Category Horse Girl

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.

The British Museum part deux

We had but a scant half day in London before we had to catch the Eurostar to Paris, and we elected to spend it at the British Museum, mostly browsing the Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and Southeast Asia. The last time I visited, security did a very cursory glance into my purse. This time, the guard very nearly unpacked the whole of my backpack; if you haven’t had the joy of having a stranger paw through your clean and dirty underwear on a table in front of spectators, just know that it’s a really special experience.

This is a Native American saddle pad design from the mid to late 1800s; with it, their horses had much greater endurance, able to travel twenty miles more per day owing to the relief of direct contact on the spine from bareback riding, while still allowing for close contact between leg and flank. Cree, Ojibwa, Plains Peoples.

Mosaic mask of Tezcatlopoca: Human skull mask inset with turquoise, iron pyrite, white conch, and thorny oyster. Aztec, believed to have been worn for ritualistic purposes. Extremely dilated from the optometrist.

Double-headed serpent turquoise mosaic: turquoise, hematite, and shells inlaid into cedar.         Aztec, 15-16th century.

My face whenever I hear something juicy; jade, Tang dynasty AD 600-1000

This jade horse sculpture was HUGE compared to most of the other jade in the exhibit. An absolute unit.

Number three is a silver bong, pissing off parents in China since the 1800s when they find one in their kids’ sock drawer.

Jade, marble, and ormulu (an alloy of metals, gold-colored, often gilded) base for a hookah pipe, London, 1700.

My mind boggles when I think about how many uppercuts this guy could do all at once.

The mother of pearl inlay is just stunning. This platter is alive with iridescence.

Ceramic pillow, China, Jin dynasty (AD 265–420). The inscription reads “The wind rustles flowers under a snow white moon.” There are many of these uncomfortable looking pillows in existence, some plainer and some far more elaborate, but no one really knows for certain their purpose. Because they were a woman’s possession, it’s believed they were a reminder to women of their matrimonial duties. “It’s hard and uncomfortable–like your life! Now start rustling your flowers.”

Ravi Shankar’s sitar. Gourds, teak, bone.

Ladies and gentlemen: the world’s most fabulous crocodile.

Tsam-Tanz boots, Tibetan. 

Conch shell trumpet, used in Tibet and China in Buddhist temples to call monks to prayer. 1700-1899. I know in my soul that this one in particular summons an oceanic dragon when it’s sounded but they keep it behind glass because the dragon makes a mess.

Ritual dagger or kīla, 1800s, used in Nepal for religious and magical purposes. They derive their power from their connection to the deity represented on the handle.  Not traditionally used for stabbing, but there is no classier way to be stabbed than with this baby.

If this is your ladle, your soup had better be damn good.

So many pieces in this wing referenced human dominance over animals, most often with their foot planted on its back or head. I liked this reversal of fortunes.

All too soon, it was time to make our way to St. Pancras. Years of mostly traveling in US airports have conditioned me to expect security lines to be long and painful, but this one was breezy and involved no tumbling of my underwear into public view so it was a vast step up from the morning. The train ride itself was uneventful but my chill kind of evaporated in Gare du Nord where I officially became the sole sort-of French speaker between the two of us and did not feel all that confident about it, despite the Duolingo owl stalking me day and night to practice for a year and a half. No doubt part of my insecurity lay with the fact that I’d never spoken French with another person, only into a microphone at my computer, and I suspected that in my efforts to pronounce words properly, I sounded more like someone putting on a bad French accent than a regular everyday French speaker.

The train systems in Paris and further into France are complicated enough that I wanted to handle as much as I could in advance, figuring out exactly what trains we needed to take, where to board, and booking tickets in advance if I could.  It’s not a trip planning method that leaves a ton of room for spontaneity but when it comes to transportation, I’d rather have a plan than feel like a free spirit.  I’d booked our first night at the Hotel Eiffel Seine, not due to its visibility of the Eiffel Tower* OR the Seine but due to its proximity to the RER-C train which we’d be taking to Versailles early the following morning. I knew what trains to take and where to transfer to get from Gare du Nord to Champ de Mars – Tour Eiffel…on paper. Gare du Nord in person was sensory overload, huge and loud with so many trains and a sea of fast, purposefully moving people and an unforgiving subway ticketing system that only vaguely indicates what you’re buying and if you make a mistake, you need to start the purchase process completely over which isn’t frustrating at all. After I finally figured out the machine I was at was broken, I waited in line for another one, had to start and restart my purchase three times but finally had subway tickets. Finding the correct train was another struggle but once that was figured out…boom, there’s the Eiffel Tower.

We made our way to the hotel and the moment came: I was going to have to speak French. As I opened my mouth, I realized I didn’t know the words for “reservation” or “check in” and it was just like when I got into my first car accident: I was blinded by the morning sun in the direction that I needed to turn, I couldn’t see if a car was coming, there was pressure behind me from other cars in the neighborhood and so I decided to just go for it, pulling out in front of a white van perfectly camouflaged by the sun, totalling both vehicles. “I’ll never drive again,” I cried on the phone to my father. “You’re driving again TODAY.” he replied.  So here I am, in the lobby of this hotel, I know I’ve got to say something, but I don’t know the right words, and pressure real or imagined made me decide to just go for it, so I opened my mouth and a car crash in French with my name came out. The receptionist replied immediately in English. I felt simultaneously better about my chances of surviving the week and disappointed in the Duolingo owl for preparing me to inform someone that a bear has pants but not this. Still, I wasn’t going to let this stop me from continuing to attempt to conduct business in French; I didn’t want to assume everyone speaks English and I also felt as though it would be rude to not at least try to communicate in the language of the land. And also because I didn’t spend a year and a half mangling a language into a microphone to get shy about mangling it now.

Our room was oriented to get a peep at the Seine but somehow we still ended up with a view of the Eiffel Tower(s).

After we checked in, we dumped our bags and walked to get a closer view of the Eiffel before it began its hourly disco party. I don’t know if we could have gotten closer to the tower than we did, but not far up the block from us were soldiers carrying what appeared to be automatic rifles and my reaction was to find some pressing business in the opposite direction. I know that they are a continuing presence on the streets of France ever since the the January 2015 Île-de-France attacks but generally I don’t see a person with a huge gun and think “Hurrah! My personal safety level has increased!” No, I’m more invested in the idea of not having to try to explain myself in French to someone with a huge gun who wants to know why I’m trespassing after visiting hours. 

BURGER PIZZA

We spent the drizzly evening walking around, taking in the sights and trying to figure out where we wanted to eat. Neither one of us was really in the mood for a full restaurant meal so we went to Poilâne where I conducted a transaction for bread in French pretty easily (hurrah!) and they gave us each a small, buttery cookie. Afterward, we walked to Franprix and bought some cheese and fruit and other goodies and had a hotel room picnic.

 

 

 

*It is my understanding that the Eiffel Tower is visible from any part of Paris which is why any movie or TV show that cuts to Paris always has the Eiffel Tower in the shot. Look at how many times it appeared in this post alone!