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September 24, 2021

Just Back: French History, Art, Interiors and Fine Dining in Paris & Versailles

Paris and Versailles are top destinations for anyone interested in French history, culture, art, interiors and fine dining. Artisans of Leisure arranges private, customized luxury France tours, and we regularly visit Paris and other locations in France in order to return to favorite places and update our tours with the latest and best such as the new Airelles Chateau de Versailles, Le Grand Controle.

Artisans of Leisure travel specialist Claire Yearwood Munn just returned from an incredible trip to Paris with friends, including a weekend at Airelles Chateau de Versailles, Le Grand Controle, a new hotel on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. Read more about her trip and favorite experiences and places that are included in Artisans of Leisure tours in France.

Q: What inspired this trip to France?

A: A milestone birthday celebration and the opening of the Airelles Chateau de Versailles, Le Grand Controle, an incredible luxury hotel on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. This was a girls’ trip and I wanted to combine time in Paris with a few days in Versailles at this new hotel. I love the history and art of pre-Revolution France, and Le Grand Controle offers guests exclusive access to the Palace of Versailles after hours.

Q: What were some of the highlights of your time in Paris?

A: I loved revisiting some of my favorite Paris museums, such as Musee Jacquemart-Andre and Musee Nissim de Camondo.

Musee Jacquemart-Andre is a beautiful 19th-century house-museum with an impressive collection of fine and decorative arts, including works by Botticelli, Rembrandt, Tiepolo and Boucher.

The winter garden and the grand staircase that has a giant Tiepolo fresco at the top are my favorite spaces in the museum.

Like Jacquemart-Andre, the nearby Musee Nissim de Camondo is also a historic house-museum with gorgeous interiors. It’s home to one of the world’s best collections of 18th-century French decorative arts.

Visitors might recognize the museum from the Netflix TV series Lupin, in which it appears as the home of the dastardly Pellegrini family.

Count Moise de Camondo, the scion of a prominent Sephardic Jewish family, built the palace in the early 1900s to house his exquisite decorative arts collection. Inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles, the architecture beautifully sets off the Gobelins tapestries, pieces of Marie-Antoinette’s furniture, Sevres porcelain and portraits by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun.

Although the house resembles an 18th-century palace, it was up to date with all the latest technology and conveniences, including elevators, central heating and modern bathrooms.

It offers visitors a window onto the upstairs-downstairs workings of an affluent Parisian home in the early 20th century.

Upon his death, Camondo left his collection to the nation. The museum is dedicated to his son, who died in World War I, and the last members of the Camondo family, who died in the Holocaust.

I also went back to the Louvre, a museum you could go back to every time you’re in Paris and still not see all of it.

The Winged Victory of Samothrace (220-185 B.C.), the renowned masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture, is always awe-inspiring.

I loved revisiting other favorites like Veronese’s magnificent Wedding at Cana (1562-1563) and Canova’s beautiful Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss (1777).

I hadn’t been to Sainte-Chapelle in many years and prioritized a visit. Located in the 13th-century Palais de Justice, the former royal chapel is a stunning example of Gothic architecture and medieval stained-glass windows. It’s such an exquisite, otherworldly space.

I also enjoyed neighborhood strolls…
…stopping by favorite bistros for lunch…

…and going to great restaurants in the evenings.

Q: What’s new in Paris that you would recommend?

A: There are a number of exciting recent openings in Paris right now, and I didn’t have time to get to everything on my list (such as the Bourse de Commerce—Pinault Collection). I did, however, make it to the Hotel de la Marine, an 18th-century palace on Place de la Concorde that opened to the public for the first time in June 2021. This will be a highlight for travelers interested in history and interiors!

The palace has been the site of key events in French history such as the signing of Marie-Antoinette’s death certificate, Napoleon and Josephine’s coronation ball and the signing of the document that abolished slavery in 1848. After the Revolution, it served as the headquarters of the French navy until 2015.

Meticulously restored to its former grandeur with the help of comprehensive original inventories, the lavish apartments and reception rooms are stunning. If you don’t have time to get out to Versailles, come here!

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One of my favorite rooms was the Cabinet des Glaces, a tiny, jewel-box boudoir covered in painted mirrors.

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There is a slightly theatrical component to the museum because the rooms create the impression that their occupants have momentarily stepped out—there are overturned wine glasses and playing cards on tables, open books and papers on desks and the remnants of a dinner party in the dining room.

The curators have painstakingly recreated the 18th-century environment, even taking into consideration the lighting from the time period. It’s an unusual approach to a museum and I really enjoyed it.

I also stopped in the newly reopened La Samaritaine, the legendary department store. The restoration of the original Art Nouveau details is beautiful.

It has extensive shopping and dining options, and you could easily spend a good part of the day here.

Q: Where did you stay in Paris?

A: The beautiful Le Bristol Paris, one of the city’s iconic palace hotels and a favorite of Artisans of Leisure travelers.

It’s incredibly elegant and refined, with flawless service and outstanding dining (the two restaurants hold four Michelin stars between them).

