The road outside the train station was dingy, and only a handful of people had disembarked from the rail cars. Together, we stumbled toward the nearest bus stop, really just a couple of benches beneath a low-hanging roof. Tacked to the wall was the timetable. Beside it was a poster advertising a new perfume. Just behind the train station, I could see a towering gray mill that did nothing to beautify the village.
According to the timetable, the next bus would arrive in about 30 minutes. I consulted my friends, who (to my relief) voiced that they were hungry. We entered the small restaurant across the street from the train station, where we ordered a pizza and scarfed it down. It was a far cry from the fine dining that most people associate with France, but even so, it was welcome sustenance.
A few minutes after we had cleared our plates, the shuttle trundled to a halt in front of the bus stop. We boarded with the rest of the passengers and left the little village behind.
We were on our way to visit the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, the 17th-century palace that inspired Louis XIV to transform Versailles from a hunting lodge to a palatial estate. Around the world, many people learn about Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles in school, where art history and French teachers love to share their stories.
But my friend Emily and I had first heard of Vaux-le-Vicomte three years before our visit, when we were roommates living in a Parisian suburb. We had happened upon an 11-year-old used copy of Rick Steves’ guide to Paris, and we had pored over it, devouring it like fiction. In the book, Rick had told us all about Vaux-le-Vicomte: its beauty, history, and atmosphere. But he had also warned us that the château is fairly inaccessible, so we had never attempted the trek.
Now, after three years of daydreaming about the palace, Emily and I were finally venturing to Vaux-le-Vicomte, her fiancé Jacob joining us for the adventure. When our shuttle came to a stop, we bounded down its steps, eager to get our first look at the palace.
Seconds later, it came into sight.
There it was: Vaux-le-Vicomte, Versailles’ older brother. There it was: the estate that turned the Sun King against one of his highest-ranking officials.
In 1641, young courtier Nicolas Fouquet purchased a country estate about 35 miles from Paris. For years, he scarcely touched it. He was too busy to spend much time there; after all, his star was on the rise, and he had a name to make for himself. But by 1653, he was France’s superintendent of finances, charged with refilling the country’s coffers (which had been depleted by years of warmaking). He had become a wealthy man, and he had begun to dream of living in the most resplendent house that his fortune could buy.
Fouquet assembled a group of men to build his dream home: architect Louis Le Vau, painter and decorator Charles Le Brun, and landscaper André Le Nôtre. Although the designers didn’t know it at the time, this collaboration would elevate their status forever, transforming them into a dream team, an all-star assemblage of France’s most iconic artists.
By August 1661, the house was nearly complete. It was gorgeous, it was grand, and it was finally guest-ready, so Fouquet invited the entire court to a Gatsby-esque bonanza. The king, of course, was the guest of honor.
Nowadays, on Saturday evenings in the summer, the château’s owners attempt to bring that party back to life by lighting the property with 2,000 candles and by setting off fireworks — so as Vaux-le-Vicomte came into my view, I was ready to step back in time. It didn’t matter that I was wearing navy pants and an olive-colored jacket instead of the costly attire that was the height of 17th-century fashion. It didn’t matter that I had arrived in a shuttle instead of a royal cavalcade.
I had made it to the castle where France’s wealthy and powerful had once waged war against each other. This was where they had courted allies, where they had plotted against enemies, all while oohing and aahing over a firework display.
With no political agenda of our own, Emily, Jacob, and I murmured excitedly as we entered the grounds. We wandered past the stables, the most spectacular home a horse could ever aspire to. We traversed the moat that was definitely more decorative than defensive, its stone perimeter streaked with lichen. Crossing the courtyard, we gazed at the chateau, but I couldn’t discern its true color — some of the limestone was gray, but some was yellow, and it was impossible to say which color was original and which was the product of time.
As we entered the castle, we found ourselves in an oval-shaped room, where the air was cool and fresh. It made for an imposing first impression — the room was lined with stone busts, as well as doors with mirrored panes — all because Fouquet had told his designers not to hold back.
