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Mini marvellous

Smaller Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte inspired famous Versailles

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The French countryside is encrusted with castles, historic chateaux, palaces and of course Versailles, which is at the top of most tourists' must-see lists.

But the real jewel in the crown for those who prefer a less touristy but equally breathtaking experience is a more intimate, much smaller chateau called Vaux-le-Vicomte, 55 kilometres southeast of Paris, which is not only extraordinarily beautiful but has been called the birthplace of jardin a la fran aise.

What makes it even more enticing, however, is the tragic story of its owner, Nicholas Fouquet, a man of great taste and soaring ambition that led to his catastrophic fall from grace.

Fouquet purchased the property in 1641 at age 26. When he became finance minister for King Louis XIV in 1657, he commissioned Vaux to be built and razed several villages and an old chateau to do so.

He hired the greatest young architect he could find, Louis Le Vau, sought out the most promising landscape architect, Andre Le Notre, and chose the innovative Charles Le Brun to decorate all the interiors.

None of them was famous before the urbane Fouquet discovered them, and he gave free rein to their creative genius. Five years later, he hosted a lavish fete on a warm summer evening.

Fouquet had hoped to impress King Louis with his small masterpiece -- instead, it proved to be a little too gorgeous. An enraged and envious Sun King responded by throwing Fouquet in prison for the rest of his life and then snatched up Le Vau, Le Brun and Le Notre and ordered the trio to build him a palace.

The result was Versailles. Soon after, the writer and philosopher Voltaire famously summed up the situation: "On 17 August, at six in the evening, Fouquet was the King of France: at two in the morning he was nobody."

After Fouquet's arrest, the estate fell into decline, but it has since been completely restored, with historians using old engravings and drawings for accuracy.

It is once again filled with magnificent art, tapestries, sculpture, chandeliers, furnishing -- and still dripping with history.

Today it stands as a supreme example of 17th-century French architecture, nestled between two rivers that feed its reflecting ponds, moat, canals and grotto.

Best of all, the crowds have not discovered Vaux-le-Vicomte. On a recent visit, there were perhaps three dozen people wandering through the magnificent chateau, enjoying a delicious meal in what used to be the stables and touring the gardens, which are not just beautiful, but fascinating.

Among other devices, Le Notre employed an optical illusion called anamorphosis abscondita (hidden distortion) that can be seen in the pools, which are narrower nearest to the chateau, reducing the effect of perspective.

The chateau has been seen in many movies, as the home of Hugo Drax in Moonraker, in Marie Antoinette, Valmont, Vatel and many more, but no story could be more dramatic than the real one that unfolded there more than four centuries ago.

The bold but reckless Fouquet, who had shown such sophisticated vision, daring esthetic sense and brilliance, and whose family motto was Quo non ascendet -- "What heights might he not reach?" -- died in prison in 1680.

Though lacking in good judgment, he still managed to bring together one of the greatest collaborations in all of architectural history.


-- HOW TO GET THERE: The chateau is accessible by train and taxi, by rental car or small minivan tour. The first two options are best. The train to Melun leaves from Gare de Lyon in Paris and from there it is a short taxi ride to the chateau. On a tour, you won't be able to spend as much time as you like, or linger over lunch and some fine wine.

-- SIZE MATTERS: Vaux-le-Vicomte is a fraction the size of Versailles. It is set amid about 40 hectares of grounds compared to Versailles' 800.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 26, 2012 D7

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