This morning I woke up very, very early due to some evil jet lag, and couldn't wait for time to pass. I got moving fairly quickly. To start the day off, I had to do a 3 point turn in a very narrow street, driving in a European car. It was very disorientating to say the least. It also reminded me how lazy I had become with rear parking sensors (no I didn't hit anything).
From there I got out of town and onto the (toll) freeways, heading to a small town called Melun. Melun is in the area of Ile de Cite (the same as Paris and Versailles) although it was quite a distance from Versaille - heading East for just over an hour. It was a bit nerve wracking, particularly trying to figure out how to use the toll road system, where at the first gate you get a ticket. At the second gate you insert the ticket and it tells you how much to pay. Of course, at the second gate, you have to find which gate takes coins or credit cards. I found one that was express use. I didn't realise, this meant it was "CB" card holders and Amex users only. Oops! Thank god I was able to use my work Amex to get through, as there was quite a queue behind me. Melun was the town close to my next destination, which of course was Vaux-le-Vicomte.
The benefit of getting to Vaux-le-Vicomte that early of course, was that there was barely anyone there. There was one tour bus which had arrived just before me, and about 6 cars providing a really nice contrast to Versailles. The tour bus that had arrived was full of Australian's, mostly women in their retirement phase, travelling the world.
The first thing I would say about Vaux-le-Vicomte is that it has a bit of originality about it. By that I mean that it was slightly run down. There has been some restoration works done on it over time, but largely the facades look "genuine". I spent a bit of time after I got through the ticket office surveying the lands around the palace. It looked more promising that it would be a dry day, although it was a tiny bit overcast. The palace may have looked a little more drab because of the clouds as well, but I had nothing but awe at its size and design.
Inside, you walk a linear path through the palace starting on the top floor. All of the rooms seemed to be small – the commentary on the audio guide said that this was to keep the palace warmer, as heating systems were fireplaces only. Of course fireplaces in wooden buildings were not something put in every room, due to the potential hazard. The lighting inside was dark as well, to preserve the furnishings inside. All of these I had to imagine, as they were not owned by Fouquet, the palace's original owner.
There were a few of rooms which were absolute standouts. The first was the main bedroom, which still has all of the original furniture from Fouquet – the only room in the house to do so. The second was a small guest room, which had a very tiny room off of it, for the guests servant to sleep in. Seriously, my toilet back home is larger. Lastly, and most spectacularly, was the guardroom or reception. It was an oval design, with glass windows on the upper floor looking into it. In various parts of the oval there were busts of famous Romans, including Caesar, Marc Antoni and Pompeii.
"Vaux" as it is commonly known, has a very sad history. The original owner, Nicholas Fouquet (Foo-kay) was a parliamentarian, like his predecessors. At a young age, he was entrusted by the state to return the finances of the royal family to a healthy situation. Fouquet was a lover of luxury and fine things, and he was very wealthy. He used his own finances to guarantee investments on behalf of the crown, and as was the case in those days, he received a portion of the profits.
He was appointed to the position by Cardinal Mazarin, who was in the position of first minister. When the cardinal passed away, Fouquet thought that he would naturally be considered the replacement, as he had turned around the State’s finances. He was open about this with people he worked with.
Also at the time, Louis XIV, a young king, was ambitious about having total control over the French nation. He decided to abolish the position of first minister, and thereby preventing Fouquet from ascending to it. Also at the time, the secretary for the Cardinal (a gentleman named Colbert) thought he would overthrow Fouquet from his position, and claim it for himself. He proceeded to tell Louis that the reason for the poor finances was because of Fouquet. Conspiracists like to think that this also allowed Louis to make sure that his own godfather – the Cardinal Mazarin, could be cleared post death of any suspicions. On an ongoing basis Colbert continued to bad mouth Fouquet to Louis. What does all this have to do with Vaux?
