Everyone visits Versailles when they come to Paris. But if you’re in Paris for longer than a week or two, or have been to Paris before, a day trip to Chantilly is worthwhile.
So what is Chantilly? Good question. Before I visited, I didn’t know either.
Chantilly is a small town in the province of Picardie, home to Chantilly cream (a specialized whipped cream), a Medieval Ages chateau, traditional French, English, and Chinese gardens, a horse museum and the major Thoroughbred turf races in France.
Leaving from Gare du Nord in Paris, the Chantilly SNCF trains leave about once an hour (you can find schedules on the SNCF website). Buying tickets at the station is easy enough, just find a yellow machine instead the white ones used for internal Paris tickets. Round trip, the tickets cost me $16. Then follow the signs to the train platform listed on the ticket and follow the line of people onto the train. The ride is only about 20 minutes, so don’t get too excited about the possibility of taking a nap on the train. It won’t happen.
Once in Chantilly, there is no chance of getting lost. Large signs point the way through a little park to the chateau and horse museum as well as to the main street of the town. And of course, the chateau is big enough to be seen from very far away.
Tickets can be purchased for the “domain” of Chantilly — the Chateau, Horse museum, gardens and audio guide — for 17 Euro, 10 Euro discounted ticket for students, job-seekers and the handicapped. The ticket is actually good for an entire year so if you don’t get a chance to see everything in one day, feel free to go back. When you buy a ticket, you will receive the “livret de visite” which contains maps and has the details for each site in the town. The domain can be visited in any order, I review the different sites here in the order that I visited them.
Museum of Horses:
For a slightly obscure topic, this museum is surprisingly well done. First taking the visitor through the history of the domestication of the horse and then through the different modern uses and portrayals of horses, the exhibit can teach a lot. It contains collections of paintings, sculptures, manuscripts and figurines all dedicated to the horse and the relationship between horse and man. The exhibit has 15 rooms as well as an entrance hall filled with horse stalls where you can whisper hopes and dreams to the powerful creatures that have been partnered with humans for centuries. Take a look around the building outside of the museum, and you’ll find rings and stalls still used today. Younger children won’t be too enthralled with the museum rooms as it is a lot of images and sign reading, but the visit could take upwards of an hour.
Equestrian performances happen at different times throughout the year. They require an extra ticket but will be well publicized so you can make that decision when you buy the Domain ticket.
A short walk from the “Grandes Écuries” (horse museum) is the Chateau. Simply show your ticket at the entrance and then follow the signs pointing you in the direction of the visit. As you walk through, you’ll find a massive collection of ancient paintings and artifacts that portray the varied history of the building and the country. Make sure you find the library full of ancient books and drawings.
Later on, don’t miss the portrait room — you’ll know it when you see it. It’s a strange space because you are surrounded by painted faces staring at you. Near this room is the small climate-controlled room holding two Raphael paintings. If you’re interested in renaissance art, find these two masterpieces that are semi-hidden in the giantess of the chateau. Don’t miss the small but beautiful chapelle on the right side of the entrance dome.
As you exit the Chateau, wander through the gardens. I didn’t have time to find the Chinese or English gardens, but the traditional french gardens are lovely and much simpler than those at Versailles or in Paris.
A trip to Chantilly can easily be a day or half day excursion outside of the hustle and bustle of Paris. Restaurants in town are slightly more expensive than my cheap student budget liked, but one could easily get a meal at any of them for 25 euro. Boulangeries are plentiful along the main road and I highly recommend spending the few euros to get a dessert with Chantilly whipped cream. I tried a vanilla cream and an espresso flavored cream and while both were incredible, the vanilla was the favorite. Paired with fruits and pastry, Chantilly cream itself makes the trip worthwhile.
More information about the domain can be found on the Chateau of Chantilly website (available in English, just click the British flag in the upper right hand corner). The website also includes a map of the grounds.