For many of its lengthy and inglorious historical past, Vaux-le-Vicomte has been ignored. Shunned by the royal court docket after a jealous and vengeful king left its proprietor to rot in jail, overshadowed by its neighbour Fontainebleau, Vaux-le-Vicomte has hidden for hundreds of years in plain sight, lower than an hour by automobile or practice from Paris.
A lot of these driving south en path to the Burgundy vineyards, Alps or winter heat of the Côte d’Azur received’t even realize it’s there. It is a pity at any time of the 12 months, however particularly at Christmas when for 5 weeks the 17th-century baroque château is reworked into one thing of an enchanted palace.
Most of France’s state-run and public-funded châteaux make little further effort to draw Christmas guests, however the family-owned Vaux-le-Vicomte, the most important historic personal property in France and an early blueprint for the Palais de Versailles, has to pay its personal approach. Taking inspiration from British stately houses reminiscent of Chatsworth within the Peak District, it has found that dressing up for Christmas is an effective method to get observed.
It had snowed the morning we arrived and the sunshine dusting added an additional magic to the image postcard scene, because the château’s completely symmetrical façade appeared in a forest clearing on the finish of a slender avenue of sentry-like aircraft timber. Exterior, two big toy guardsmen in crimson uniforms flanked the doorway. This 12 months’s theme is classic toys, and Eric Naudin, the château’s Christmas decorator-in-chief, led us into the previous stables the place a set of carriages and phaetons had been integrated into seasonal scenes.

Animal magic … a mechanical bear in a hot-air balloon within the grand salon
From there we visited the staterooms, closely perfumed with vanilla, orange, cinnamon and chocolate, and full of teddy bears, toy trains, wood vehicles and essentially the most bizarre creatures – like a morning-suited toy giraffe enjoying the flute, a walrus wielding a French horn and a cello-playing rhino, their heads transferring forwards and backwards to the sound of conventional English carols.
This magical kingdom is delightfully old school, low-tech and in locations the sort of over-the-top kitsch that enchants the very younger. Naudin instructed us it had taken 40 individuals two weeks to arrange the installations within the château and its grounds, and it concerned 150 timber, 10,000 decorations and 4,000metres of garlands and lights, to not point out an enormous illuminated squirrel and angel.
On the entrance to the grand salon, he threw a theatrical flourish. This was his pièce de résistance. It crossed my thoughts a spoiler alert is likely to be wanted right here, however you actually do should see it your self. Underneath the 18-metre domed ceiling, a mechanical bear waved from a blue-and-gold hot-air balloon; a mirrored disco ball projected Cheerios-shaped “snowflakes” over the heavy window drapes; and the huge flooring was a “fairyland forest” of pine timber spray-painted completely white.

This magical kingdom is delightfully low-tech and in locations the sort of over-the-top kitsch that enchants the very younger

The historical past of Vaux-le-Vicomte isn’t any fairytale, we realized. Commissioned in 1656 by the fabulously rich aristocratic Nicolas Fouquet, finance minister to the Solar King, Louis XIV, the château was the work of architect Louis Le Vau, painter-decorator Charles Le Brun and panorama artist André le Nôtre, who later designed the park at Versailles. In August 1661, Fouquet threw an extravagant housewarming get together in honour of the king, unaware that jealous rivals had accused him of embezzling public funds and turned Louis in opposition to him.
The night backfired. Louis was stated to be jealous of his minister’s opulent new dwelling and refused to remain the night time. As Voltaire wrote: “At 6pm on 17 August, Fouquet was king of France; at two within the morning, he was no person.” Three weeks later, Fouquet was arrested and stripped of his property. At his trial, he was sentenced to banishment, however the king personally intervened ordering he be jailed for all times. He died in jail in 1680. In 1875, the by-then dilapidated château was acquired by the sugar industrialist Alfred Sommier, nice grandfather of the present proprietor, Patrice de Vogüé, who was given the property as a marriage present in 1967.
At present, Vaux-le-Vicomte attracts 300,000 guests a 12 months, 75% of them French, and has featured in a whole bunch of movies, most famously Moonraker, starring Roger Moore as James Bond. It is usually one of many settings for the BBC2 sequence Versailles. In France, it’s best-known for its particular occasions, reminiscent of Grand Siècle Day, when guests costume in 17th-century royal court docket costumes; the candlelit summer time backyard evenings; and its Christmas decorations. Mother and father can rent musketeer and princess costumes for his or her youngsters to decorate up in, and this Christmas children are invited to convey a toy or present for the French Crimson Cross to offer to underprivileged households.
De Vogüé believes a part of the attraction of his household château is its comparatively modest measurement, which presents a extra intimate and manageable 90-minute go to for these with simply bored children. “We’re grand, however on a human scale. As for Christmas; the British do this stuff so properly,” he says.

Toy story … ‘A giraffe enjoying the flute, a walrus wielding a French horn and a cello-playing rhino transfer forwards and backwards to the sound of conventional English carols.’ {Photograph}: Alain Legrand/Collectif Picture Melun
The vast majority of guests come from Paris, he instructed us, however the surrounding space is just not with out curiosity. Fontainebleau, a Unesco world heritage website, is simply 30 minutes by automobile, and the free Safran aerospace museum at Réau, 6km away, is value a fly previous. The forests round Vaux-le-Vicomte and Fontainebleau are a walkers’ paradise in summer time and, when you can’t keep within the château, it has an inventory of really useful motels and chambres d’hôtes close by for these with vehicles.
As night time fell, we braved the chilly for a spin around the superbly landscaped formal gardens on electrical buggies, taking within the swimming pools, fountains, statues and a youngsters’s grove that includes a set of inflated lantern toys.
Earlier than leaving Vaux-le-Vicomte, I requested Naudin how a lot the Christmas installations have price. He checked out me as if I’d morphed into Scrooge. “I’m right here to make individuals dream, not depend prices,” he stated, wanting genuinely affronted. “How are you going to ask this? Magnificence and magic don’t have any worth.”
Technique to go
Christmas at Vaux-le Vicomte is open till 6 January, besides Christmas Day and New Yr’s Day. Admission from £17.50 grownup, under-6s free. Journey by Eurostar from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord, then Transilien practice from Paris Gare de l’Est to Verneuil L’Etang after which catch the Chateaubus shuttle. BA flies from Heathrow to Orly
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