French Friday # 14: The castle that don’t get no love

Paris is flanked by two small forests, often referred to as “the lungs of Paris.” On the West is the famous Bois de Boulogne. There is all kinds of activity there, from horse-racing to a small amusement park to… other… “activities.” Its lesser-known counterpart is the Bois de Vincennes on the Southeast corner of the city. Most visitors to Paris never have a reason to go that far. All the “good stuff” is in the center and towards the West. Or is it? Tucked into the woods is the royal residence aptly named the Château de Vincennes.

One year for my birthday, Mr. Gren and I took the long train ride from Rueil to go visit this castle where we had registered for a guided tour. The castle now has an excellent website, which I encourage you to check out to learn more of the history. The site was originally home to a hunting manor for the king in the early Middle Ages. That was eventually razed and the castle erected in stages through the 1300 and 1400s. We arrived on a beautifully clear and crisp October afternoon.

Tour de Village on the north curtain wall

We entered through the gate in the tower you see above, crossing the moat which had been filled with water up until the 17th century. We went to the information desk and the woman there told us our tour guide would be along shortly. We were surprised at the quiet and peacefulness of this place. We kept waiting for other people to show up for the tour, but no one else came. A few minutes later, our guide came in and was visibly disappointed that his last tour of the day would be for just two people, Americans, no less, who probably wouldn’t understand a word he said. He composed himself quickly, however, and led us back outside to the site of the original manor and started his tour. I began asking him questions and he immediately perked up, realizing that this wouldn’t be such a waste of his time after all. And he was courteous enough to pause occasionally so that I could translate for Mr. Gren.

Niches for statues on the facade of the Châtelet, which was the entrance to the donjon

We hit it off with our guide and he seemed to truly enjoy telling us the history and stories that he knew about this castle. The donjon was swathed in scaffolding. He explained that the foundation was sinking and that they had actually consulted the engineers who had worked on shoring up the Leaning Tower of Pisa to come help them restore the donjon at Vincennes. I hope we can go back someday when it is accessible to visitors. One of the funny things about our tour guide was his little phrase, “Bien sûr, bien sûr, bien sûr,” rattled off more quickly than anyone I’ve ever heard. He said it almost any time I asked a question, just before he would launch into an explanation for this or that. Mr. Gren and I still try to replicate it and laugh when we get tongue-tied right away.

Prisoner graffiti

During the various Revolutions, political prisoners were housed in the castle. They left their mark quite literally, carving messages, poetry, rants and prayers. I would have loved to have stayed longer in this room to make out more of the writing. I wonder if it has been transcribed anywhere?

Sainte Chapelle de Vincennes peeking between the western curtain wall and donjon

One of the more well-preserved features of the château is the Sainte-Chapelle. If you’ve ever been to Paris, this building may look familiar to you, but it’s most likely that you saw its sister on the Ile-de-la-Cité. They were both built by the king known as Saint Louis, who split his time between the Palais de la Cité and Vincennes. At the time, it really was a considerable distance to travel and Saint Louis, being very pious, would find it only natural to have a chapel at his rural residence. The two chapels are not identical, but they are very similar. This chapel houses the tomb of the Duc d’Enghien, a prince of royal blood who was unjustly executed in the moat by order of a jealous and prideful Napoleon.

Tomb of the Duc d'Enghien

I wish I could remember more of the symbolism. An hour or so search on the internet has yielded only the sculptor’s name (Louis-Pierre Desseine) and the title of the monument: “Power of courage supports the Duc in his last moments.” If you look closely, you will see certain elements that were later used in the Statue of Liberty — the diadem, the torch. I seem to remember our guide telling us that the torch being held down (as opposed to up by the Statue of Liberty, lighting the way for all to see) was a symbol of grief and oppression. The dagger was treachery. Unfortunately, I don’t remember anything about the snake or the woman on the left.

Le Vau's portico

The Château de Vincennes is a treasure that I wish more people would take the time to discover, especially now that so many of the renovations are done. But it was a special day having the place to ourselves with our own personal tour guide, bien sûr.

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