Category Horse Girl

The Domaine de Chantilly, Jewel in the French Countryside

Situated on the edge of Sylvie Pond, the Domaine de Chantilly appears to float upon the water, like something out of a fairy tale. This château was constructed in the early 1800s; the original 12th century building and home to the Condés was destroyed during the French Revolution. So while this is the historical home of Louis II de Bourbon, this is not his house.

The reconstruction and embellishment of this home was the single grand vision of Henri d’Orléans, Duke of Aumale, who needed somewhere to display his vast art collection. As his would-be heirs predeceased him, Henri deeded it to the Institut de France along with the Great Stables, provided that they not be altered, and that none of the art should ever leave, on loan or otherwise. It now houses the Musee Condé, displaying all the intact treasure of a 19th century prince. 

(click for the full panorama and to play a game of “Where’s Melissa?”)

The grounds at Chantilly are extensive; motorized carts and horses are available to rent so that visitors can more easily traverse the 115 hectares (just over 284 acres), a large portion of which remains wooded with accents here and there. A temple dedicated to Venus. A life size game of snakes and ladders. In the center of the grounds is a more structured French 17th century style garden with symmetrical reflecting pools and manicured greenery embracing them, fountains and bright white statuary. 

It took me entirely too long to realize that wasn’t a tank top.

We spent some time admiring the exterior of the château and the grounds near the entryway. The Duke was clearly fond of statuary and ornamentation with a Grecian and Egyptian influence. Stone sphinxes placidly allow visitors to pass. Life size statues of men writhe on either side of the main entrance, their flesh realistically bound by stone wrappings.  Other details stand out: the roof tiles of the château are overlapping scales. Iron winds into curving, pointed shapes that suggest both the natural world and a threat simultaneously. I spent some time imagining how fabulous it would be to sweep through these columned archways en route to a masquerade ball, because thinking about expensive, impractical parties is one of my favorite hobbies.

Ornate does not even begin to describe the interior of the château. It is encrusted with riches the way a ship’s bottom gathers barnacles: more upon more. Gilding on top of decorative moulding on top of paintings to fit the little space above doors. Large fireplaces with unique decorative firedogs, gifts and acquisitions from foreign lands, statues and gold and art by masters and so much fine furniture for looking at. The château was criticized by Boni de Castellane as “one of the saddest specimens of the architecture of our era” because the layout is such that one enters on the second floor and descends to the salons. I don’t really understand this criticism in terms of how it affects the home’s functionality, but I do think I would enjoy spending time snarkily browsing real estate listings with Boni because he is going to have some thoughts on McMansions and I am here for them.

I know I’ve already admired the Prince of Condé for his outstanding pirate fashion sensibilities, but in these statues, I’m getting more of a hot vampire vibe. 

This was in a room of very large murals, subdivided into smaller paintings by these painted gold frames. I love the whimsical lion faces. 

And then there’s The Grand Monkey room, an entire room devoted to depicting monkeys engaging in the arts, the sciences, and lighthearted weapon-wielding. This was obviously my favorite room. Dress an animal in people clothes (especially with a wide array of fantastic hats) and you have my attention. Make them specialist academics and experts in arms and your room theme catapults from “cute” to “top ten of all time”. 

 

The Duke bought this fireplace screen painted by Christophe Huet at an estate sale to go in the monkey room, where no doubt he felt that whole body thrill you get when you find something that could’ve been made for you.

The library at Chantilly contains almost 19,000 items, including 300 medieval manuscripts, a small portion of which are on display to the public in glass cases. I wonder who gets to read from this library, if anyone. 

I’m deeply into these reading and writing chairs.

Medieval book, entirely hand lettered, illustrated, and illuminated. My mind boggles contemplating the amount of human labor that is bound into this book.

Presumably the last thing you see before you are brained with a lamp by your deadeyed lover.

Chapelle des Coeurs des Condé / Chapel of the Hearts of Condé, where the hearts of the family remain in a communal urn.

Staircase into The Stag Gallery

The Stag Gallery. Jason thinks that a table this size would be perfect for miniature wargaming but based on my experience with their catalog, if the Duke had been into Warhammer on this scale, he wouldn’t have been able to afford to construct the château. It would have just been the table, a tent, and 50 million francs worth of plastic figures on top of the rubble of the old château.

