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France’s Vaux-le-Vicomte, the Château That Inspired Versailles


As millions of his countrymen struggled with poverty in the 17th century, France’s royal finance minister, Nicolas Fouquet, funded his own cost-is-no-object palace. Today, Vaux-le-Vicomte may be the most beautiful château in all of France.

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Down a dreamy tree-lined road, there’s another palace which was actually the inspiration of Versailles. This is the ravishing Vaux-le-Vicomte.

With an unrivaled harmony of architecture, interior decor, and garden design, it gets my vote for the most beautiful château in all of France.

Set in a huge forest, with magnificent gardens, Vaux-le-Vicomte is an absolute joy to tour. Compared to Versailles, it’s more intimate, and comes with a fraction of the crowds.

Take a stroll over the ornamental moat. Admire the elegance and symmetry of the ensemble. The gardens stretch far beyond the palace, but their main axis runs straight through its center. In this, the cutting edge of sculpted French formal gardens, the landscaper integrated ponds, shrubbery, and trees in a style that would be copied in palaces all over Europe.

This was the home of Nicolas Fouquet, France’s finance minister during that over-the-top reign of Louis XIV in the 17th century.

It all came together when he hired France’s top architect, landscaper, and decorator, a trio known as the “brotherhood of genius.” With both a blank slate and a blank check, Fouquet’s dream team made his audacious vision a reality.

An intriguing part of your visit is a chance to climb through the attic for a peek at the timbers and the structure of the roof. Then you reach the cupola, and cap your visit with a commanding view and a chance to survey Fouquet’s domain.

When Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles were built, France was slowly heading toward a revolution. Of its population, about 200,000 were clergy (those who pray), 150,000 were nobles (those who own land), and the rest (over 17 million) were the peasantry (those who work). Of course, there was no democracy: just one king and his ministers — people like Nicolas Fouquet — who ran the show. Somewhat like bankers and financiers of today, these people controlled the workings of the economy, and amassed unfathomable wealth. Ultimately, the imbalance reached the point where society burst into revolution.