There are over 45,000 castles in France. I wish I could say that I have visited them all, but 45,000 is a ridiculously large number for a country that only has 36,000 cities/towns. Plus, many of them are still private residences, and therefore not open to the public. However, many of them are available to visit, and I’ve been slowly making my way through that list. Especially the lesser known castles. They may not have the opulence of Versailles, but they often have just as fascinating a history. Case in point, my latest stop on my Passion Monuments challenge: the Château de Rambouillet.
The Château de Rambouillet is located in the town of Rambouillet, about an hour’s train ride southwest of Paris. The building dates back to the 14th century, when it was originally built as a fortified manor. Since then, it has housed an extraordinary line up of French historical figures. And yet, very few people know about, much less visit, this beautiful estate. Which is such a shame, because walking through this chateau is like walking through French history.
For starters, the great Renaissance King, Francis I, died at the Château de Rambouillet in 1547. In 1783, the chateau became the private property of King Louis XVI as part of an expansion of his hunting grounds. This meant that Château de Rambouillet became a public building during the French Revolution. In 1815, Napoleon I stayed at the chateau on his way to exile in St. Helena. In 1830, King Charles X signed his abdication in the chateau. And in 1944, a newly returned to France Charles de Gaulle set up his headquarters at the chateau in preparation for the liberation of Paris.
The most recent history of the chateau has seen it being used to host foreign dignitaries from around the world. In 1975, the very first G6 Summit was hosted at the Château de Rambouillet, and between 1896 and 2009, it was the summer residence of the French presidents. Today, it is managed by the Centre for National Monuments, and is open for visitors year round.
There is lots to see at the estate, including sprawling gardens and lakes. But my personal favourite part of the visit was the Laiterie de la Reine (Queen’s Dairy), a small building on the chateau grounds that was built specifically for Marie Antoinette. Apparently, upon seeing Château de Rambouillet for the first time, she remarked to her husband, “How could I live in such a gothic toadhouse?” It would seem that Louis XVI adhered to the ‘Happy wife, Happy life’ philosophy, and immediately set out to make the estate more palatable for his wife. Several cottages and the Queen’s Dairy were built to entertain the Queen while the King was off hunting. I don’t know if Marie Antoinette was appeased, but I thought the buildings were beautiful.
The Château de Rambouillet may not be as close to Paris as Versailles or Vincennes. But it is still within the suburban train network and well worth a visit. Especially if you’re looking to avoid the crowds. On the day I visited, I had many of the rooms to myself. The town of Rambouillet itself is also incredibly picturesque, so if you’re looking for an off the beaten track day trip, you can’t go wrong with the Château de Rambouillet.
Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.