I found the most important part of the tapestry for you to look at. 

When I entered the Domaine, I was entirely unprepared for its art collection, including Raphael’s Les Trois Graces. I took a photo of a painting of a horse (because horse) and then realized that it was painted by French master Théodore Géricault. There’s so much art everywhere, stacked up the walls in 19th century style as many as three deep in thick, golden frames, room after room filled with master works, an entire museum of art in one wing.

One of the ways the paintings are protected is through constant, vigilant security. On the day I visited, the young man on the job strode purposefully from room to room, his shoes squeaking vigorously with every step. Those squeaks stalked me throughout the château, the volume belying his position at all times. The energetic squeaks grew near, then far, then near again. It seems like knowing roughly how much time you have before the guard squeaks past your location would almost embolden a thief…but I suppose that’s when the other guard with silent shoes they never noticed gets them.

The Gallery of Painting, at the far end of the room, the rotunda.

François-Hubert Drouais, Marie Antoinette, 1773

Piero di Cosimo, Ritratto di Simonetta Vespucci come Cleopatra ; I love this painting and I was thrilled to see it in person. 

The ceiling of the rotunda. I’m not familiar with this particular escapade of Hermes but that muralbombing cherub seems pretty dismayed.

A painting about friendship and fond feelings about apples.

There was an entire wall of sepia-toned stained glass depicting scenes of…I don’t know, let’s take a look.

…so here it appears we have a crowd gathered by torchlight to watch a baby get a Prince Albert.

Correction: a very creepy baby.

I was particularly fond of the artistic flourishes used around text. 

I love the sassy expressions on these satyrs. 

This looks like Jesus got pretty great seats for his friends for the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Pottery produced in Chantilly featuring an animal that I’m certain everyone recognizes and immediately pictures whenever someone occasions to say something is “leopard print”.  Long scaly fingers tipped with claws, jagged tusks for teeth, wide human eyes and that unmistakable polka dot coat: that’s a leopard, all right.

Life goals.

THIS STAIRCASE. Look at that curving, swirling gorgeousness. No one is allowed to touch it but my desire to touch it was so high. Check that little lizard tail poking out! This staircase is so fabulous that everyone who gazes upon it walks with an extra sway in their step for the next fifty yards. 

The Palace of Versailles used this painting by Vernet of King Louis-Philippe at Versailles as the cover for their visitor guide for their limited time exhibition on Louis-Phillipe, the king who transformed the palace into a national monument.

Eventually the nonstop squeaking drove us outdoors for another stroll through a portion of the gardens. The sky blustered on and off and a cold wind bit through our jackets so neither of us harbored dreams of walking OR riding the entire estate. We mainly walked around the back of the castle and through one section of the woods, finding a cave that I’m a thousand percent certain is the mossy home of a magical critter that Jason went into and I declined, fearing magical rabies. 

The side of our hotel, the Auberge du Jeu de Paume.

Our time out in the gardens of Chantilly chilled me to the bone, and so we each spent some time luxuriating in a hot bath. I remembered how going out to dinner early in Paris had made us cross paths with closed restaurants and rude waiters, so in Chantilly, we started our search for our first meal of the day a little later, around 7, and that’s when I learned that in Chantilly, they roll up the red carpet around 5pm. We bought the dregs of a boulangerie that we caught just before they, too, closed up shop for the day, went back to the hotel room, and ordered five star room service while watching movies on youtube. Their restaurant has a Michelin star, there’s a small chance that room service comes out of the same kitchen. It may not have been fine dining, but it was delicious and would’ve been so even if we both weren’t ravenous.

I am beyond glad that the room service did not arrive during the “outrageous French accent” scene.

