forgot to mention when I was writing about Versailles that we were taught a little rhymey thing to help us remember the history of Versailles: Louis XIII hunted in it, Louis XIV built it, Louis XV enjoyed it and Louis XVI paid for it.)

Anyway, after that foolish, foolish monarch, Louis XIII had the very bad taste to move to Versailles, Vincennes followed the usual tradition of Royal castles and became a prison for a while.  I suppose if you make it strong enough to keep people out, it tends to be equally handy for keeping people in.

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These days, the chateau is owned by the French military, thus constituting the best reason I’ve ever heard to join any branch of any military in the world.

I took this photo, because it seems to have been a bit of a thing in old French to write historical bits and pieces in rhyming couplets.  I find this hysterical.

I took this photo, because it seems to have been a bit of a thing in Old French to write historical bits and pieces in rhyming couplets. Some of the examples I’ve seen are pretty hysterical.  My tutor at uni told me off for giggling at a poem about the death of Henry II of England, but it’s very hard to take a detailed description of symptoms seriously when it is all in rhyming couplets and iambic tetrameter.

Like any good castle, Vincennes has a moat – now empty but for nettles, though, as my friend pointed out, this would only make it more painful and fatal to negotiate – and a drawbridge, large courtyards, and a beautiful donjon, which is still in very good condition.

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One can enter the donjon and climb nearly to the top, from which one can see all of Paris – even, in the far distance, a certain tower…

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Inside the castle, one can see the only known ‘office’ of a medieval king, with a virtual reconstruction on an iPad – very high tech.

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In another room, there are gargoyles playing musical instruments including the bagpipes and, I think, the hurdy-gurdy – and you can press a button to hear representative music.

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My favourite part was the chapel, where there is rather wonderful graffiti artwork on the walls.

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We thought at first that the art was the remains of official murals, but apparently the prisoners who were housed in Vincennes painted frescos on the walls to entertain themselves.  In some places, there are bits of poetry also carved into the walls.

We were also able to see where the Marquis de Sade had been imprisonned, and see a copy of a letter to his wife, with whom, surprisingly, he was on very good terms.

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We found that a bit disturbing to contemplate, so we finished our tour of the donjon, and went outside into the bright sunlight to look at the other amazing building at Vincennes – the Sainte Chapelle.

It turns out that the Île de Paris does not have a monopoly on Saintes Chapelles, and this one is of a very similar design and vintage to its more famous cousin. The gothic outsides of the building look very similar indeed, and while this chapel does not have the lower storey, with its beautifully painted ceilings, it does have the towering windows in stained glass.

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This chapel was also built by Louis IX, I believe, but evidently the fashion for red and blue glass was confined to the city chapel, or was perhaps of a slightly different era, as the glass in this chapel was dominated by yellows, golds and clear glass.

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The effect is one of immense light and open, soaring height.  I am not someone who is usually much moved by visual beauty (music, or smells and tastes tend to speak to me more forcefully), but here, I found myself almost crying with joy at the delight and beauty of it all… and this after spending the morning laughing with utter delight at how perfectly, wholly castleish the castle was.

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I love how tiny my friend looks beneath all the towering windows.

And I could hear the acoustic in the chapel, too, and almost hurt with the effort of not singing – I could feel exactly how the sound would flow and where to stand to capture it.  My friend was all for me singing, even if we got kicked out for it, but alas, my repressed, law-abiding Anglo-Saxon heritage came to the fore, and I couldn’t quite bring myself to deliberately break the rules like that.

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I wish I had, though.  It was a truly wonderful space, and singing there would be an angelic experience.

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In fact, they kicked us out anyway, because the chapel closes for lunch at 1pm – but before we went, we had the chance to climb into the choir gallery, and see the rose window up close.

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I didn’t want to leave, ever.

But we had to, so we did, and then we visited the museum shop (I *wanted* to spend money there, because I want that castle to stay open and beautiful forever – and museum shops are the best places to buy Christmas presents in any case), after which we crossed the road to the very French brasserie.

I got to try confit duck, which was amazing – I am finally beginning to understand why people get excited about duck – and then we went back into the castle for another look around the courtyard before walking through and out the back gate into the gardens and the woods to walk and look for waterbirds.

If you look closely, you will see a heron on the island...

If you look closely, you will see a heron on the island…

We had had other plans for the day, but somehow, by the time we escaped the woods it was already 4pm, which narrowed our options…

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But, oh, it was worth it.  We passed a real estate agent in Vincennes, and I did the maths – it’s about as expensive as Coburg, so technically, I could afford to live there, though we wouldn’t have a garden, of course.  Then again, we would have a farmers’ market and the Bois de Vincennes, so we wouldn’t need one…

And one would have ducks, and geese.  One should always have ducks and geese if it is possible to do so.

