A festive outing to a fairytale French château: a day at Vaux-le-Vicomte

White delights … Vaux-le-Vicomte, in Seine-et-Marne, near Paris. Photograph: Alamy By Kim Willsher , The Guardian For most o...

White delights … Vaux-le-Vicomte, in Seine-et-Marne, near Paris. Photograph: Alamy

By Kim Willsher, The Guardian

For most of its long and inglorious history, Vaux-le-Vicomte has been ignored. Shunned by the royal court after a jealous and vengeful king left its owner to rot in jail, overshadowed by its neighbour Fontainebleau, Vaux-le-Vicomte has hidden for centuries in plain sight, less than an hour by car or train from Paris.

Many of those driving south en route to the Burgundy vineyards, Alps or winter warmth of the Côte d’Azur won’t even know it’s there. This is a pity at any time of the year, but especially at Christmas when for five weeks the 17th-century baroque château is transformed into something of an enchanted palace.

Most of France’s state-run and public-funded châteaux make little extra effort to attract Christmas visitors, but the family-owned Vaux-le-Vicomte, the largest historic private estate in France and an early blueprint for the Palais de Versailles, has to pay its own way. Taking inspiration from British stately homes such as Chatsworth in the Peak District, it has discovered that dressing up for Christmas is a good way to get noticed.

It had snowed the morning we arrived and the light dusting added an extra magic to the picture postcard scene, as the château’s perfectly symmetrical façade appeared in a forest clearing at the end of a narrow avenue of sentry-like plane trees. Outside, two giant toy guardsmen in red uniforms flanked the entrance. This year’s theme is vintage toys, and Eric Naudin, the château’s Christmas decorator-in-chief, led us into the former stables where a collection of carriages and phaetons had been incorporated into seasonal scenes.

Animal magic … a mechanical bear in a hot-air balloon in the grand salon

From there we visited the staterooms, heavily perfumed with vanilla, orange, cinnamon and chocolate, and filled with teddy bears, toy trains, wooden trucks and the most weird and wonderful creatures – like a morning-suited toy giraffe playing the flute, a walrus wielding a French horn and a cello-playing rhino, their heads moving back and forth to the sound of traditional English carols.

This magical kingdom is delightfully old-fashioned, low-tech and in places the kind of over-the-top kitsch that enchants the very young. Naudin told us it had taken 40 people two weeks to set up the installations in the château and its grounds, and it involved 150 trees, 10,000 decorations and 4,000metres of garlands and lights, not to mention a giant illuminated squirrel and angel.

At the entrance to the grand salon, he threw a theatrical flourish. This was his pièce de résistance. It crossed my mind a spoiler alert might be needed here, but you really do have to see it yourself. Under the 18-metre domed ceiling, a mechanical bear waved from a blue-and-gold hot-air balloon; a mirrored disco ball projected Cheerios-shaped “snowflakes” over the heavy window drapes; and the vast floor was a “fairyland forest” of pine trees spray-painted perfectly white.

The history of Vaux-le-Vicomte is no fairytale, we learned. Commissioned in 1656 by the fabulously wealthy aristocratic Nicolas Fouquet, finance minister to the Sun King, Louis XIV, the château was the work of architect Louis Le Vau, painter-decorator Charles Le Brun and landscape artist André le Nôtre, who later designed the park at Versailles. In August 1661, Fouquet threw an extravagant housewarming party in honour of the king, unaware that jealous rivals had accused him of embezzling public funds and turned Louis against him.

The evening backfired. Louis was said to be jealous of his minister’s opulent new home and refused to stay the night. As Voltaire wrote: “At 6pm on 17 August, Fouquet was king of France; at two in the morning, he was nobody.” Three weeks later, Fouquet was arrested and stripped of his property. At his trial, he was sentenced to banishment, but the king personally intervened ordering he be jailed for life. He died in prison in 1680. In 1875, the by-then dilapidated château was acquired by the sugar industrialist Alfred Sommier, great grandfather of the current owner, Patrice de Vogüé, who was given the property as a wedding gift in 1967.

Today, Vaux-le-Vicomte attracts 300,000 visitors a year, 75% of them French, and has featured in hundreds of films, most famously Moonraker, starring Roger Moore as James Bond. It is also one of the settings for the BBC2 series Versailles. In France, it is best-known for its special events, such as Grand Siècle Day, when visitors dress in 17th-century royal court costumes; the candlelit summer garden evenings; and its Christmas decorations. Parents can hire musketeer and princess costumes for their children to dress up in, and this Christmas youngsters are invited to bring a toy or gift for the French Red Cross to give to underprivileged families.

De Vogüé believes part of the appeal of his family château is its relatively modest size, which offers a more intimate and manageable 90-minute visit for those with easily bored youngsters. “We’re grand, but on a human scale. As for Christmas; the British do these things so well,” he says.

Toy story … ‘A giraffe playing the flute, a walrus wielding a French horn and a cello-playing rhino move back and forth to the sound of traditional English carols.’ Photograph: Alain Legrand/Collectif Image Melun

The majority of visitors come from Paris, he told us, but the surrounding area is not without interest. Fontainebleau, a Unesco world heritage site, is just 30 minutes by car, and the free Safran aerospace museum at Réau, 6km away, is worth a fly past. The forests around Vaux-le-Vicomte and Fontainebleau are a walkers’ paradise in summer and, while you cannot stay in the château, it has a list of recommended hotels and chambres d’hôtes nearby for those with cars.

As night fell, we braved the cold for a spin round the beautifully landscaped formal gardens on electric buggies, taking in the pools, fountains, statues and a children’s grove featuring a collection of inflated lantern toys.

Before leaving Vaux-le-Vicomte, I asked Naudin how much the Christmas installations have cost. He looked at me as if I’d morphed into Scrooge. “I am here to make people dream, not count costs,” he said, looking genuinely affronted. “How can you ask this? Beauty and magic have no price.”

Way to go

Christmas at Vaux-le Vicomte is open until 6 January, except Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Admission from £17.50 adult, under-6s free. Travel by Eurostar from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord, then Transilien train from Paris Gare de l’Est to Verneuil L’Etang and then catch the Chateaubus shuttle. BA flies from Heathrow to Orly

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