Thursday, 26 May 2016

Chantilly Estate: worth a second visit but skip the cream

Crème Chantilly, also known as whipped cream with vanilla flavouring, is tied to the town and grand estate of the Chateau de Chantilly in Picardie, somewhat north of Paris and a two-hour bus drive from Chartres. You can't see this estate in half a day and if you're with a group you'll need a full day to deal with the inevitable waiting around for a group rendez-vous. This was my second visit but this time in Spring.
We started with the ecuries or Grand Stables. (see the photo at left). Our group arrived much too early and had to wait outside. The doors don't open before 10am. Once inside there's a lot of crowding and hanging about for tickets as the passageways are cramped. Not ideal but then you walk along and look at the horses in their stalls. There are 30 horses housed there. They are involved in dressage displays and spectacular themed shows. There is also the horse museum so if you're into horses this is the place for you; history of breeding, use of horses for agriculture, transport and entertainment through the ages. There is quite a collection of carousel horses on display. 
And everywhere the smell of hay, horses and manure. Fortunately not too much of the latter. After a toilet stop we made our way past the carriage courtyard with two giant bronze horses' heads to the dessage display area, handily comprising covered seating on two sides. It's an interesting experience watching the riders explain, at such an historic site, how horses are trained.
We then walked a short distance to the chateau. It's had a bit of a tough time in the past with demolitions and destruction at the time of the Revolution but a lot was rebuilt in the nineteenth century. The Chateau is also famous for its Condé Collection of Artworks. Over the centuries it has been added to and rebuilt by various noble families such as the Montmorencys, the Bourbon-Condes, the Orleans. It is currently owned and developed as an important monument by the Institut de France. For a quick rundown on the history of Chantilly which is so closely involved in the great events and personnages of France visit  The artworks include paintings by Van Dyk and Raphael. You can see here a painting of the Great Condé - not a handsome man but he was cousin to Louis XIV and developped his Chantilly estate to an almost Versaillesque degree. 
Key features of the chateau are the painting gallery with its rotunda, the library which contains thousands of rare books, the music room with its harp, the gallery with paintings of battles, the monkey room where the ceiling is covered in delightful painted antics of monkeys and other animals, the grand staircase with its exquisite metal detail, the gardens and parterres by famed landscape genius Le Notre. 
Another display that caught my eye was that devoted to fine china dinnersets and vases as well as cutlery and golden candlestickholders. All in perfect condition. The chateau makes the perfect complement to the stables. Quality throughout.
JC wanted to try the creme chantilly while he was there and so he did, but the service was extremely slow. It was also suffering from a very heavy hand with the vanilla essence. My whipped cream which is a little more interesting is better in taste but not in consistency. The cream used at Chantilly seemed to be of a better whipping quality than that available in supermarkets here which is greatly inferior to cream sold in NZ. That cream doesn't stand up for long and starts melting distressingly as soon as you stop whipping.                                                                                       To read about my previous visit in 2011 go here
I wanted to explore the gardens, the hamlet but there was no time before we had to catch the bus back. As we left we were passed by a wedding party arriving for photos. What a fabulous place to create memoiries of that nature. But then France just oozes magnificence in its cultural heritage.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Travelling theatre - lost in the past

We all know about travelling circuses, with or without animals, but I hadn't really thought about travelling theatre, other than what used to occur during Shakespeare's time. Travelling (kitset) theatres were popular in the nineteenth century and the last didn't close in France until the late 1960s. Before TV, internet, even radio, it would have been quite an event to have the travelling theatre arrive in your town or village and set up their outdoor structure within 24 hours, complete with stage, wings, seating, ticketing. Here you can see a model of one of the last ones to close in France.

The repertoires were classic and huge. Actors had to learn a hundred plays. Sets had to be very portable. Seating for the audience had to be staggered in height. It was a very physical life and every member of the troupe pitched in. Age was no excuse.

I visited a museum about this travelling lifestyle which is located at Artenay, in the Loiret. It's small but contains many puppets, marionettes, costumes and parts of sets. There's also a little shop where I bought two finger puppets as a memento.

