One of the first times I visited France, I told my friend that I wanted to see a French castle (or in French, a château). He told me, “If you throw a rock, you’ll hit a French castle,” meaning that French castles were basically everywhere. I didn’t believe it, but as it turns out, he was right. Castles are everywhere in France – I can think of 2 within a 15 minute drive from me, and the ruins of 2 more within a 10 minute drive. But not all are created equal. One of the standout ones is the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, located about a 50 minute drive southeast of Paris. It stands out in 2 ways: 1) For its rich history and 2) For its beautiful candlelit evenings.
The History of the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte
The Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte was completed in 1661 for Nicolas Fouquet, the Superintendent of Finance for the young Louis XIV. To transform this massive property into a beautiful estate, Fouquet enlisted the help of some of the best artists of his time: Louis Le Vau, the architect, Charles Le Brun, the painter-decorator, and André Le Nôtre, the landscape architect. Remember these three names, because they will become quite important later.
To celebrate his beautiful, new château and to show it off to the King, Nicolas Fouquet held a lavish soirée on August 17, 1661. No expense was spared – there were elaborate shows with technical advancements of the time, a play debuted by the famous playwright Molière, and topped with a spectacular fireworks show. Fouquet welcomed the King into his home and showed him the most richly decorated room in the château – a bedroom that he had built and designed just for the King. But little did he know, as the King was enjoying this lavish soirée, he was already plotting Fouquet’s demise. One of Fouquet’s competitors, the Cardinal’s private secretary Jean-Baptiste Colbert, had falsely accused Fouquet of embezzlement (though it was the Cardinal himself who was the embezzler 😒), and looking at this ostentatious château and soirée did nothing to allay the King’s fears. Nicolas Fouquet enjoyed being the host of a fabulous evening that literally went down in history, knowing nothing of the King’s thoughts and Colbert’s schemes. The famous writer Volaire wrote, “On August 17, at 6 in the evening, Fouquet was the King of France, at two in the morning, he was nobody.”
Three weeks later, Nicolas Fouquet was arrested, subjected to a sham of a trial for 3 years, and sentenced to life in prison, where he later died. His property was seized by the state and King Louis XIV took Le Vau (the architect), Le Brun (the painter-decorator), and Le Nôtre (the landscape architect) to design the even grander Palace of Versailles. The moral of the story? Never try to outshine the King. 😬
Candlelit Evenings at the Château de Vaux le Vicomte (Une Soirée aux Chandelles)
Every Saturday from mid-May through October 1st (and Fridays in the summer), the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte hosts Candlelit Days/Evenings. From 2pm on, the Château and the surrounding gardens are lit up with over 2000 candles. As the daylight slowly turns into night, the light from these candles becomes more and more dramatic as they make the Château flicker and glow. To top of the evening, there is a firework show inspired by that infamous 1661 soirée. What a perfect way to end the evening.
I’ve visited quite a few castles since I’ve been in France, and my favorites are the ones with interesting history behind them. Château Vaux-le-Vicomte has joined that list. I highly recommend checking it out, especially if you can go during their Candlelit evenings. It’s well worth the trip from Paris.
Until next time,
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