Champagne Stories and Tips

Of horses, chateaux and food fit for a king - Picardy, Northern France

Picardy is the province north of Paris’ province, Ile-de-France. Its airport at Beauvais ushers Francophiles in on Ryanair’s cheapest French deals.

Beauvais’ chief attraction is foie gras (goose liver pate), so after a hard day's eating, jump on a train to the next town toward Paris, Chantilly. Chantilly is the perfect one-night stopover - a gorgeous town of about 11,000, just 20 miles north of Paris.

This is the town that gave the world lace, cream, and plenty of horse racing. Its skyline is dominated by the majestic Chantilly castle, a hunting chateau whose Grandes Ecuries (Great Stables) comprise the Musée Vivant du Cheval (Living Horse Museum), and wings house the Musée Condé.

The original Chateau de Chantilly was built on a rock amid a lake around 1560. Most of this chateau was destroyed during the French Revolution and rebuilt on the same site between 1875 and 1885. The last duke of the Condé line died in 1887.

The white stone chateau is surrounded by incredibly beautiful structured gardens designed by Le Notre for the Prince de Condé in the seventeenth century. Viewing the gardens and surrounding parkland by balloon is de rigueur. Off-peak, there are very few tourists, and most information is in both French and English.

The Musée Condé is the only French museum other than the Louvre to own three Raphael's, including The Three Graces. Other artists in the Condé collection include Fra Angelica, Van Dyke, Delacroix and a swag of 16th-century portraits of Renaissance kings and queens including sinister-looking Medicis and early childhood portraits of future kings, easily mistaken for little princesses in their bodices and calculating countenances.

The walls of the chateau are portraits of conquest. Whole gun collections sit alongside skins of ancient lions, pheasants, South Sea island weaponry and one small platypus. The anteroom to the Prince's bedchamber is adorned with muskets and oil paintings of favourite hunting dogs, and two pairs of bronze-cast bloodhounds guard the main entrance to the chateau.

The museum also displays a copy of The Grande Condé, an enormous pink diamond. The original was removed from display after it was stolen in 1926, but recovered by a hotel cleaning lady who nearly broke a tooth on it when biting into an apple she'd taken from a guest’s room.

Admission is to the chateau is 37FF. It is open every day bar Tuesday, and closes for lunch from 12.30 to 2.00. However, several of the town's excellent restaurants are within 10 minutes walk, including two on the grounds of the chateau.

The well-resourced tourist office just two minutes from the train station makes accommodation bookings. We arrived long after hours, and it was with a sense of surrender that we slunk into The English Shop for tourist tips. The charming ladies, one from Co. Wicklow, gave their vote to an auberge five minutes walk away, on the skirts of the Grandes Ecuries. Their Shop, on Rue de Connetable, does a roaring trade in afternoon teas and British delicacies for the large British racing population.

Not wanting to be outdone, Chantilly’s Irish racing population is catered for by McGuiniss' Irish pub, a two-minute stagger from the railway, though the beer beside the Guinness tap is more likely to be a Belgian cherry biere than a lager.

Getting there and getting away:
· Ryanair flies to Beauvais three times a day. Beauvais airport is 2.5 miles from Beauvais town centre, 40 miles to Paris. Trains run to Paris approximately every 1.5 hours. Chantilly is 20 miles by train to Paris Gare du Nord metro stop (about 40FF one way) and the Eurostar terminal.

· Coaches run direct between Beauvais airport (ph + 3 44 450106) and Paris, arriving in Paris 1 hour 40 mins after landing, leaving Paris 2 hours 25 minutes before takeoff, allowing time to check in and do a (very) quick shop in the small airport store. The coach costs 50FF each way, departing right outside the arrivals gate. It drops you at the James Joyce Pub (ph + 1 44 097032) nearest Porte Maillot metro station, which runs directly into the centre of the city.

· The French Tourist Board is located at 10 Suffolk Street, Dublin, Ireland (ph: 01 672 0813 ).

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