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Our itinerary begins in the heart of old Compiègne in front of the Hôtel de Ville

 


 


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The architecture of this fine edifice - built at the end of the 15th century during the reign of Louis XII - marks the transition period between Late Gothic and the beginnings of the Renaissance. Viollet-le-Duc, who restored it in the 19th century, described it as the 'best example of civil architecture in the whole of the north of France'. In the belfry hangs the 'Bancloque', one of the oldest known bells anywhere, dated 1303. At the top of the 'Bancloque', three automata - a German, an Englishman and a Burgundian, dressed in 16th-century costume - strike the bell with their hammers, marking the hours for the town. During the Revolution, all the statues on the façade were destroyed. In 1869, a bronze statue of Louis XII on horseback was reinstalled in the central niche. Flanked by effigies of Charles VII and Joan of Arc, this statue of Louis stands above statues of Saint-Denis, Saint-Louis, Cardinal Pierre d'Ailly and Charlemagne. The two adjacent pavilions were built in 1660 and 1867 respectively. As for the interior, on the walls of the town council chamber hang nine paintings by Fournier-Salovèze which record the great historical events of the town. Indeed one of these events is also commemorated by a statue in the square in front of the town hall. The statue is of Joan of Arc and it recalls the attempted defence of the town in 1430 when that 'Maid of Orleans' was captured and handed over to the English.



The first stop in this itinerary

The first stop in this itinerary is the Museum of Historical Figurines. This is housed in an annex to the right of the Hôtel de Ville, in what was once the Hotel de la Cloche et de la Bouteille where Alexandre Dumas stayed in 1836. Indeed a scene from The Count of Monte-Cristo is set there. The museum was founded as a result of the bequest of the collection of Alfred Ternisien and it provides a panoramic view of the military history of France, from Antiquity to the Second World War. There are in total about 100,000 figurines from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, and they are all arranged in dioramas. The Napoleonic period has a special place in the museum, most notably with an astounding reconstruction of the Battle of Waterloo. Indeed, this museum is the perfect beginning to the voyage of discovery of the town of Compiègne and its history.



On leaving the Place de l'Hôtel de Ville

Château de Compiègne. La cour d'honneur

Château de Compiègne. La cour d'honneur
  

On leaving the Place de l'Hôtel de Ville, turn right into the Rue des Patissiers then take Rue des Minimes to Place du Général de Gaulle (previously the Place d'Armes). Here stands the sober Classical façade of the Château de Compiègne. The building as it stands today represents the final state of a series of royal residences stretching right back to that of Clovis. What was originally a simple wooden Merovingian villa, perfect as a hunting lodge, had become by the 5th and 6th centuries a 'compendium palatium' or palace, as several charters attest. The Royal palace at Compiègne grew in importance under the Carolingians and the town and surroundings also began to develop. Charles the Bald, in the middle of the 9th century, made Compiègne his official seat of office from which he wielded first royal and later imperial authority. In the 14th century, Charles V had a new building constructed upon the site of the present château. This architectural ensemble, enlarged, modified and transformed, was to serve as a residence for the kings of France up until the middle of the 19th century. As a stopping point during the ceremonial of coronations, as a hunting reserve, as halt on the road north, Compiègne is the only other royal dwelling, along with Versailles and Fontainebleau, to have had the privilege of being the seat of government. Indeed, until as late as 1847, military camps were pitched in the forest. However, lack of space meant that courtiers were forced to lodge in the town or in nearby châteaux. In 1750, Ange-Jacques Gabriel proposed a reconstruction plan which was immediately accepted and enacted - and finally finished by Gabriel's pupil, Le Dreux de La Châtre in 1776. The triangular plan of the château was dictated by the site, itself delimited by the ancient ramparts of the town. The distinguishing features of both the interior and exterior are simplicity, rigour and clarity.
 
During the French Revolution, the royal palace of Compiègne passed under the jurisdiction of the Minister for the Interior, whose task it was to liquidate all assets. In 1795, all the château's furniture ensembles were sold and the works of art were sent to the Muséum Central. 1799 and 1800 saw the setting up of the 'Prytanée militaire' and Bonaparte's first visit. He visited again in 1803 and was able to see at firsthand the damage caused by the introduction of the Ecole des Arts et Métiers. The place became a 'domaine impérial' in 1804, and in 1807 Napoleon, while in Finkenstein, ordered that the residence should be made inhabitable. The architects Berthault, Percier and Fontaine, the decorators Dubois and Redouté and the cabinet makers Jacob-Desmalter and Marcion formed the team charged with bringing the palace back to its former royal glory. The room distribution was altered, a ballroom was built, and the garden was replanted and linked directly to the forest. In a conscious attempt to re-associate Compiègne with its royal past, it was there in 1810 that Marie-Louise was received by her husband to be, just as Marie-Antoinette had been 40 years earlier. Similarly, in 1814, on his return from exile, it was here that Louis XVIII was received by Napoleon's marshals.