When we checked in, the clerk emphasized that we could have breakfast served in our room or we could have it at their restaurant. The website even says that breakfast is served in the room so that you can enjoy the view from the window “immediately upon waking”. “What a lovely amenity to offer,” I thought. “And they’re so proud of their high level of service that they want to make certain everyone partakes of the most important meal of the day.” Since we had a train to catch back to Paris, I chose to eat in the restaurant, not taking much but delighted by the selection of beautiful French pastries, eggs made to order, rows of cups of vanilla infused creme Chantilly

And then I got my bill printout and saw that breakfast was an extra 35 euros apiece and I wished that I had stuffed my backpack full of chocolate croissants instead of just eating one and drinking a cup of tea like a sucker.

The next few days would be Paris alone, and while I would miss this swanky hotel and its flattering mirrors, I was glad to be going to a home base of sorts. I didn’t need to worry about which train seats corresponded with my fare on my ride back to Paris: the train was so full everyone’s seat was “face in stranger’s armpit”. A human scent-ipede.

Chantilly: Watch me whip, watch me neigh-neigh

I bought a regular fare train ticket from Gare du Nord, and it wasn’t really evident upon boarding which seat section corresponded with that fare. I selected a row and then reconsidered, moving up a section past a minor partition, not wanting to be so near the bathroom, and hoping its proximity wasn’t what defined the fare structure. What I should have hoped for was one or two of my fellow passengers to oversleep and miss the train so they wouldn’t end up getting into a shouting, high-pitched and then muffled screaming fistfight in the row I’d vacated earlier. My seatback was to it so I mostly heard rather than saw the fight. It was surprisingly quiet on the train afterward. No one around me seemed inclined to offer up their take on current events, so I have no definitives and only wild guesses.  

Some questions that I’d never bothered to consider before now: What if I hadn’t moved? Would the fight still have occurred? Was it about who had the worst seat versus the second worst seat? Alternate universe Melissa who did stay would almost certainly have been snitty about toilet smells but she wouldn’t know exactly how long a train could be held up at a station after two pugilists were dragged off by French police.

It’s a long time. 

Our destination was Chantilly, a French commune 35 miles north of Paris on the border of the Chantilly forest with a population of eleven thousand, historically admired for their whipped cream and very fine black silk lace. Although I did hope to partake of some crème Chantilly during my visit, I was going there for horses. In addition to their famous hippodrome which hosts the prestigious Prix du Jockey Club (the French Derby), Chantilly is also home to the Museum of the Horse, located inside the Great Stables. 

The Great Stables are the largest stables in Europe, with the capacity for over 200 horses.  200 horses in 2019 is a huge number of horses, and on days that I feed and turn in at my stable, I’m glad there’s never more than 17 (especially if the weather has ’em feeling snappy), but for historical perspective, in 1775, the Grand Equerry (the highest office for all matters relating to the royal horses), Charles Eugène of Lorraine and Prince of Lambesc was accused of misappropriating 120 of the king’s horses for his personal use. He took horses from work the way some people take pens. And still, those embezzled equines represented a mere 6% of the king’s total stock. A stable that holds 200 horses would barely accommodate Louis XVI’s benchwarmers.

Located on the outskirts of the Domaine de Chantilly and across the street from the Great Stables was our hotel, the Auberge de Jeu de Paume, the little splurge of the trip. Our room looked out onto the gardens of the Domaine, less manicured and more forest-like than the term “garden” would lead one to believe, particularly in the royal French countryside.  

A courtyard at Auberge de Jeu de Paume

In my blog post about Versailles, I took a photo of a statue of Louis II de Bourbon, Prince of Condé, and said I didn’t know any historical tidbits about him and didn’t intend to look anything up but I thought his clothes would be appropriate for an excellent pirate. Well those words came back unexpectedly to bite me in the ass because as it turns out, the Domaine de Chantilly is Louis de Bourbon’s house and the Great Stables are his stables and a fun fact about him is that he had these amazing stables built because he believed that he was going to be reincarnated as a horse and wanted to make sure he’d be housed in facilities appropriate for a horse of his rank. I have many questions, none of which are answered by the historical record: Did Louis intend to allow himself to be ridden or did he assume he’d still be giving orders in some fashion? Did people working at the stables after his death have any guesses as to which one, if any, was the reincarnated prince? Did they geld him anyway? 

