Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Alone in a Castle: Vaux le Vicomte

Last summer I read one of my now favorite books, Before Versailles, which I haphazardly picked up during one of my infamous library novel-runs. (This is an annual summer event where I grab as many fictional bites as I can carry, throwing my usual literary tastes to the wind, in the hopes that the randomness of the odds will present a jewel. And this year, oh how it did!) Karleen Koen artfully unveils the history dripping with scandal behind what inspired that famous chateau called Versailles. I suggest you buy it or drop by your local library for a dip into my new world I'm discovering.

Destination: Chateau de Vaux le Vicomte 

Getting there:
Certainly the least glamourous side of the story. Taking the wrong trains, wondering around enormous stations, and jumping the gate at the end of my journey were only some of the highlights. My arrival in the nearest city, Melun, makes no improvements to the trip. Picking my way out of the ghetto, walking miles in the wrong direction, following outdated roadsigns... yeesh! After zigzagging across several streets and bridges, I have got my 5k in for the day and am now standing in front of what I hope will be my saving grace: the Melun Tourisme Center. Wrong again. I am greeted with a thin smile, promptly handed the telephone number for the local taxi, and all but whisked out the door. Stranded, disoriented, and clutching a scribbled string of numbers, I cringingly, miraculously manage to order a cab (first time ever) in French (also first time ever). 

The arrival:
The tab runs 20€ (ripoff), the driver is silent, and the drive, uneventful. But all this melts away as the car pulled away and I was left standing in front of this:

You know those moments you've waited for your whole life, and when they finally come, they are just watered-down versions of your imagination? Not so here. The morning light moves like a young Grecian nymph in the crisp October air, dancing off the fluttering, crackly leaves and sprawling out across the dewy grass. A happy spattering of tittering birds echoes from within the rigid forest brigade standing guard around the chateau grounds. There is no other sound. It's the hushed quiet of a land brimming with secrets.

It's interrupted briefly by a large tour group exiting the chateau as I buy my ticket. But as I make my way toward the moat and the the great stone steps, I suddenly realize: I am alone a castle.

The chateau:
A couple of chateau staffers take my ticket and give me an audio guide (well worth the 3€ extra), but they shift in and out of sight so quickly, so silently, I'm not sure they aren't ghosts from centuries ago.

The guide takes me through the chateau itself, about 2 hours total spent wandering through tapestries and brocades and priceless paintings as I listen to the history of the place and its owners. Of Fouquet, of Colbert, of King Louis XIV. Of fortune, ambition, and the jealousy that would upstart absolute rule in France and eventually instigate the Revolution. But I'm not here for a history lesson; if you want in on this delicious piece of French history, you'll have to look into it yourself. (And I suggest starting with that novel.)

The bell tower is an extra 3€ to climb for the panoramic view. I hastily drop my coined contribution at the desk as I slip through the door to the stairs. My lungs fill with that musty sweet aroma of old wooden beams that still exist from the original structure. They protest ferociously to my ascent, and I fear perhaps I am the one to finally fell the great tower. I burst through the top triumphantly into the light, and my breath simply leaves me entirely.

The panoramic view is so beautiful, so perfect, that I knew I could not capture it on my camera or even in my writing. The purity of the light, the clearness of the air, the stillness of the forests. It was a full sensory state of bliss, crafted just for me at that moment. I was laughing and crying and probably looked like a total loon atop that bell tower. No regrets for this francophile. I was as close to heaven as I've ever been.

Descending back down the rickety steps, I finish the rest of the tour, which ends in the dungeon, ironically enough. A wet chill clings to the air. I'm distracted by dodging some dripping water, and glance up to see this:

Oh to be the person watching the security cameras. Involuntarily flinging myself to the opposite side of the cave, I realize I've come face to face with the man in the iron mask, another legend steeped in the history of this chateau. I stare for a full minute trying to determine if he is a real person or not. I keep waiting for his hands to come through the bars and strangle me. After all the scandals and treachery I just learned about, nothing is beyond possibility. Finally convinced it is safe, I move on.

The gardens:
I exit the chateau and progress toward the gardens for some much-needed munchies. I nibble on some baguette, saucisson, and cheese surrounded by the original groundbreaking (bah-dump-cha!) landscaping work of the dream design trio that would go on to create Versailles in this same style.

These gardens seem rather modest at first, but due to some expert perspective trickery, there are series of hidden terraces, secret pools, and forest trails purposed for the delighted discovery of exploring guests. You may be walking some several hundred feet thinking you are nearing the end, when you find you are really only half-way there. It's a hard concept to explain, and a thrilling one to experience.

There is a looming statue of Hercules at the very tip of the garden up a very large hill. Getting to this Hercules turns out to be quite the unexpected hike, but oh, so well worth it. My camera dies as soon as I get to the tip, so I am forced to commit the place to memory. I sit at the feet of Hercules and journal, alone in the world and content, completely uninterrupted. That is, until one golf cart, one very old, very ornery Frenchman, his Columbian girlfriend who could not have been older than me and who kept calling him "daddy" (I.kid.you.not.), and his more regal older Frenchman companion wheeled up next to the statue. Needless to say, our interaction is interesting and short-lived. (No, I do not want to join your party, no, I'm not interested in your old man friend, no, I'd much rather walk than ride with you, thank you.) Scampering away to freedom and blessed solitude, I continue to explore some of hidden forest paths and secret gardens.

As the sun finally began to sink, I know it's time to leave that magical place, but every time I turn to leave, I feel my feet drag and my neck twist to look back on the ethereal landscape. I've never so strongly understood the feeling of never wanting to leave a place, this castle just for me.

Getting home:
I hail another cab, and this man is full of all the enthusiasm my first cabbie was missing. He talks nonstop all the way to the train station, pulling out maps on the highway to show me some of the best countryside in the area, when and where to travel, and which trains are better. He takes me a different, better train station he says, and even makes sure I know where to get my tickets, which deck to catch my train on, and how long the wait will be. Before I leave, he also assures me that I should have no trouble finding a French boyfriend to show me "the French way of life", and that if his heart was not already otherwise engaged with another woman (not his wife, he points out), he would be more than happy to volunteer. Oh les chauffeurs de la France! I end up just missing my train and have to wait another half hour, but I don't even notice, filled with the contentedness of a day spent alone in a castle.

France, you've won my heart, with a castle in the wood.

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