Overhead, on the domed ceiling, a frescoed bird swooped across an aquamarine sky. Le Brun and Co. had certainly not held back.
When the three of us had finished examining the entrance hall from every angle we could think of (at eye level, with our necks craned, from this corner, from that corner), we were ready to see more. Walking through an open door, we started to meander through a maze of rooms fit for a French monarch.
The rooms were filled with furniture, tapestries, paintings, fireplaces, and chandeliers; in many of them, the floor sported a chessboard pattern. I stared at the black and white tiles, struck by the thought that courtly life had been little more than a game — a game that the rich couldn’t afford to lose and the poor couldn’t afford to play.
In French, the verb jouer means “to play.” À is a preposition that often has a purely grammatical function, and the primary meaning of les échecs is “chess.” When you string those words together like beads in a bracelet, jouer + à + les + échecs transforms into jouer aux échecs, which means “to play chess.”
But a singular échec, an échec all by itself, can also mean “failure.”
Fouquet’s grand dream was an échec, a failure where even the flooring called les échecs to mind. By becoming a big name in the French government, by building Vaux-le-Vicomte, he had tried to compete, tried to make himself look like a winner. But the king and the other ministers would happily cheat if it would help them win. So Fouquet failed. He lost the game that the rich couldn’t afford to lose.
Back in the present day, Emily, Jacob, and I wandered through the rooms, spending a minute or two in each one: the library, the bedrooms, the studies, the salons, the halls. Several of the murals on the ceilings had been carefully restored, their colors gleaming in the dark château. In many places, unobtrusive signs provided an insight or two into a room’s function, furniture, or former occupants. Everything was lavishly decorated, but the place was relatively tasteful, as far as 17th-century megamansions go.
Emily and I, connoisseurs of all things French, were impressed.
Of course, it wasn’t the first time that she and I had explored a castle together. During our roommate days, we had visited the Château de Fontainebleau (the royal residence closest to Vaux-le-Vicomte) and the Château de Versailles.
But as far as I know, it was the first time that Emily and Jacob had toured a castle by each other’s sides, and it was the first and only time that all three of us have ever visited one. We were just happy to spend that time together in a beautiful place.
It was a very different story on that summer night in 1661, when there was much more ill will in the air. For several months, Jean-Baptiste Colbert (another high-ranking courtier) had been plotting Fouquet’s demise, whispering to the king that Fouquet had embezzled the crown’s funds. (Some government money was missing, but a recently deceased official had taken it, not Fouquet.) According to Colbert, Fouquet had used the misappropriated funds to pay for his luxurious new home.
Colbert’s lies and Fouquet’s own lack of restraint sealed the latter’s destiny. By the time that the king alighted from his carriage on that warm August night, he was already planning to order Fouquet’s arrest in the coming weeks.
Fouquet suspected none of this. After all, he had built a magnificent guest room just for the king, who was welcome to use the room anytime he saw fit. Fouquet only wanted to keep climbing the social ladder, only wanted to assure the king that he was loyal to the crown.
I’m certain that Louis XIV begrudgingly enjoyed the spoils of Fouquet’s fête, from the two meals served by the country’s finest chefs to the brand-new play performed by Molière to the firework display blasted into the starry sky. The king coveted Fouquet’s house, his garden, even his show of wealth. The party was the event of the year, possibly even the event of the decade.
And the Sun King didn’t like being outshone. Didn’t like it at all.
Luckily, when Emily, Jacob, and I left the castle and walked into the grounds, we had happier things to think about — things like the beautiful weather, the gorgeous view, the light breeze.
As we ventured outside, everything was shimmering in Golden Hour lighting. From our vantage point right outside the château, we could see heavy flower pots, towering statues, and large plots containing arabesque-shaped hedges. Down a long alley, past several reflecting ponds, I could just make out a stone grotto with river gods carved in relief. Even farther in the distance, a gilded statue shone from a massive pedestal.
We spilled into the grounds and began to explore. As we went, we walked around ponds and basins, each one filled with placid, slate-colored water. We spotted a lichen-spotted stairway artfully cached on the edge of the garden, and when we made it to the top of the stairs, we found ourselves on a lawn planted with neat rows of trees.