Built in 1719 by architect Jean Aubert, the Great Stables are nothing short of imposing. The stalls inside are flooded with natural light and the ceilings rise in a gentle cathedral arch. The entrance to the Museum of the Horse is located between a row of stalls containing full size horses and a row of half stalls for donkeys and miniatures, including one small shaggy shetland pony with long black hair and whiskers named Ramses le Grand.

Now, if I know anything about how reincarnation works (I don’t, nor does anyone else), you get to choose what you’re reincarnated as but due to the laws of physics you have to maintain the same relative amount of body mass, so if you’re a 150 pound man with a fondness for red squirrels, you’ll come back as 200 of them. If you’re a man with a fondness for horses…miniature horse weights range from 150-350 pounds. I’m not saying that this miniature horse with an important name, long black hair and whiskers is the reincarnation of  Louis II de Bourbon, Prince of Condé, a slim man with long black hair and whiskers, but I’m not NOT saying it.

I’m going to come back as two obese Chow dogs.

Each animal has a personal water fountain and seems very pleased about it.

The Museum of the Horse challenged my typical photo taking and posting philosophies. When deciding what to post, I’ll run down a list of loose guidelines: Does it set a scene? Does does it illustrate a story? Does it demonstrate scale? Do I find it beautiful, or meaningful, or historically interesting? Is it funny? Is it cute? Is it a horse?

Being comprised entirely of horses and horse-adjacent items, The Museum of the Horse contains over 1200 photo opportunities on a diverse range of horse subtopics: replicas of old horsemanship manuals, riding equipment from around the world, horses in art including a room of carousel horses, racing memorabilia, and more. The Domaine had been bequeathed to the Institut de France with the stipulation that it be preserved exactly as it is. The Museum of the Horse was established in 1982 after riding master Yves Bienaime, who had learned to ride at the Great Stables, noted that the building was falling into disrepair and wanted to restore its glory. And why not formally recognize humankind’s relationship with the horse? It has ploughed our fields, allowed us to hunt farther and faster and pack the kill home, carried us to war and to work and to pleasure, been an honest friend for centuries.

Photographed because large horse

Photographed because shy horse with helmet hair

Tibetan stirrups, 17th century

Chinese saddle, painted wood, Qing dynasty, 19th century. It’s so beautiful but my butt hurts just looking at it.

Chinese stirrups, Qing Dynasty, 18th century

Imagine how mad you would be if this was your cart and you got back to the parking lot from the farmer’s market and saw someone had scratched your paint.

A sculpture of HRH Queen Elizabeth riding her police horse Tommy in 1947.

Rajasthan, early 19th century

Photographed so now you’ll know that all the plants you can see around the arena are in fancy horse-centipede planters

Photographed because setting

Photographed because scale. And this is a big horse, with a tall rider. Lastly, once you see the eyes in the windows, you can’t unsee them.

Photographed because now there are two very large horses, more = better

My favorite part of The Horse Museum, however, was their magnificent outdoor arena. Set in a courtyard in the stables, two giant horse statues loom at one end, trumpeting silently at onlookers. Silently, thankfully, because speaking as the owner of the loudest horse in the barn, I think if a horse this size screamed at full volume, the sheer force of it might fling a person catching the brunt of it into space. 

And all this was just Louis de Bourbon’s stables, what he imagined to be fit for a royal horse. I couldn’t wait to get into his house.

 

The City of Versailles: Horses and Hearses

We left the palace of Versailles hungry enough to eat the contents of two boulangeries and inadvertently did, first walking to Boulangerie Guinon and leaving with an assortment of treats and then upon realizing that there was nowhere to consume them, continued on to Juliette where we ordered more and sat gratefully on their aubergine patio chairs, tearing into a baguette and sipping coffee. My apple turnover was deeply restorative, the laminated pocket both flaky and tender and stuffed with gently sweetened apple butter.

Aux Colonnes, chocolatier. The dragon sculpture and the spiders are entirely chocolate.

I know it’s a pet grooming shop but as an American it is compulsory that I giggle at the word “toilettage” and then spend a brief moment considering what a royal dog toilet might look like; the answer is, of course, exactly like the gardens of Versailles.

