I had never heard of the Chateau, south of Paris, Vaux-le-Vicomte until one day when I was complaining to my friend Barbara how much I dislike visiting Versailles with all the crowds. She mentioned that there was a precursor to Versailles designed by the same architect, Louis Le Vau; the same landscape garden designer, Andre Le Notre; and the same painter, Charles Le Brun; all of whom were unknown when Nicolas Fouquet hired them to build his masterpiece. She added that on Saturday evenings the whole place is lit up with candles. That was four years ago and I’ve been contemplating a visit there ever since.
Vaux is not easy to get to so I was easily put off. It’s best to drive, there is ample free parking. There is the R train that leaves Gare de l’Est and arrives in Melun about 15 minutes away. One has to take a bus, or a taxi or a very expensive shuttlebus. When Barbara asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday, I said I’d really like to go to the Chateau. So with another friend of ours, she organised a Saturday evening visit this past Saturday.
We entered the Chateau and were given audio guides. As we walked through the rooms, we were entertained by a 3D recording telling us the extremely sad story of Nicolas Fouquet, Superintendent of Finances for King Louis XIV. When Louis’s Prime Minister, Cardinal Mazarin died in 1661, the same year work on Vaux was finished, a conspiracy was hatched to remove Fouquet from office forever. Colbert, who had aided Mazarin in a huge embezzlement of the King’s money, decided to ruin Fouquet so the King would never learn of the theft. He planted suspicions and lies in the ear of the King until the King decided to arrest Fouquet. But before that happened, Fouquet invited the King and everyone of nobility to an enormous feast at the Chateau as it was almost finished. King Louis, 23 years old at the time, was full of jealousy at the beauty of Vaux and arrested Fouquet three weeks later. Fouquet never lived in his chateau or saw it again.
All the above characters had their own voices. We could hear Nicolas Fouquet naively thinking how happy the King would be at the Feast. We heard the King calling Nicolas arrogant for thinking he could have a more beautiful place than the King. Learning the story and seeing the harmony of architecture, gardens and paintings made one very sad.
King Louis XIV took many of the furnishings for his own and hired the three artists to build Versailles and its gardens. The three went on to become hugely famous designing and painting many buildings, chateaux and gardens that are known around the world.
Fouquet’s wife held on to the estate but after some time had to sell it. It went through two more owners who changed the name and, after some time, the Chateau and gardens fell into disuse. In 1875, it was in such disrepair that it was auctioned off to whoever would pay anything. It was bought by Alfred Sommier, a 40 year old man, who had fallen in love with Vaux. He changed the name back to Vaux-le-Vicomte and slowly restored the Chateau back to it’s original beauty. The estate has stayed in that family to the present day. The gardens have been fully restored and there was a search for wonderful art to decorate the walls. In 1968, Patrice and Cristina de Vogué, children of Sommier’s nephew, opened the Chateau and gardens to the public on a permanent basis.
After we had completely walked the Chateau, visited the dome for a 360o view of the gardens and estate, we walked out into the gardens just as the sun was setting. Two thousand candles were lighted. They sat in the windows and lined the garden walkways. It was fairy tale beautiful. If someone visiting me asked ‘Should I go to Versailles?’ I would do my best to discourage them and help them find a way down to the extraordinary Chateau and gardens known as Vaux-le-Vicomte.