One of the last things I viewed was an example of a typical actor's trailer. Here you can see the exterior and interior setup. The inside has as many facilities and luxuries as you could squeeze in. Cooking can't have been easy as most of the space was taken up with the bedroom and storage. I can't imagine myself spending my life in such confinement but I suppose it's what you get used to.

Ours was a guided visit and definitely the best way to learn. The museum caters particularly for children with regular workshop activities and shows. You can explore their website at


Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Chateau de Chamerolles - Perfume Museum

On a cold and gloomy Saturday we piled into a bus and travelled south to the Chateau de Chamerolles. These days it's a perfume museum but it has had a chequered history.

It was built at the dawn of the Renaissance period by Lancelot I du Lac (yes, Lancelot of the Lake) who served under Francois I king of France (while Henry VIII was king of England). It stayed in the du Lac family until the end of the 17th century. The family were Protestants but managed to hide the fact when necessary and also their protestant artifacts. By 1987 the city of Paris ceded the chateau to the Loiret département. After five years of intense renovation the chateau opened to the public in 1992.

The guided tour is interesting for its information on the daily lives of notables during the 16th - 19th centuries. I hadn't realised that at one time it was normal for everyone to bath every day until it was outlawed by the church and the medical fraternity.

During the 16th century wooden baths were used and rooms were perfumed with aromatic plants hanging from the beams. Sheets were often put in the barrels to protect the skin from wooden splinters and/or shirts were worn for the same reason.

In the 17th century there developed a strong taste for perfumes with an almost overpowering scent. We sniffed civet, undiluted. No one wanted to keep their paper samples; it was so strong and unpleasant but in those days strong scents were needed to mask the bad odours emitted by dubious hygiene. Braziers burnt rosemary or juniper berries to clear the foul air.

Doctors had judged that washing was dangerous as it opened the pores so that illness could enter the body. Both Catholic and Protestant preachers denounced the pleasures of the bath so the 'dry' bath, consisting of rubbing parts of the body likely to be visible (very little of that in those days) with squares of linen soaked inperfume mixtures, was used. This of course only applied to the wealthy.

The bath returned in the 18th century and perfume  gained a more social role. Subtlety was introduced. A copper bath was used and the bath was covered in a sheet to protect the skin from the hot metal and to filter the bath water, which was often used by many people, even as a social activity rather than private. These baths were often modular and one could read and write and eat while having a bath, which might take more than two hours. It was a sign of prestige and luxury.

The perfume area was less interesting for me having already visited the Fragonard Museum in Grasse, twice. The Chamerolles perfume museum has a display of bottles and items that were routinely perfumed in former centuries, such as book covers, gloves and bags. The industrial or artisanal processes were not mentioned or explained. The display concentrates more on the design and marketing of perfume though you can see a perfume organ from the 19th century with its old bottles arranged in rows or 'notes'.

One item that was intriguing was the perfume  fountain (see left) often to be found in well-to-do stores in Paris which dispensed drops of perfume (probably eau de toilette) for shoppers to sample. Certainly the beginning of modern marketing with more elegance than we see today.

The display includes many cabinets of posh perfume bottles as well as a reconstruction of two shop windows of the time (from the Lancel shop on the Avenue de l'Opera). The atomiser was created in the 19th century (1859) for medical uses, then used in horticulture and agriculture, before being adapted by perfumers around 1870.

The 20th century section features Coty and a large collection of design drawings of bottles and labels. It's not that well lit so I had trouble reading anything. We were warned we might get attacked by fleas (very disconcerting) as the pest destructors couldn't always erradicate every one from the old timbers, but we weren't bothered at all and no one suffered any 'attack'.

There's a renaissance garden which must be splendid in summer. Unfortunately the weather was too cold to spend time outside wandering about. If you would like more information in English visit their website. They are well set up for tourists with ample parking, toilets and a well organised shop .
Castle of Chamerolles
45170 Chilleurs-aux-Bois, France