As I sit in Philippe and Alix de Lausanne’s living room, in their beautiful home at the heart of a quaint town called Picardy, it suddenly dawns upon me. I might have just found France’s best kept secret. This French couple’s magnificent chateau-style residence is listed on Airbnb. By Riaan Jacob George
Music and Heritage
Here, at Villa du Chatelet, a breathtaking villa built in 1886, the Lausannes lead an idyllic life. In the evening, Alix invites me to come into her kitchen and help her prepare dinner for the family. Following this little crash course in home style French cooking, we move to a dining room that appears straight out of a fairy tale.
Over a home-cooked meal, French wine and wonderful conversation with my hosts, I can’t help but notice a few unmistakable operatic strains playing in the background. The iconic Duo of the Flowers from the opera Lakme is not a coincidence, as Philippe tells me. “This villa was originally built in 1886 by Leo Delibes, a composer who came here to find inspiration and peace. He went on to write some memorable operas, including Lakme. Even today, music continues to fill the house and motifs of music can be found in the design of the villa.” The guest bedrooms are on the first floor of the mansion, while the family lives on the second floor.
An hour’s drive from the bustle of Paris, in the little town of Choisy-au-Bac, Picardy is a little corner of France which has remained relatively undiscovered by tourists. The region shares a border with Paris and interestingly enough, millions of tourists drive through Picardy every year between the English Channel coastline and Paris, but few bother to stop and discover it. As a result, the region retains its beautiful, authentic side, and is just about opening up to tourists.
The highlights of Picardy include its crown jewel – the exquisite Chateau de Chantilly – and tons of charming French towns and cultural highlights. The town of Compiegne, for example, has a massive palace that has been virtually undetected by tourists. There are also lots of exquisite historic mansions now transformed into museums, homestays and hotels.
A Secret Garden and a Forgotten Palace
My quest for off-beat experiences here in Picardy continues. The next morning I meet Brigitte Van’t Hull in her sublime tearoom “Salon de The du Jardin de Roses” (which translates as the tearoom in the rose garden). Her tearoom-cum-restaurant – which looks like a nursery greenhouse – finds itself in the manicured gardens of the Palace of Compiegne. Borrowing from her grandmothers’ recipes, with Dutch and French inspiration, Brigitte’s space is, quite literally, in the backyard of one of France’s great chateaux. I chat with Brigitte over a home-style meal after which she invites me over to the dessert “buffet” where an array of gateaux, tarts and pastries lie in wait, all handmade by Brigitte in her kitchen.
Few have discovered the magnificence of the Compiegne Palace. Even fewer might know that this was once a royal residence belonging to King Louis VX, which was later restored and used by Napoleon. Along with Versailles and Fontainebleau, Compiegne was an important seat for the erstwhile French monarchy. A guided tour of the palace is recommended. The palace houses three different museums within its premises – the royal apartments, art from the Napoleon III era and a transport museum.
Secrets of A Dreamy Chateau
Time for another secret discovery. I stand in the private library of the Chateau de Chantilly, with enormous book racks towering over me, housing thousands of priceless books. I am dwarfed by the sheer size of this space. The library, once maintained by the noble owners of the chateau is one of the best-kept secrets here. While the library is not accessible to the public, I did manage to pull a few strings to get a look at this hidden space.
I continue my tour of this magnificent chateau and its staterooms, chapel and private apartments. The chateau also houses one of France’s most prestigious collections of art, the Conde Museum. It is now time to step out and discover the sprawling gardens outside the chateau. But not before admiring the façade of this imposing Renaissance-style chateau, dating back to the late 1800s, which once housed members of the extended royal family. Take a few hours to amble through the marvellously French-style gardens around the chateau, with their ponds, fountains, parterres and pavilions. The moat around the chateau makes for a perfect photo op.
One of the highlights of Chantilly are the Great Stables, located a few metres from the chateau. But not before a luxurious pit stop to the Auberge du Jeu de Paume, a heritage hotel located on the chateau grounds, owned by the prestigious Relais & Chateaux group. The Auberge’s Michelin-starred restaurant – La Table du Connetable – is possibly the chicest address in town and is ideal for a multi-course midday meal while looking out at the chateau from the pavilion. The iconic Great Stables of Chantilly are next to the Auberge and are open to visitors. This town has historic ties with horses, and the fascinating Living Museum of the Horse is absolutely worth a visit.