The First Empire left indelible marks on the decoration of the château

Château de Compiègne. Napoleon I's chamber

Château de Compiègne. Napoleon I's chamber
  

'Compiègne speaks of Napoleon as Versailles does of Louis XIV' as Auguste Luchet, the temporary 'gouverneur' of the palace in 1848, was fond of saying. Indeed he suggested that the château be turned into an imperial museum. Whilst some of the surviving décor dates back to Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, the Empire style dominates. In fact, Compiègne is the only imperial residence which still has today its décor and furniture of 1808-1810. Generally speaking, the restoration of the July Monarchy had little effect upon the aspect of the palace, and the arrangement of the rooms and the furniture within them were to remain essentially those of the late Empire. Only the Napoleonic emblems were removed. On the other hand, some of the furniture and the decoration in some rooms were changed during the Second Empire. The 'historical apartments' are notably: the King's, and subsequently Emperor's, apartment; the Empress's apartment; the Queen's, and subsequently King of Rome's, apartment; and the Dauphin and Madame Royale's, and subsequently the Prince's, double apartment. The rooms in each apartment have been carefully restored, paying great attention to historical accuracy.



The Second Empire was for the chateau of Compiègne a return to the glories of the past

Musée du Second Empire. Napoleon III by Carpeaux

Musée du Second Empire. Napoleon III by Carpeaux
  

From 1856 on, Napoleon III and Eugénie made it their autumn residence and began their famous 'Series'. For about a month and a half (usually from the end of October to the beginning of December), hundreds of guests (ferried to Compiègne on special trains from Gare du Nord) were received every week by the royal couple. The political, artistic and scientific elite of the Second Empire all passed through the doors of Compiègne, where they were treated to entertainments of various types. The Musée du Second Empire is a collection of vivid reminders of this brilliant epoch. This museum, installed in what used to be the Marshals apartments, was created in 1953 and comprises collections of painting, sculpture, furniture and objets d'art. It is not so much a panorama of contemporary art as a selection of major artists of the period, notably Carpeaux, Couture, Meissonier, Winterhalter, Boudin and Daumier. And official portraits, historical and military scenes, works by the different manufactories and objects presented at the Universal Exhibitions all go to recreate the atmosphere of the reign.



The musée de l'Impératrice is an indispensable complement to the Second Empire museum

Musée de l'Impératrice. Clothes belonging to Eugénie

Musée de l'Impératrice. Clothes belonging to Eugénie
  

As a collection of items which once belonged to the Imperial Family, it shows the private side of Napoleon and Eugénie's lives from their marriage up to the tragic death of the Prince Impérial in 1879. Indeed the museum is particularly touching with its exhibits connected with the heir to the throne's education, the sovereigns' charity work, their visit to the provinces or abroad, their life in exile and the Prince Impérial's fatal journey to South Africa.



The third and final museum

The third and final museum housed in the Château de Compiègne is the Musée de la Voiture et du Tourisme, created in 1927 on the initiative of the Touring club de France. It retraces the history of locomotion and the horse-drawn vehicle from their origins (with the taming of horses) to the first automobiles. And amongst the carriages in this remarkable collection, there is notably the berline in which Bonaparte made his entry into Bologna in 1796, and the completely upholstered, Compagnie du Nord, imperial train carriage used by Napoleon III.



On leaving the château's right-hand exit, follow Rue d'Ulm to the Imperial Theatre

This theatre, although commissioned by Napoleon III was not inaugurated until ... 1991! With the defeat at Sedan and the fall of the Second Empire, work stopped and a part of the decoration was never completed. The theatre itself, linked to the palace by a covered gallery in the form of a bridge, was based on the Opéra de Versailles and has an excellent acoustic. The Théâtre français de la Musique performs operas and concerts there every year. On leaving the theatre, retrace your steps and follow the château walls as far as the entrance to the park.