The newly renovated courtyard garden is a highlight!

Also, don’t miss the rooftop pool (that looks like an ocean liner!) with floor-to-ceiling windows that look out across the Paris rooftops.

Q: How was staying at Airelles Chateau de Versailles, Le Grand Controle?

A: This is a showstopper! A lot of travelers will have been to Versailles for a visit, but never like this.

Located on the palace grounds overlooking the Orangerie, the hotel occupies the former home of the minister of finance. Years of in-depth research and restoration work have returned the building to its 18th-century opulence. With just 14 rooms and suites, it really does feel like staying in a private home, albeit one straight out of a fairy tale.

Alain Ducasse oversees the restaurant, and there is a luxurious Valmont spa and personal butler service.

The hotel offers a unique, immersive experience that transports travelers to the Versailles of Marie-Antoinette.

Guests dine on replicas of Louis XV’s porcelain service…

…period-appropriate music wafts through the salons, and the staff wear 18th-century inspired uniforms.

The rooms and suites are stunning and furnished with 18th-century antiques and luxurious amenities like Japanese smart toilets. In keeping with the historical recreation, there are no unsightly TV screens or telephone cords (though there are a smartphone and a tablet discreetly hidden in a box).

Instead, there are towers of Laduree macarons…

…sparkling chandeliers and period furniture and paintings.

Q: How was the food?

A: Amazing, as to be expected from Alain Ducasse.

Breakfast on the terrace is a decadent affair.

In keeping with the historic immersion, breakfast begins with a glass of warm vegetable broth, a nod to Louis XIV who started his meals with one. While I’m not convinced he was a paragon of healthy living, I was so won over by the etched glass the broth came in, I had it every time.

Dinner is a recreation of the royal feasts at Versailles with servers dressed in 18th-century uniforms and dishes inspired by original menus served at the palace.

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The dining room decor was inspired by the interiors of the nearby Petit Trianon.

One evening, costumed performers were on hand for courtly entertainment like magic tricks or a game of whist in the salon.

Q: Tell us about the exclusive experiences at the Palace of Versailles

A: Exclusive access to the Palace of Versailles is the hotel’s piece de resistance. Le Grand Controle arranges privately guided tours exclusive to hotel guests in the mornings and evenings outside public opening hours. You can either join these (I was in a group that ranged from five to 10 other hotel guests for each excursion) or, for a supplement, have a separate, totally private tour.

Visiting the Hall of Mirrors after hours is unforgettable. We were there in the evening just before sunset, and it was magical.

In addition to the Hall of Mirrors, we had exclusive access to the State Apartments that include the famous Hercules Salon…

…the throne room and Marie-Antoinette’s bedroom.

One evening, we toured the King’s Private Apartments, a suite of rooms that are not open to the general public. The apartments were created for Louis XIV, and then renovated for Louis XV and Louis XVI. More intimate in scale, they were for the monarch’s personal use away from the elaborate staterooms. They now offer visitors a behind-the-scenes look at royal family life.

For instance, we saw the king’s private bedroom and bathroom…

…personal library and private dining room…

…as well as the royal family’s Sevres porcelain collection.

Also on view in these rooms is the desk on which the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919.

One morning, we visited the Hameau de la Reine with a private guide before it opened to the public.

Marie-Antoinette created this working farm and model village in the gardens of Versailles as a bucolic retreat from the strict etiquette at the palace.

It was a treat to get to go inside the buildings, which are normally closed to the public.

There are some surprisingly lavish interiors like this reception room in the Queen’s House!

The decor, which contrasts with the rural exterior, is from the early 19th century when Napoleon refurbished it for Empress Marie-Louise (his second wife and Marie-Antoinette’s niece).

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Another morning, we had a private tour of the Petit Trianon, the miniature neoclassical palace in the gardens of Versailles that Louis XVI gifted to Marie-Antoinette.

I loved seeing Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun’s famous portrait of Marie-Antoinette…

…her bedroom that overlooks the English-style gardens she created (an illuminating contrast to her bedroom at Versailles)…

…and her exquisite, private boudoir.

Other experiences Artisans of Leisure can arrange for travelers at Le Grand Controle include attending the Fountains Night Show, a musical fireworks display in the gardens during the summer months…

…spa treatments, private dining, afternoon tea, a gourmet picnic in the Versailles gardens, a behind-the-scenes tour of the gardens with a horticulturist, a private concert in the Royal Opera and more.

There are so many options for private touring at Versailles, you would have to spend a week here to see all of it! However, even just one night (the Hall of Mirrors is always included in evening tours) is an unforgettable, enchanting escape to the past.

Time at Le Grand Controle is perfect for couples, solo travelers and friends traveling together. This was the perfect girls’ celebration trip!

Artisans of Leisure can incorporate Paris and a stay at Airelles Chateau de Versailles, Le Grand Controle into any of our private luxury France tours.

Contact Artisans of Leisure to begin planning a customized tour of France.

Destinations:  Europe, France

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