After my stomach stopped rumbling, I could hear the complaining in the rest of my body more clearly, and it was telling me to see if our room at the Hotel de France was ready. Blessedly, it was. This goldenrod yellow room boasted a view of the palace of Versailles’ parking lot, currently packed with busloads of modern-day courtiers. The bathroom, with its walls of mirrors, is no doubt intended to evoke the hall of mirrors across the street but the effect was a little more “carnival mirror” when I slipped into the bath with too much me in every conceivable direction.  It also came equipped with a “Shaver 2000”, a hair dryer that looks like a vacuum cleaner and an old-fashioned telephone had a baby*.

To the right, you can see just a bit of the palace of Versailles, a view you only get in the winter.

As with every hotel, I took the opportunity to unload anything I wouldn’t need to carry with me before venturing back out to the National Equestrian Academy of the Palace of Versailles (Académie Équestre Nationale Du Domaine De Versailles) located within the famed stables of Louis XIV, which finished construction in 1682 and became the center for French dressage until 1830 when the riding school closed. At the time of Louis XIV’s death, the king’s stock of saddle horses numbered nearly 700 sourced from throughout Europe and beyond for royal use: Spanish, Arabian, and Persian horses for parades and carrousels, English for hunting, Prussian, Polish, and Danish for driving. Louis XV’s stables contained 1700 head, and toward the end of Louis XVI’s reign, the count topped 2,200, which the horse girl in me says is just about the right number. Today the stable houses 40 horses (judging by appearance, primarily Spanish and Slovenian) and puts on shows by Bartabas the Fierce

The outdoor riding arena; across the street is the palace of Versailles. Several resources I’ve read indicate that François-Étienne de la Bigne distinguished himself somehow by galloping from the grand stables to the palace gates in an hour but I feel like I could easily walk that distance in less time than that so there must be some context I’m missing. If I told my horse to gallop for an hour we’d be three zip codes away. And if it’s “I got my horse to look like he’s galloping but slooooooooooooooow” well congratulations on having the free time it would take to annoy a horse into that kind of pointlessness.

This horse’s resting face cracks me up. I also like the saddle stand next to each stall–très pratique!

A long-reining lesson was in progress in their gorgeous indoor arena during my visit. I wasn’t allowed to take any photographs so you should definitely click this link to see it because it’s basically like Horse Church for equestrians. Honest-to-God chandeliers hang over golden sand footing. The long walls are lined with huge arching mirrors framed in wood. It must be a wonderful place to train and ride, not only due to the beauty, history, and quality of the facility but also because it looks like it would be a low-distraction environment for the horses, due to it being completely enclosed and visitors restricted to one section. Horseback riding is, as best as I can tell, a subtle, constant struggle to capture and keep your horse’s attention, so minimizing the comings and goings of people and vehicles and gusts of wind and killer butterflies has to help toward that end a lot.  

The gallery of coaches is also located at the King’s Great Stables, and was established by Louis-Phillipe I, King of the French (not King of France, an important distinction), who turned the palace and the stables into a museum dedicated “to all the glories of France” in 1831; they have now been museums longer than they were the possessions of royalty. Coaches were designed to make an impression on the viewer and said much about the status of the persons contained therein. Private coaches were obviously more prestigious than rentals. The only limits on the ornamentation of a private coach were those of the tastes and pocketbook of the purchaser, and, given the importance of status and rank in French court society, always with an eye toward having a finer coach than their lessers. Think carved wheels, decorative sculpture, better upholstery, matched horses outfitted in more elaborate harnesses, gilding, muralwork. Maybe even a more attractive driver? Or maybe just one with a better butt? I don’t know, records of that kind of thing are rather sparse.

Who is going to make me some reproduction stirrup irons?

These highly decorative wooden court sleds were drawn by horses wearing studded shoes and harnesses embroidered with silver bells and were enjoyed by all of the Louis of Versailles. Louis XV was particularly noted for how quickly he would race these sleds around the palace grounds and subsequently no one wanted to ride with him which killed the practice until Marie Antoinette had them brought out of storage. The jaguar is my favorite and I’m trying to figure out how to make the concept work for me in a place that is essentially snow-free save for rare occasions when I’d need the sled just to get to my horse.