Ange-Jacques Gabriel had drawn up plans for a 'French' garden between the château and the forest in his reconstruction project

The terrace at the Château de Compiègne

The terrace at the Château de Compiègne
  

Ange-Jacques Gabriel had drawn up plans for a 'French' garden between the château and the forest in his reconstruction project. But left incomplete at the beginning of the Revolution, the garden suffered badly at the hands of the Prytanée militaire. In 1808, Napoleon ordered that it should be reorganised, starting with the building of a gentle slope up the apartments on the terrace to allow the passage of carriages. In 1811, Berthault presented plans for an 'English' garden. An awning was built across the whole length of the façade so as to protect the apartments from the sun, three pavilions were erected ('for resting in'), and a system of arched trellises was constructed 'to make its possible to get, under cover and in the shade, from the château to the forest. Finally, a large park was made, linking the garden to the forest.



This extra park which lengthened the garden ...

Parc de Compiègne. The Trouée des Beaumont

Parc de Compiègne. The Trouée des Beaumont
  

This extra park which lengthened the garden made it possible to design a new avenue which led from the terrace of the château (following the axis of the Allée Napoléon) to the top of a nearby hill, Beaux-Monts, four and a half kilometres away. This giant axis, somewhat Schoenbrunn-esque in its appearance, linked and unified the garden, park and forest. Work was continued during the Restoration and Berthault was to complete his garden with the addition of several other features, notably: a rose garden, the 'Cours du Pistolet', a 'triangle de "tous les diables"', and a temperate greenhouse. The sculptures in the grounds were not added until during the period from 1822 to 1830, and the work was not completed until the Second Empire. There are about thirty statues, of which some are in the antique style and were brought from the Tuileries and the Louvre. During the Second Empire, various divertissements were set up in the garden for those invited to the 'Series', most notably a carrousel. In 1862, the greenhouse was transformed by Napoleon III into a Gallo-Roman museum.



The Forêt domaniale de Compiègne

The Forêt domaniale de Compiègne (Compiègne Forest), of which the park is simply a prolongation, has always been excellently maintained because of the fascination it held for the hunting-obsessed royalty of France. In fact, it stands next to the forêt de Laigue and the forêt d'Ourscamps and was originally part of the ancient forêt de Cuise, which belonged to the kings of the Franks. It is shot through with magnificent avenues and as such is ideal for horse riding - indeed it has always been rich is big game and was the preferred site for hunting and coursing. The principal tree species are oak, beech and hornbeam. The forest covers 15,000 hectares of land and contains almost 35 kilometres of cyclable tracks and 1,000 kilometres of pathways punctuated by 273 crossroads. Each crossroads has an evocative name mounted on an elegant post, on which there is also a red pointer indicating the direction of Compiègne. These avenues, originally made for the hunt, have made Compiègne forest a walker's delight.



The itinerary now continues by car (or bicycle!)

Forêt de Compiègne. Le pavillon de chasse d'Eugénie

Forêt de Compiègne. Le pavillon de chasse d'Eugénie
  

... through the forest. Take the Route Eugénie which connects Compiègne to Pierrefonds, passing via Vieux Moulin, a charming forest village at the foot of the hill, Mont-St-Marc, with its many Second Empire houses. The hunts nearly always began here: only the invitees with 'the button' could participate - the rest had to follow in the carts. During the Second Empire the hunts would finish in the courtyard with a terrible spectacle, the 'curée aux flambeaux'. Follow this road to the 'Etangs de Saint-Pierre', near to which stands what used to be the Empress Eugénie's hunting lodge. Built in 1861, this building contains two fireplaces monogrammed with the Napoleonic 'N' and a tapestry bearing a hunting scene.



Finally, at the end of the Route Eugénie, looms the evocative

... du Château de Pierrefonds, a superb example of military architecture, restored by the architect Viollet-le-Duc to a glory which even at its zenith it had never known. The original castle was built in the 15th century by Louis d'Orléans, only to be taken down in the 17th century. It was literally recreated in the middle of the 19th century by the Gothic revival genius, Viollet-le-Duc, and in his 'restoration' he revealed the extent of his abilities. The Emperor's and Empress's apartments still today show his innovative decorative solutions. Every time the imperial couple stayed at Compiègne they would come to visit the ruins and to see how the work was coming on. Most of those invited to the 'Series' were brought along too. With its remarkable archeological accuracy and its extraordinary inventiveness, Pierrefonds provides a fitting closing flourish to this imperial itinerary.

 

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