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This is the fourth in a series of walking tours highlighting the sites and stories of diverse districts of Paris.
A box of delights awaited me when I got off the metro at Château de Vincennes at the end of Line 1, just on the edge of the Bois de Vincennes. As soon as I came up the steps out of the station I saw the château right in front of me, and the map told me that a few minutes’ stroll would take me to the Parc Floral, one of the city’s loveliest botanical gardens and leisure areas. So, a walk unlike any in central Paris beckoned.
I could have opted to wander the grounds for no cost, but I chose instead to pay the entrance fee to get inside the castle and the Sainte-Chapelle de Vincennes. I walked first along the enclosure wall of the keep, four sides of a square, one storey above the ground, pausing in each corner turret to look inside at the vaulted ceilings and study the pictures recreating the bright colors of the original. The building has been so well restored that it was easy to imagine castle life: the king taking the air out here – perhaps walking with his advisers along the special “rampart path” leading out to the garden – scurrying chamberlains and servants, the sound of the gatehouse bell pealing canonical hours to indicate the daily round of church services.
The towering gatehouse was immediately imposing and once inside I began imagining life in past centuries when medieval monarchs lived here for at least part of the year. The large area inside the stone wall with its nine watch towers is a world apart from the bustle of Vincennes; the 14th-century stone castle with turrets sits squatly facing the soaring gothic spire of the Sainte-Chapelle de Vincennes, modeled on its namesake on the Île de la Cité. King Charles V (1338-80) was largely responsible for both, having decided to build a strong fortification on land formerly used as royal hunting grounds; he sought protection during the battles which became known as the Hundred Years War. The Château de Vincennes became the country palace of many French kings until the late 17th century when Louis XIV built Versailles as an even more impressive alternative.
Inside, wandering the king’s private apartments brought more glimpses into life seven centuries ago. Most impressive was the king’s bedchamber, large and wood-paneled, with traces of color on the ceiling indicating its original vibrant beauty; a pattern of gold leaf fleur de lys – the symbol of the French Crown – on a deep blue painted background. Also, a splendid coffer where King Charles kept two psalters (books of psalms) which had originally belonged to Louis IX, the only French king to have been sainted. From the huge window, Charles could look westwards to Paris and when I did the same, I spotted the Eiffel Tower, several miles away on the other side of the city.
Linked to the bedchamber was a tiny royal chapel, where the chaplain would celebrate religious offices several times a day, watched from the adjoining oratory by his royal master. Charles’s study reminded me that this was a working palace, from which he governed his kingdom during the two or three months he spent here every year. Here he consulted with advisers and issued orders. Here too, his treasury, used to store the kingdom’s gold and Charles’s most precious manuscripts and objets d’art, locked in his absence by a single key – kept by the king himself! – and sealed with sealing wax. In the king’s wardrobe were coffers “for his linen” and carved decorations of such instruments as a hurdy gurdy and a portable organ, reminders that music played an important part at the château. Indeed, Charles summoned musicians to play for him almost every day and commissioned works from Guillaume de Machot, considered the leading French composer of his time.
There is a darker history too, because from the 15th century the keep was used as a prison, a place of incarceration for those who had displeased the monarch, a much-feared symbol of absolute power until 1784, when the prisoners were transferred to the Bastille. Or, as the guidebook puts it, “sent to rot there.” And, walking through the dank rooms in the crypt, where desperate inmates chipped out a name or a date, I recalled some of the dreadful tales. Nicolas Fouquet, the powerful superintendent of finances whom Louis XIV thought grew too rich and powerful, was shut away here in solitary confinement as a warning to the rest of the court. In 1749, the philosopher Diderot was imprisoned here for two years for writing material deemed anti-religious. Later, Mirabeau, imprisoned after receiving a “Lettre de cachet,” a letter finding him guilty without a trial, used his time here to write about the illegality of the French prison system.
Walking into the Sainte-Chapelle de Vincennes was much more uplifting. The intricate stonework of the outside walls, almost lacy in their fine detail, gave way to a vast, light-flooded interior whose cool creamy walls were the perfect setting for the beautiful stained-glass windows, some dating from the 16th century. Oratories right and left were built as places for private worship for the king and queen, a stone balcony along the back wall allowed a bird’s eye view of the whole setting. Many of the original sculptures have disappeared, but a cast of a statue of Charles V stands in the choir, a reminder of the king who commissioned this lovely building, but died long before it was completed.
One highlight of my visit came right at the end in, of all places, the bookshop at the exit. The assistant, ringing up my souvenir purchases of a guidebook and a history of Les Grands Rois de France (France’s Great Kings) chatted with me about this castle being “France’s Windsor Castle,” explaining that the English king Henry V had died here in the king’s bedchamber in 1422 and that another English king, Edward III, had been married to the French Philippa of Hainault. His knowledge of history was impressive and it was deeply welcoming to see his desire to find anecdotes I could relate to as a Brit.
A complete contrast to the château was the nearby Parc Floral, which I reached by exiting the main entrance to the right, following the wall around to the back and crossing a main road towards huge individual letters, set among the grass and trees, reading PARC FLORAL. Easy! Entry is free and this park, some 28 hectares in size, nestles on the edge of the Bois de Vincennes and, along with three other sites, forms part of the Botanical Gardens of Paris. It is perfect for wandering. I passed among huge cedar and oak trees to the entrance to find a maze of little pathways winding around a whole host of plant features, from the central Vallée des Fleurs, to separate areas for all sorts of botanical goodies: dahlias, irises, alpine plants, bonsai trees, a forest garden, thickets, a butterfly garden.
Charming for all, fascinating for plant lovers – there are some 8,000 species – and, full of play areas and resting places, the Parc Floral is suitable for all ages. There is, for example, a mini-golf course where each of the 18 holes is in the shape of a famous Parisian monument, there are adventure playgrounds and a tree-climbing challenge. The Parc also has a theater, puppet theater and outdoor stage – the Espace Concert – and plays host to many events through the year, including the Paris Jazz Festival and an outdoor classical-music extravaganza called Festival Classique au Vert.
Both the château and the Parc Floral make fascinating visits, such are the riches on offer. Combining the two made for a splendid and varied stroll which made me feel I must be a long way from central Paris when in fact I had simply traveled 10 stops east along metro line 1 from Châtelet.
Château de Vincennes
Open every day except January 1st, May 1st, December 25th
- May 19th – September 21st 10 am – 6 pm
- September 22nd – May 18th 10 am – 5 pm
- NB The Sainte Chapelle opens at 10:30 am and closes between 1 and 2 pm
Opens every day at 9:30 am
Spring 6:30 pm, Summer 8 pm, Autumn 6:30 pm, Winter 5 pm
Entry: €2.50 from June to September, otherwise free
Lead photo credit : Château de Vincennes. © Marian Jones