No matter how many horses are in front of the coach, only the two closest to it bear the load; the others are for show: look at all the money I have that I can afford to keep and feed and use this many matched, impeccably groomed and outfitted horses for no reason.

Coronation coach, started by Louis XVIII but abandoned quickly for political reasons. Charles X began the project anew for his coronation in 1825, and as a return to  kingly grandeur post-Revolution. He died in exile.

Louis XVIII’s funeral hearse. Note the contrast to the coronation coach on the crown: instead of blaring angelic trumpets in celebration, triumph, and pronouncement of royal might,  cherubs bear lowered torches that have extinguished, the gold of the king’s reign in the sun given way to the white gold of the moon. The only surviving royal funeral coach, for the last royal funeral in France.

Boeuf a la mode is a French dish made by braising beef with red wine, vegetables, and ice cream

We had seen Le Boeuf A La Mode earlier in the day and returned later in the afternoon for an espresso and a snack but for some reason could not order a snack that had something to do with the incomprehensible hours French people eat, which never seemed to coincide with when I was hungry. From my perspective, the sole employee/proprietor didn’t seem to be thrilled to have us there as his sole customers and I felt uncomfortable the entire time. I paid the bill in cash and was shortchanged by several euros and to this day I believe this was done deliberately because this dude knew I wasn’t super familiar with the currency and probably wouldn’t kick up a fuss even if I was…and he was right, because I left that restaurant without a peep.

However, I discussed this visit with Jason and was surprised to find he had a completely different experience–he didn’t feel any “get out” vibe from the server and he chalked up the shortchanging to a mistake or, perhaps, a practical joke. A what?! I had to dig in–what sort of person did he think would deliberately shortchange someone as a joke? “Well, maybe he was waiting for you to say something so he could be like ‘You got me!'” which honestly was so outside of the realm of anything I would even remotely consider as likely human behavior that I was temporarily stunned into silence.

It struck me that although we were not currently arguing, there were a few components here of some of the aspects of conversing with my husband which drive me most insane and spiral out into the most arguments–I will want to talk about practicals and probables and he will treat wild possibilities as though they are equally feasible. As someone who is professionally opinionated, I like definitives; Jason lives in a world of ambiguity–if you don’t know someone, you cannot ascribe intention to their actions. I’m sure it’s one of the things he finds equally confounding about me, my need to circle back around and around and fine-tune what exactly something is. So because that’s what I do, I pressed him: out of all of the reasons I could have been shortchanged, which did he feel was the most probable? “I’m thinking 40% mistake, 30% malice, the rest other.” If there’s even a 10% chance that digging into this ultimately meaningless cafe visit helps us recognize and break out of these argument patterns, being fleeced a few euros, however it happened, was a bargain compared to therapy.

Jason installed this translation app on his phone and the results always look like it took the original text hostage for ransom. iF YoU wanT To sEe yOur ToileT cAVE aGaiN BRiNg 295.000€ to thIS aDDRESs. No POlicE.
 

We had dinner at the restaurant most convenient to the hotel, so convenient that there was a passage into it directly from the hotel, the Taverne de Maître Kanter, which has since closed. As they were reputable for traditional food, Jason and I went for it, ordering creamy pâté, rich garlicky escargots, crisp duck confit with potatoes, and steak frites, all washed down with a rich bordeaux. I am not a fan of pâté, but I enjoyed the escargots very much; I enjoy anything that has been drowned in a vat of butter and garlic. I would probably eat and enjoy a rat if it had taken a garlic butter bath first and Alain Ducasse told me it was OK.  

 
 

*Electing to backpack meant that trade-offs had to be made to compensate for the amount of space we had versus the amount of things we wanted to bring and take home, and this meant that a few hotel sinks along the way played host to our socks and underwear soaking with a packet of portable detergent. This system turned out to be far from perfect as the “quick dry” socks may have been fast compared to the average sock drying time, but in terms of the time an average person has their socks off in a hotel room, their benefits were indiscernible. I spent many mornings in France using the Shaver 2000 or its equivalent to blow hot air through my unmentionables which left every room smelling like humid underwear. Like I said, trade-offs.