One place I’d never ventured out to is the Château de Vincennes. After all, it’s outside Paris, all the way at the end of the Métro line. Which is no excuse because Vincennes shares a border with the 12th arrondissement of Paris, and the steps up from the Métro deliver you directly to the drawbridge of the castle.
The visit of this castle won’t mean much to those who don’t know French history and to whom King Saint Louis sitting under his oak tree, meting out justice to his people, rings no bells. Luckily for me, a lot has sunk in during my years here. Especially the part about King Charles V. (He and I once crossed paths on a daily basis, given that the building of the Université de Paris where I studied was Institut Charles V on rue Charles V in the Marais.) And Charles V is the person we have most to thank for this vestige of the Middle Ages.
Initially a hunting manor in a Forest of Vincennes five times larger than it now is - and it’s still very large - the castle became necessary when the last of the Capetian kings died and the French crown was up for grabs. One of the contenders was Edward III, king of England. But the French, refusing to be ruled by an English king, decreed that it was illegal to inherit a crown through the maternal side of your family (a Salic law that still holds today although there is no longer a monarch). That led to the Hundred Years War. And thus the need for castles that would protect the crowned head of France.
The next level up is the council room, with a large fireplace on the north wall and carvings on the consoles of the arches. As the king of France ruled “by the will of God”, those carvings have a Biblical theme that blends four of the Old Testament prophets - possibly Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah and Daniel - with the four Evangelists of the New Testament - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
you enter the king’s bedroom. To keep the huge room toasty warm, at least by medieval standards, an equally huge fireplace graces the west wall. Normally this fireplace should be above the one in the council room, but it isn’t. And there’s an ingenious reason for that: the fireplace downstairs is directly under the king’s bed, which means the flue in the wall heated him at night. Although the decoration on the hood of this majestic fireplace is barely visible, on the central ribs of the ceiling arches the original paint is much clearer. There’s a reason for that too: what the colors were made of. The yellow is gold leaf, the blue is crushed lapis lazuli and the red, crushed rubies, no less. After all, France was the richest and most populous country in Europe at that time so regal interior decoration had to rise to the occasion. Spare the expense.
One more flight up are quarters intended for the dauphin, the crown prince, but never used by him. Above that, the guard’s room, with sand on the floor and wooden ceiling. Above that, the battlements - where the splendid view is supposed to be but isn’t. Above that? Only God.
A way to tie together eight centuries of history. In spite of the fog.
My thanks to Rémi Perrenoud, the wonderful guide who brought the castle to life with his vivid descriptions, and who lamented with me the total lack of visibility from the much-touted battlements. I promised him I'd go back when there was something to see... or rather the ability to see it.
Château de Vincennes
Avenue de Paris
Métro: Château de Vincennes
Open: May 21 - Sept 22: 10-6
& Sept 23 - May 20: 10-5
Closed Jan 1, May 1, Nov 1, Nov 11 & Dec 25
Tours Sunday 11 am, by reservation only
Entry: 8.50 & 5.50 €, Free under age 18