If you are interested in the French Renaissance, there is no need to travel as far as the Loire. A walk through the forest leads to the fairy tale setting of the château of Ecouen, with its collection of historical treasures and objects. If you are interested in the French Renaissance, there is no need to travel as far as the Loire. One of the most elegant examples of this style in France, the 16th-century château of Ecouen, is the setting for the furnishings and objets d’art that make up the collections of the National Museum of the Renaissance, some of them from the Musée de Cluny.
If you go on a Saturday afternoon, you can hear the music of the period played on the 16th-century organ in the chapel.
Although it is very close to Paris by train, the château, surrounded by a 17-hectare park covered with snowdrops in early spring, is gratifyingly under-visited. The full impact of its hilltop site overlooking the grain-producing Pays de France is only revealed when you approach it on foot from the Forest of Ecouen. I first went there by bus from the station and actually failed to recognize it as the same place when I went there again via the forest some years later, so different were the two impressions. The château gradually rises into view as you approach it from the woodland path and is suddenly revealed in all its stateliness as you emerge onto the vast flat lawn at the top. This back view, much more imposing than the front, includes a balustrade to the left overlooking a sharp drop. From here there is a sweeping view of the plain below, just like the hazy, stylized landscapes in medieval paintings.
The château was built for Constable Anne, Duke of Montmorency (1492-1567), the owner of over 130 châteaux and one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in France. Completed in 1555, it is in the High Renaissance style, a development of the Early Renaissance approach of the châteaux of the Loire, built during the reign of François I. The architecture, the grounds and the decor all reflect the new taste for a château as a place for gracious living rather than a medieval fortress. Friezes decorate the windows and walls and dreamy Biblical or classical scenes are painted on the chimneypieces. From the upper floor windows there are superb views of the park, the roofs of the houses descending the steep hill to Ecouen and the rolling countryside beyond.
The château was saved from destruction after the Revolution by Napoleon, who turned it into a school for the daughters of members of the Légion d’Honneur in 1806. The rooms now contain a fine selection of furniture, tapestries, glass and china made in France, Italy and the Netherlands in the 16th and early 17th centuries, representative of the Renaissance taste for elegance and refinement. The most famous exhibit is a Brussels tapestry, woven c.1515, which extends over three rooms and tells the story of David and Bathsheba, dressed, of course, in 16th-century clothes.
Suggested walk to Ecouen from the station
Cross the Place de la Gare to the right of the station, go past the boulangerie, turn right at the sign for the Museum and follow the Allée du Bois to the edge of the forest.
Turn right into the Chemin du Four à Chaux (paved) which curves left gently uphill and comes out at the junction of several paths. Follow the sign to the Museum past the children’s playground and picnic area on your left. This unpaved road rises gently uphill to a gate set in the château wall, la grille du Pré Curé. Go through the gate, past the signboard showing a map of the grounds and you will come out at the back of the château with the view from the balustrade on your left. Walk round the back to the right to find the main entrance on the other side.
Distance from Paris: 19 km (12 miles),Depart : Gare du Nord Arrive : Ecouen-EzanvilleJourney time: 23 minutesLength of visit: Half dayCarte Orange Zone : 4Single ticket: 3.15 €Distance from station to château: 1 km (3/4 mile)
SNCF trains from Gare du Nord (Banlieue) to Luzarches or to Persan-Beaumont via Montsoult stop at Ecouen-Ezanville every 15 minutes on weekdays, every half hour at weekends, and return up to nearly midnight.
You can use a Paris metro ticket on the 269 bus from the station to Garges-Sarcelles, but the wait can be long and you will miss the pleasure of the approach to the château from the forest. If you take the bus, get off at the Mairie d’Ecouen stop and follow pedestrian access signs for the château via steps leading to a little footpath.
Car: A1 from Porte de la Chapelle, then exit 3, Pierrefitte/Sarcelles. Follow signs for Sarcelles/Beauvais (N401, then N1), then the N16 towards Sarcelles/Chantilly.
When to go
Avoid Mondays if you want to sample the restaurant/tearoom and Tuesdays when the château is closed. As it is so close to Paris it would also be suitable for an afternoon visit in winter.
Some of the painted chimneypieces on the ground floor of the château are currently being restored and will present a more authentic appearance by summer 2003. Free half-hour concerts of Renaissance organ music are held in the chapel of the château at 3 and 4pm every Saturday. No need to book.
Musée National de la Renaissance, Château d’Ecouen, 95440 Ecouen, tel: 01 34 38 38 50 (recording), tel: 01 34 38 38 52 (bookings), www.musee-renaissance.fr. Open 9:30am to 12:30pm and 2-5:15pm every day except Tue and Jan 1, May 1 and Dec 25. It may be closed on other public holidays – so, telephone to check. Guided visits at weekends at 2:15 & 3:30pm. The park surrounding the château is open all year round from 8 am to 6pm, 7pm in summer, admission free. Admission to museum 4 €, 2.60 € on Sun and for students under 25. Free to teachers on proof of status, to visitors under 18 and to everyone on the first Sunday of the month. Restaurant/tearoom
La Plaine de France in the château, tel: 01 30 40 55 84. Open 9 am to 5 pm Wed-Sun. Menu 23 €, children’s menu 8 €, and à la carte.
© Annabel Simms 2003, text adapted from her book “An Hour From Paris” (Pallas Athene 2003), available from http://www.pallasathene.co.uk or from http://www.amazon.com In paris at WH Smith, Brentanos and the Red Wheelbarrow bookshops. The author can be contacted at : http://www.annabelsimms.com