The privately owned Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte and its fabulous formal gardens, 20km north of Fontainebleau and 61km southeast of Paris, were designed and built by Le Brun, Le Vau and Le Nôtre between 1656 and 1661 as a precursor to their more ambitious work at Versailles.
The château’s beautifully furnished interior is topped by a striking dome. Don’t miss the stables’ collection of 18th- and 19th-century carriages at the Musée des Équipages, or if at all possible, a candlelight visit.
During the same period as candlelight visits, there are elaborate jeux d’eau (fountain displays) in the gardens from 3pm to 6pm on the second and last Saturday of the month. In the vaulted cellars an exhibition looks at Le Nôtre’s landscaping of the gardens.
The beauty of Vaux-le-Vicomte turned out to be the undoing of its original owner, Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIV’s minister of finance. It seems that Louis, seething that he’d been upstaged at the château’s official opening, had Fouquet thrown into prison, where the unfortunate ministre died in 1680.
Audioguides cost €3; electric four-person cars are available to explore the grounds (per 45 minutes €20). There are two on-site restaurants and a Champagne bar.
Vaux-le-Vicomte is not an easy place to reach by public transport. The château is 6km northeast of Melun and 15km southwest of Verneuil-l'Étang. Melun is served by RER line D2 from Paris' Gare de Lyon (€8.70, 40 minutes, frequent). Trains link Paris' Gare de l'Est (direction Provins; €8.70, 35 minutes, hourly) to Verneuil-l'Étang, from where the Châteaubus shuttle links Verneuil-l'Étang station with Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte (35 minutes, hourly). On Saturdays from mid-May to early October, the last bus returns directly to Gare de Lyon in Paris. Reserve ahead via the château's website and bring cash for the bus. At other times you’ll have to take a taxi. One-way day/evening prices are €18/32 from Melun, and €28/46 from Verneuil-l'Étang.
By car, follow the A6 from Paris and then the A5 (direction Melun), and take the ‘St-Germain Laxis’ exit. From Fontainebleau take the N6 and N36.