Saturday, July 23, 2011

Let them drink milk

This weekend, G. and I ventured out of Paris to a place I had been meaning to visit for ages—the Château de Rambouillet. For all those of you who haven’t been, go. Go NOW. It’s fabulous and relatively easy to get to, even without a car (no I still haven’t gotten my license). It’s even on the route to Chartres! Que demande le peuple ?

In a nutshell, Rambouillet began life in the 14th century as a fortified manor, but quickly became a favorite royal hang-out thanks to its well-stocked forests and, later, its convenient proximity to Versailles. Louis XVI finally purchased the place in 1783 and enjoyed its charms until that messy incident in 1789. Rambouillet was later inhabited by Napoleon, then a series of French presidents, and today is open to the public—but remains ready to roll out the red carpet (literally) should the Prime Minister ever decide to host a pajama party.

Now, I’ve noticed over the past few years that there seems to be a disturbing trend developing among many of the châteaux near Paris: they have begun to serve the double purpose of historical site and modern art gallery. So you’ll be at a given château, visiting let’s say a 17th century ballroom, admiring the architecture and breathing in the ambiance, when suddenly you realize that there’s a 40-foot-wide red plastic cog suspended from the ceiling by human hair. Some people find the clash of ancient and modern to be stimulating; I find it to be one big, unwelcome non sequitur—plus it totally messes up the meditative state I happily slip into when contemplating art history. Thus, the presence of an oversized, dismembered, clay aardvark smack dab in the middle of Rambouillet’s otherwise superb Renaissance salle des marbres did not score any points with yours truly. As God is my witness, I do not GET postmodern art. Never have, never will. Back in my days as an art history major (and proud of it!), I coined the now-celebrated adage, If it sucks, it’s postmodern—which is as true now as it was then.

Definitely meets the criterion.

Much like the nearby Château de Versailles, Rambouillet offers outlying buildings well worth the detour. Among them is La Laiterie de la Reine (the Queen’s Dairy), commissioned by Louis XVI in order to placate Marie Antoinette, who purportedly found Rambouillet to be sub-par (“a gothic pile of sh**” I believe were her exact words). So he offered her a stately, neoclassical marble temple of sorts in which to ... drink milk. It seems the aristocracy of the period found great delight in communal dairy consumption and even developed an entire ritual around it, in this case involving Sèvres porcelain tasting bowls, intricately-sculpted Carrera marble friezes and an indoor waterfall. Classy, but odd. Odder still, the English garden surrounding La Laiterie features the remains of a man-made grotto, whose former purpose was none other than to provide a peaceful, pastoral setting in which to ... drink (more) milk. I gather the anti-dairy movement didn’t have many followers at the time.

All of this begs one question: what was the deal with Marie Antoinette’s farm fantasies? What would Freud say? The Château de Versailles had its own pseudo HAMLET for crying out loud. Apparently, she would escape from the pressures of court life by dressing up as a milk maid and hanging out in the hamlet, milking a cow that her servants had specifically prepared beforehand. That’s pretty normal behavior from a monarch, no? I can just imagine Michelle Obama, clad in a little jean-and-gingham ensemble, gamboling about on a toy farm out on the South Lawn....

The visit ended with the Chaumière aux Coquillages, a beautiful little “shell cottage” intricately adorned with frescoes and row upon shimmering row of inlaid seashells. Also, it has ox femurs projecting from the walls. Rather macabre, but intriguing. What, pray tell, are they doing there? More postmodernism perhaps? No—they’re keeping the place dry of course! Apparently, bone does a fantastic job of combating humidity. EUREKA! So really, all G. and I need to do to fix our bathroom ceiling is track down a few unused ox femurs. It may shock our future guests to find massive lengths of animal bone jutting out out of the ceiling when they go to use the facilities, but then again, I could always soothe their anxiety by proclaiming the whole thing to be cutting-edge installation art.


  1. I TOTALLY am with you on the postmodernism! Even Picasso is a stretch for me! OMG--did I blaspheme?

    Love to visit Rambouillet sometime. Thanks for the tourism notes.

  2. @New Zealand: no problem! I'm awaiting my check from the office of tourism. :-) Picasso I do like, although some more than others...

  3. Hi there, great blog. Glad you seem to love France as much as we do. Hard being an expat mum though right? Kim -