And one would have ducks, and geese. One should always have ducks and geese if it is possible to do so.

I shall never return to Versailles.  But Vincennes?  Yes, that is worth my time.  And next time, I shall hire a bicycle, so that I can explore that park properly.

From the sublime to the commercial – we went to the Galeries Lafayette, a posh shopping centre which featured in my very first French textbook, but which I have never seen before.  My friend had a perfume orgy, and then we discovered that Pierre Hermé had a shop there, where one could buy his famous macarons.

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You know, if these are, as people claim, the very best macarons in the world, then I think perhaps that I am not a macarons person.  They were very good, and the flavours were interesting (especially the olive oil one, and the rose and lychee), but they were so very, very sweet and so very, very rich, that they were, in the end, not my thing at all.  Which makes me very sad – perhaps I am missing something?  But I think I actually prefer the macarons from Josephine and from A La Folie, right here in Melbourne…

We also bought provisions for dinner and lunch, and then returned to our apartment to eat and to pack.  Oh, I will not miss this apartment.  Note to snoopy landladies of the world: if you must look through your guests’ shopping bags while they are out, you probably should not comment on what they bought…

One thing I have particularly wanted to do in Paris, ever since I started reading all of Laura Florand‘s beautiful Amour et Chocolat books, was see the light show on the Eiffel Tower.  This happens, apparently, nightly, and every hour on the hour.  We planned our route, and packed our bags – but we were footsore and slow, and then there were trackworks, so at two minutes to ten, we dashed out of the Metro at Tuileries and ran like mad to try to see the tower above the trees – just as the lights went out.

Well, we didn’t think it would be right to go home immediately, so we walked around a bit, looked at the Louvre (fourth Royal Palace in/near Paris, so I have officially collected the whole set!), and then started speculating about the giant Ferries Wheel.  After all, we could see the Champs Elysées in the distance (you know, it just occurred to me to wonder, why on earth would you call your biggest boulevard after the Elysian Fields?  This is rather concerning.), we knew Notre Dame must be behind us, and the Eiffel Tower was also ahead of us, in the distance – what would the view be like from the Ferris Wheel?

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It was spectacular.  All of Paris’s famous monuments are lit at night, so everywhere we looked there was something to see – Sacre Coeur, Les Invalides, le Pantheon, L’Arc de Trionphe, Notre Dame, Le Louvre, La Tour Eiffel – it really was wonderful.  Touristy? Probably, but so beautiful we didn’t care.  I could have gone around twice.  My friend, who hates heights but had decided to brave the wheel rather than wait for me safely below, looked as though she was one part delighted with the view and two parts desperate for it to be over.

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Of course, by the time we got down, and found our way out of the fairground, it was a mere fifteen minutes to the next light show, so we passed the time looking for a spot with a good view.  This turned out to be sitting on top of a wall, outside the Louvre, eating Pierre Hermé macarons, which had become a little squashed in my bag, but still tasted excellent.

And the light show? Well, every hour on the hour, the Eiffel Tour begins to sparkle all over.  Just for five minutes, and all in white, as though it is wearing a shimmery dress.  Very tasteful, very simple, and yes, worth staying up late to watch…

… even if one does then have to return home and pack for one’s early morning journey to Mont Saint Michel.  And may I say this – the French *really* love their stairs in the Metro.  I suspect the secret reason why French people allegedly do not get fat is all the stairs in the Metro.  One frequently goes down stairs, then up stairs, then down two more flights, then up again, all in the one station and just trying to get between two lines.

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This is less fun than you might think when you are carrying a suitcase.

But Mont Saint Michel awaits – so it is time for me to stop writing and indulge in the view.

Au revoir, Paris!  À bientôt – je l’espère…

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3 responses to “Travel Diary: Paris part 3 – Chateau de Vincennes, and farewell Paris!

  1. You’re right, Vincennes is stunning.

  2. 1. I’m kind of surprised I hadn’t really heard of Vincennes, but then again it doesn’t seem to be well promoted judging by the crowds in your photos.
    2. I was reading a travel France magazine at the optometrist’s the other day and they were talking about Chateau de Chinon, which I also now want to see.
    3. I am so unbelievably happy that the Ferris Wheel is still going. Way back in 2001 it was one of the tasks at the start of leg 3 of the first series of The Amazing Race. (What? Yes I’m a fan…)

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