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Perhaps one of the best kept secrets in Paris is hiding in plain sight. Only six miles from central Paris and a short RER ride away, the suburb of Sceaux is a favorite destination for Parisians. Few tourists seek to uncover its wealth of art, history, and charm.
Located south of Paris, Sceaux (pronounced “So”) is a small city in its own right with a pedestrian-only district filled with gourmet food shops, patisseries, and restaurants. Several chain stores dot this shopping landscape as well as boutique shops, ubiquitous pharmacies, and an award-winning boulangerie. Enjoyed by locals, this area of Sceaux, ringed by Avenue de Camberwell and Rue Houdan, is the weekend place to catch up with family and friends.
Just around the corner from this hangout, accessible via rue de Dr Berger, is one of the entrances to Parc de Sceaux where locals and Parisians flock to unwind. People of all ages come to stroll its allées, spread blankets on grassy knolls to picnic, or just sit quietly and drink in the ambiance.
Amid this vast park is a rather petit château, set on a hill above the fountains and pools of water that cascade down the vast slope. Sprinkled throughout the landscape are statues of marble, stone, or bronze, as well as several original outbuildings that date back to the 17th century. And that’s when this illustrious history of Château de Sceaux begins.
Actually, the story begins at another château, Vaux-Le-Vicomte. Having built the castle to impress King Louis XIV, Nicholas Fouquet threw a lavish party at his opulent château that was so impressive that the king had him imprisoned for embezzlement, for how else could his minister afford to outshine the king of France himself? Woven into this 17th-century intrigue is an ambitious, up-and-coming politician who might have put the bug in the king’s ear to sow seeds of doubt regarding Nicolas Fouquet. Apparently, it was successful. Ambition landed Jean-Baptiste Colbert his role in France’s history with a plethora of titles under Louis XIV, most notably as first minister of state.
Colbert, having witnessed (and perhaps abetted) the personal tragedy of Nicolas Fouquet, waited a few years before purchasing a seigneurie, a domaine with a lordship title, and then built his own dream house. Not to be outdone by his peers, Colbert hired the Perrault brothers and Antoine Lepautre, the crème de la crème of architects, as well as Charles Le Brun, the king’s painter and interior designer.
After Colbert’s death, his son, also known as Jean-Baptiste Colbert, as well as the Marquis de Seignelay, hired the popular garden designer André Le Nôtre of Versailles and Vaux-Le-Vicomte fame to create a gorgeous park fit for a king, or in this case, a marquis. The younger Colbert also added exquisite statues depicting mythological characters. Over the decades, many lavish fêtes were thrown here and often included performances by renowned musicians of the day.
Unfortunately, the original château was destroyed during the French Revolution. The property was confiscated by the state and later sold to Monsieur Lecomte, a merchant from Saint-Malo whose son-in-law later rebuilt the château in the Louis XIII style, completing it in 1862. The surviving outbuildings were restored at this time as well.
One such restored building is the Pavillon de l’Aurore, a lovely domed structure in the classical style whose round ceiling was painted by Le Brun circa 1673. The work, entitled L’Aurore sur son char chassant la Nuit, follows the allegory of Aurore but its meaning is more political: Aurore signifies Colbert as he awaits the arrival of Louis XIV, the Sun King, depicted as none other than the sun itself. The Pavillon de l’Aurore is well worth the short walk from the château to see Le Brun’s gorgeous handiwork on the domed ceiling.
Another must-see is the Musée de l’Île-de-France which is housed in the château itself. This museum is a repository of the largest collection of paintings from the famed, 20th-century School of Paris. It also serves as a history museum for both l’Île-de-France and the Château de Sceaux. Various exhibits can be viewed on each of its two floors, including a permanent collection of period ceramics. The nearby orangerie contains temporary exhibits of art as well.
The park, partially destroyed and desecrated by the planting of crops after the French Revolution, was rebuilt based on the skeletal structure Le Nôtre had laid out on the expansive grounds. The numerous statues miraculously survived.
Today one would never know by admiring this beautiful park and château that the French Revolution ever touched down here, let alone caused such destruction. The fountains, pools, and lavish lawn are a pleasure to discover as evidenced by the Parisians basking in the sun. But don’t be surprised to see a bride decked out for their nuptials as this is a popular wedding venue… even if it’s a well-kept secret!
Note: Château de Sceaux and Parc de Sceaux are accessible via the RER B line towards Saint-Rémy-lès-Chevreuse. The stop is Parc de Sceaux. (Make sure the train is not an express train or it will whiz right by this stop!) The main entrance to the château and parc is a 15-minute walk from the train station through the surrounding tranquil neighborhood. For information to plan your visit, see https://en.parisinfo.com/paris-museum-monument/71394/Domaine-departemental-de-Sceaux or https://domaine-de-sceaux.hauts-de-seine.fr/.
Lead photo credit : The grand entrance to Château de Sceaux. © Dawn Dailey