Everywhere in the grounds, small jars lined the pathways and encircled the basins; before long, we noticed a gardener walking from jar to jar, lighting the candles one by one. The tiny flames flickered in the pink haze of sunset, and from the windows of the castle, yellow pinpricks seemed to wave hello.
For a few minutes, my friends and I were quiet. We were remembering a party that we had never attended. We were letting the sunset wash away the world that we knew.
We were discovering that Vaux-le-Vicomte gleams at dusk. It shines and shimmers as the sun goes down.
The garden had been empty as we explored it, but a large crowd filtered in as evening descended. The new arrivals were excited, talking happily as they roamed the wide alleys in clusters of two and three. I was glad to see their enthusiasm, happy that they were enjoying the evening as much as I was. But the sound of their chatter brought back my sense of reality. It brought a reminder that fairytales aren’t real and that someone has to suffer whenever any new castle is built.
So, even if Vaux-le-Vicomte’s grounds are beautiful, their story isn’t. Fouquet had to raze “the village of Vaux and two adjacent hamlets” before Le Nôtre could design the sprawling garden. Even now, long after my visit’s end, that thought bothers me, makes my stomach bubble. It leaves me wondering — is long-lasting beauty worth disrupting the everyday life of who-knows-how-many people, people whose lives were already hard enough? Why did the pinnacle of French design have to come at such a heavy price?
What happened to the people who lost their homes so Fouquet could have his dream house?
According to most sources, Fouquet employed 18,000 workmen throughout his multi-year building project. I’d like to believe that many of those 18,000 people were the former residents of the villages that Fouquet demolished. I’d like to believe that he paid for those people to resettle in comfortable homes in a favorable location.
But that’s only what I’d like to believe. I don’t know what actually happened.
So was the end result worth all of those sacrifices? There’s no way to know how the uprooted villagers would have answered that question — history has talked over them.
Even from Fouquet’s point of view, I’m not sure if his castle was worth it. On the evening of the grand party, the king refused to spend the night at Vaux-le-Vicomte. About three weeks later, he had Fouquet arrested. And a few years after that, Fouquet’s long trial ended with a sentence of banishment. Then Louis XIV stepped in and changed the sentence to life imprisonment.
By the time Fouquet died in prison in 1680, it had been years since he had set foot in his dream home.
In 1705, Fouquet’s widow sold the estate. For many years, it passed through a few families’ hands, but it was abandoned in the mid-19th century. Finally, in 1875, a wealthy man named Alfred Sommier purchased Vaux-le-Vicomte at auction. He devoted the rest of his life to restoring the château; today, his descendants still own and operate the property.
As for Louis XIV, his story had a happy ending. After Fouquet’s arrest, the king confiscated many of the tapestries, paintings, and furniture pieces inside Vaux-le-Vicomte. He also hired Fouquet’s design team — Le Vau, Le Brun, and Le Nôtre — and put them to work revamping the Château de Versailles.
France was Louis XIV’s chessboard, and everyone else was just living in it, so the king spent the rest of his life building new castles and romancing the queen (as well as many other women). He spent the rest of his life commanding knights and consulting with Catholic bishops.
He also spent the rest of his life using people like pawns.
If Fouquet won any consolation prize, it’s the fact that his dream home was his legacy. It’s his right to brag that Vaux-le-Vicomte inspired the construction of the world’s most famous château.
As Emily, Jacob, and I left the grounds, I paused outside the château. From far away, the huge gilded statue caught my eye again. It’s a representation of Hercules, something that Le Nôtre drew up in his plans but never had time to execute. In fact, the statue was only added to the grounds in the 19th century, sometime after the new owner purchased the estate. So even though the statue wasn’t part of Vaux-le-Vicomte in 1661, it is part of Vaux-le-Vicomte today.
It’s a long-overdue participation trophy for the courtier who lost to the king. So, Monsieur Fouquet, from all of us who have visited your château, we’d like to congratulate you on all that you accomplished — even without winning the game.