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CHANTILLY: France's Well-Kept Secret

June 01, 1986|JERRY COHEN and DOROTHY COHEN | Jerry Cohen is a Times Staff Writer, Dorothy Cohen a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

CHANTILLY, France — The enchantments of Chantilly, a mere 25 miles north of Paris by train, may be one of the secrets best kept from Americans visiting the French capital.

At least, our experience leads us to suspect that Parisians, seeking to keep it as a weekend sanctuary from tourists, want it that way.

How else do you explain why sightseeing agencies dismiss it with a few lines? Or that Frenchmen rarely speak of it publicly as a national treasure, which most certainly it is? Or that the numbers of tourists who visit here compared to natives is minuscule?

The Blank Look

Consider what happened when we asked our Latin Quarter hotel manager how to get here one sunny summer Sunday and a blank look crossed his face and he shook his head.

"Chan (as in Charlie Chan) till-lee?" we repeated, wondering why he couldn't understand. After all, he spoke English quite well.

Chantilly, as in the black lace we Americans know all about and the delicious thick cream served, or at least imitated, in our snooty restaurants. We wrote the name on a piece of notepaper.

"Ah," the manager said and his face came alive, "Shawn-tee-yee."

Once we got the hang of the pronunciation we were off to the races. Not literally, of course, because the racing season at the famed track here had just ended.

But we were off--lace, whipped cream and horses aside--for what is Chantilly's most celebrated attraction, the moated Chateau de Chantilly.

Off by the Metro to the Gare du Nord, just a quick subway scoot away from our Left Bank hotel, where we boarded our train. Tickets cost only 49 francs (about $6.80) for the round trip, second-class, the only way to go.

If you have a car, the drive to Chantilly by autoroute and country road takes about 50 minutes. But who wants to battle the streets of Paris to reach the autoroute? Especially when the train trip, aboard one of those clean fast French commuters that seem always to run with unfailing efficiency, is swift and agreeable.

Pleasant Little Square

The trains leave about every 20 minutes, and in less than half an hour we arrived at a small suburban station that fronted on a pleasant little square distinguished chiefly by well-patronized bars and restaurants.

Chantilly's chateau in its present incarnation is the Musee Conde (the Conde Museum), and houses art treasures and is the property of the Institut de France, parent body of the Academie Francaise.

The castle is about a mile from the little depot, stands in a lake and is surrounded by stunning gardens and extensive woodlands. Considered a matchless reflection of the France of centuries past, the chateau is called by many "the most beautiful house" in a nation of masterpieces and is, in fact, two chateaux.

The older yet smaller, the Petit Chateau, was built about 1560 in Renaissance style around a rectangular courtyard for Anne de Montmorency (1493-1567), who despite the name was a he, not a she, and constable of France for various periods during the reign of several kings. The building survives largely in its original form.

The other, a much larger structure that adjoins it, was built for the Grand Conde, principal courtier of Louis XIV. He inherited the property in the 17th Century and it would remain in his family for 200 years. The Grand Chateau was badly damaged during the French Revolution but restored and vastly augmented throughout the 1800s. It survives as one of the best examples of 19th-Century French eclectic architecture.

So much for dead dukes and princes.

Guidebooks we'd read suggested that visitors walk from the station through the square and about a block beyond to a tourist office in a small wooden building to get literature in English about how to reach the chateau and what to see once there.

Pamphlets in French

Turned out that the only pamphlets available were in French and that the woman stationed there spoke no English.

We stepped outside bewildered. But as luck would have it, the timing could not have been more apt. A young man in hiking shorts and a red shirt chanced by with his girlfriend. He sensed our consternation, stopped and asked if he could help.

It developed that he was an American who had visited the chateau before and said the shortest walking distance, again the only way to go, was along a short trail through tall woods that lay just ahead. Then one would cross the vast emerald infield of the racecourse where every year during the first two weeks in June top-hatted men and elegantly dressed women gather for one of the most fashionable thoroughbred meets in the world.

He suggested that because he and his girlfriend were chateau-bound that we follow them.

The walk proved to be of no small duration. By the time we passed the race track's white grandstand on the right, the young American's red shirt was rapidly fading in the distance. But just as we lost sight of it, the chateau's magnificent silhouette began bobbing up on the horizon and gradually grew more defined as we closed in across the sea of grass.

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