Chantilly and Senlis: A Castle and A Town Fit for Kings

Le Musee Vivant du Cheval (Living Horse Museum)

Access: 30 minutes from the Gare du Nord train station to Chantilly Gouvieux, with trains running every hour. From the station, you can take a bus or a cab, or go on foot for a brisk 20 minute walk.

To get to Senlis, take the train from the Gare du Nord train station to Chantilly Gouvieux, then take a bus to Senlis. (There are no direct trains to Senlis).

While the Louvre and Versailles are household names, many visitors to Paris are surprised to learn that twenty minutes away from Charles De Gaulle Airport are two of the most enchanting sites in France: the magnificent castle and stables of Chantilly and the ancient town of Senlis, whose Gallo-Roman wall, cobbled streets, handsome stone houses and early Gothic cathedral, have won over many directors of costume dramas for film and television.

At Chantilly (allow at least 45 minutes by car from Paris, an hour if there is traffic) are the monumental stables which had been commissioned by one of the castle’s former owners: Henri-Louis, Duc de Bourbon, who wanted to be reincarnated as a horse. Built by Jean Aubert between 1719 and 1735, the stables are over 600 feet in length and once accommodated 240 horses, as well as 150 hounds for the hunt. Now known as Le Musee Vivant du Cheval (the Living Horse Museum), this is the most encyclopedic museum ever devoted to the history of horses, showing how the animal has been a vital element in the art of war, as well as the hunt and the military dress parade. However, don’t presume that these awesome stables are only for the horse buff and trainer—kids adore the live hour-long spectacles of elegant steeds trained to prance like the famed Lippinzanner horses from Vienna.

There is so much to see in Chantilly’s castle and gardens that serious art lovers may find it hard to tear themselves away. It’s an architectural hodge-podge of styles that work harmoniously together, thanks to the stunning landscape of canals and formal gardens conceived in the 17th century by Andre Lenotre. The present-day edifice, built on Medieval foundations, includes a small chateau built in the Renaissance by Pierre Chambige (who worked on the original Hotel de Ville in Paris), and a larger chateau that was rebuilt in the second half of the 19th century by the Duc d’Aumale, the fifth son of the last king of France, Louis-Philippe d’Orleans.

The castle’s history is long and impressive. Among its former residents were the enormously wealthy High Constable Anne de Montmorency (chief minister to Francis I and Henry II), and the Grand Conde, a military genius who hosted Louis XIV for a three-day feast and theatrical in 1671 that was dramatized in the film Vatel starring Uma Thurman and Gerard Depardieu. Poor Vatel! He’ll go down in history as the most dedicated of caterers, knowing that he threw himself on his sword when a fish delivery from Paris failed to turn up. By the time it arrived, Vatel was dead.

The riches and rarities of Chantilly are such that visitors are asked to partake of the guided tour, usually given in French. (For those who won’t understand, the museum has provided English-language handouts describing each room.) Although Chantilly Castle was sequestered during the French Revolution and emptied of most of its original furniture and paintings, you wouldn’t know it when visiting today. Thanks to the munificence of his godfather the Duc de Bourbon, the Duc d’Aumale inherited a vast fortune upon his death, including Chantilly Castle and the Palais-Bourbon in Paris (now the French National Assembly). While the Revolution of 1848 and the Second Empire of Napoleon III forced him into exile in Twickenham, England, the Duc d’Aumale didn’t lose time amassing one of the most extraordinary private collections of paintings, drawings and illuminated manuscripts outside the Louvre. Not only does Chantilly boast furniture that was once commissioned by Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI, but it boasts almost 1,000 Old Master paintings, including works by Raphael, Ingres, Poussin, and the largest single collection of 16th century royal portraits by Jean and Francois Clouet, including those of Anne Boleyn, Diane of Poitiers, Catherine d’ Medicis, Francis I and Henry II as a child.

Chantilly’s more than 3,000 Old Master drawings allow for continual temporary exhibits which are on handsome display in the former Hunt Dining Room, which also boasts a stunning series of priceless Gobelins tapestries titled “The Hunt of Maximilian.” (A few years ago, Bill Gates acquired four of these tapestries and displayed them next to his Leonardo Codex.)

Bibliophiles will want to linger in the Duc d’Aumale’s two-story private library, which boasts the finest illuminated manuscripts in France outside the Bibliotheque Nationale. The most celebrated of these is only displayed in facsimile—The Very Rich Hours of the Duc de Berry—an illuminated parchment almanac that was commissioned in the 15th century by the King Jean Le Bon for his third son. Not only does it provide a dazzling illustrated document of Medieval life, month by month, but this book provides the only visual record of the Louvre under Charles V, when most of Paris was still farmland.

The restaurant in Vatel’s former kitchen, La Capitainerie, offers fine dining, including a chocolate delight served with creme Chantilly, the French answer to whipped cream, which an 18th century chef concocted within these very walls. The vast gardens of the castle are well worth a walk, perhaps a necessary antidote to the whipped cream.

Nearby is Senlis. Known to the Romans as Augustomagus (Augustus’s Market) in the first century before Christ, this picturesque town is one of two left in France that is still surrounded by a 12-foot thick Gallo-Roman wall built in the third century to stop invaders in their tracks. Originally over three miles in circumference, sixteen of the wall’s original 28 towers are still extant. A number of them were used to shore up the town’s 17th and 18th century buildings. It was at Senlis in 987 that Louis XVI’s ancestor Hughes Capet, the founder of the Capetian dynasty, was named king of France. Later, in 1430, Joan of Arc, defeated the Duke of Bedford on the Senlis plain before her capture by the Burgundians.

The town’s most famous monument is the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, whose 78 meter-high stone steeple was built in the 13th century, during the reign of Saint-Louis, the same monarch who commissioned the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. Many people come to admire the cathedral’s western portal, which features the first stone representation of the Virgin’s Ascension to Heaven. Begun in 1155 and consecrated in June 1191, the cathedral’s architecture was inspired by Abbe Suger of Saint Denis. In 1504, thunder struck the roof of the church and set aflame the eaves—chronicles from the period noted that the roof’s leading poured down upon the town like rain. Both Louis XII and Francis I raised the funds to rebuilt the church and raise the vaulting an additional 24 feet. It’s thanks to their efforts that the cathedral’s southern facade, now under restoration, is the penultimate example of Flamboyant Gothic. The town also offers a handsome hunting museum, the first of its kind in France, which boasts stunning engravings by Durer and Callot, as well as fine animal paintings by Rosa Bonheur and Jean-Baptiste Oudry.

At Christmas-time the streets of Senlis are beautifully decorated with miniature fir trees tied with red or white bows, and the shop windows are filled with tempting pastries, chocolates and crafts. A charming antique print shop offers elegantly framed old engravings of Senlis and Chantilly Castle.

Senlis and Chantilly are rewarding destinations for a day trip from Paris, resplendent with art, history–and horses.