Well, Fouquet had been using his profits of the investments to fund the building of a brilliant Chateau, by hiring the best architect (Louis Le Vau), gardeners (Andre Le Notre) and artist (Charles Le Brun – who directed and contributed to the decorations and furnishings of Vaux). The result of their collaboration, was the most beautiful chateau in all of France.
Colbert used this example to highlight to Louis XIV that Fouquet must have been embezzling funds. When the construction and landscaping of Vaux had been complete, King Louis asked to see what he had done. Fouquet was ecstatic at the attention, and he set about letting everyone know with a huge celebration, the likes of which had not been seen before by a private landowner. This was the moment he assumed he would be made first minister.
It was August 1661 and Fouquet put on a ballet-comedy written by his friend Moliere. At the end of the production, fireworks filled the sky. The explosions reflecting off the various water features Le Notre had designed and built into the Vaux gardens. A whale came out of the water, and more fireworks came off of it. It is said that on this day, it was Fouquet who people thought was King.
This was the last straw for Louis. He had come with an alterior motive – he had planned on having Fouquet executed. Now, it was Fouquet who looked like a King. Louis would not be upstaged. The Chateau was so brilliant, so much more beautiful than his own, he was filled with rage. He wanted to arrest Fouquet on the spot. However it is said he was too afraid to act given the popularity Fouquet was enjoying or that he was talked out of it by the Queen Mother.
Three weeks later, Fouquet was arrested and imprisoned. Colbert created a court of judges who were known to be anti-Fouquet, to try ensure that he was sentenced to death. However, Fouquet defended himself, and managed to sway the court, who were also concerned with public opinion. Instead of an execution, they banished him to live outside the realm of the Kingdom.
This incensed Louis even further, so he used his own powers to overturn the court’s decision, and had Fouquet placed in prison for the rest of his life. As punishment, King Louis took over 120 tapestries, all of the statues, orange trees, and any artwork he deemed valuable. It took 10 years to recover the items.
People have related Fouquet’s plight to that of the Man in the Iron Mask. It is said that the novel written by Alexandre Dumas is loosely based on Fouquet's life. As part of the tour around the palace, when we got to the dungeons, there was a wax sculpture of the man in the iron mask.
Fouquet’s wife eventually returned to Vaux, and she sold it in 1705. Nicholas had been deceased for a while, after spending 19 years in prison. It was bought by a military leader and Duke the Marechal de Villars. His family kept the palace until 1764. The Duke of Praslin bought it from here, and they kept it for just over 100 years. They sold it to a private and wealthy French Industrialist – Alfred Sommier. The palace had been left to ruin for 30 years.
Sommier bought the palace when the gardens were overgrown, the outer buildings were falling apart and there were only a few tables inside the palace. It took over 25 years to restore the garden to its original state, which it was in today. Sommier’s family now look after the castle.
Vaux was an inspiration in more ways than one. The fireworks display Fouquet gave was the basis for all regal celebrations from that moment forward. In order for Louis not to be outdone, he hired all three influential people to build his own palace – the Palace of Versailles.
Personally, I think the gardens in Versailles are better. I could definitely see the inspiration behind the Versailles gardens though. There was a large canal in Vaux. There were small sections of symmetrical gardens, with water features in the middle. To ensure I had a chance to see all of the gardens, I hired a golf buggy for an hour. I stopped to take pictures where I could. There are so many water features, and such beautifully manicured garden beds, it's impossible to take it all in.
At one point on the buggy trip, I got to an area where I was told to use the brake only. It’s lucky they tell you this, as the buggy slid down the hill with the brakes on – I just steered it around the bends.
It took a very long time to restore the gardens after the palace was recovered. It took 25 years to restore the garden to the state that they are in today. They are absolutely huge. I imagine that it would take a half day to walk around the 3km of gardens, allowing time to stop and "smell the roses".
After I returned the golf buggy I headed back to the car, where I ventured on to the next stop. Chartres.