Rambouillet Chateau is just 50 kms (31 miles) from Paris, yet it is one of France’s least visited castles. There is a reason for this: it is an official presidential ‘weekend’ and ‘summer’ residence, and it is also a venue for international conferences and where heads of state and kings and queens stay when on […]

Rambouillet Chateau

Rambouillet Chateau (copyright Marilyn Z Tomlins)

Rambouillet Chateau is just 50 kms (31 miles) from Paris, yet it is one of France’s least visited castles.

There is a reason for this: it is an official presidential ‘weekend’ and ‘summer’ residence, and it is also a venue for international conferences and where heads of state and kings and queens stay when on official visits to Paris.  Those of us, the ordinary folk, wishing to visit therefore have to find out before we head its way that it is open for visits.

So, once you have established that the chateau is open for visits, you will love the place. Even if, as is the case, one can visit the chateau only with an official guide. You see, if people are allowed to wander through the chateau without supervision, those with bad intentions could easily plant a bomb somewhere.

Being someone who does not like to have a guide telling me things I really am not interested to know, or which I know already, I was a little apprehensive when I heard that I would only be able to enter the chateau with one of its guided tours: there are six a day.

Rambouillet and its lake.

Rambouillet and its lake. (Copyright Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

But the tour guide was a lovely lady and from her I learnt that Napoléon 1 when he was in residence  – yes, he went there in those summers he was not making war – never sat down to have a meal; never spent more than 10 minutes on that meal; never slept for more than 20 minutes at night, and … took 5 or 6 baths every day. When I heard about Napoléon’s eating habits, I understood why he died of stomach cancer. (My mom always said: “Eat slowly and chew everything 12 times and you will never have a digestive problem.” And this despite that, at that time, I had no idea what a ‘digestive problem’ could possibly be.)

Rambouillet chateau dates from 1368 when one Jean Bernier, advisor to King Charles V (1364-1380) had a fortified castle built in a forest south-west of Paris.

Hunting was a great pastime then and over the centuries the chateau changed ownership regularly, each new owner, all of them noblemen, adding to the building or demolishing what the previous nobleman had added.

In the first part of the 16th century King François 1 (François-1er) bought the chateau and there he died. One day out hunting he had begun to vomit and taken back to the tower, he died there three days later on March 31, 1547.  He died in one of the chateau’s three fortified towers in which he had established his living quarters – his appartement, as a monarch’s living quarters are called here in France.

The François 1 Tower is today where heads of state and royalty sleep when they are on official visits.


King Francois 1

King Francois 1


Therefore among the powerful – and illustrious – who had slept in the very room where François 1 had died are the American presidents Eisenhower and Bush Snr, the Soviet Union’s Khrushchev and Yeltsin, Russia’s Putin, and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.

In 2007 Muammar Gaddafi on his 6-day state visit to France should have slept in that bedroom too, but he had refused. He was adamant that he would only sleep in his Bedouin tent when in France.

Despite fervent criticism, his Paris host, the then president of France, Nicholas Sarkozy, agreed and Gaddafi put his tent up in the garden at the bottom end of Avenue des Champs-Élyseès.

A pheasant shoot in the forest of Rambouillet part of Gaddafi’s French visit, it was planned that he should spend the night of the hunt in the chateau, and in François 1’s bedroom, but the good colonel refused. He would, he told the Mayor of Rambouillet, pitch his tent in the chateau’s park and sleep in it. Said Monsieur le Maire, ‘No can do, chum! You bloody-well sleep in the chateau, or you know where you can go.” Well, the mayor did not say it like that, but I would have.

But Gaddafi, unable to pitch his tent in the chateau’s park, he, in a huff, announced that he would return to Paris immediately at the end of the hunt, and so he did.

It’s not so ridiculous to wonder whether Gaddafi did not perhaps know that François 1 had died in that bedroom, and this was why he would not sleep there: maybe, the fearless one was scared of phantoms.

However, I do wonder if those heads of state and crowned heads who have slept in that bedroom knew that a king of France had died there. I mean not just somewhere in the chateau, but in that very bedroom. The bed in which the king had died is not though the bed that the visitors have to sleep in: for a state visit, the room’s original furniture which includes the bed is taken away and is replaced with modern stuff, like a spring-mattress bed. Other mod-cons too are put in the room: telephones and TV sets and either the air-con or the central heating is switched on.  And, as I saw, there are several electrical plugs in the room, like there is one on each side of the bed.

After François 1’s death in 1547 at the age of 53, the chateau would remain in private, yet noble hands until 1783 when King Louis 16 bought it. (Yes, he was the one who had his head chopped off.)  He bought the chateau – when I say ‘chateau’ I include the park and forest – because an enthusiastic hunter, the forest was considered best for hunting.

Loving his wife, Queen Marie-Antoinette – Louis 16 was the only French monarch who did not have a bevy of mistresses (not even one), he had a dairy, known today as La Laiterie de la Reine (The Queen’s Dairy) built for her in the park in order to give her something of interest when she visited from nearby Versailles.

The dairy, a circular pavilion, was indeed a real dairy, where the milk from the estate’s cows was made into butter, cream and cheese. As for Marie Antoinette, she stepped foot in it only once.  That visit was for the dairy’s inauguration in June 1787.

Of course in 1789, the storming of the Paris prison, La Bastille, ended all such royal extravaganza: and both Louis and Marie-Antoinette were to lose their heads to the guillotine soon after: Louis in 1792 and Marie-Antoinette in 1793.

However, Napoléon Bonaparte – Napoléon 1 – having first become ‘First Consul’ in post-revolutionary France in 1799 and in 1804 ‘Emperor’, he, adoring not only the chateau but so its park and the forest, also began going there. The estate already having been named a bien national – a national property – he listed it as a government-owned property. (So it still is.)

The palace Napoleon had had built for his son. The child never stepped foot in it.

The palace Napoleon had had built for his son. The child never stepped foot in it. (Copyright Marilyn Z Tomlins)

Unfortunately, because the chateau is a presidential residence, visitors like us are not allowed to take photographs. Similarly the taking of photos in The  Queen’s Dairy and another attraction on the estate – La Chaumière des Coquillages (The Shell Cottage) – is also forbidden.

The Shell Cottage is a square stone cottage with a thatched roof. Once you step into the cottage – and this you can do also only with the official guide – you will find yourself in a small round room with a domed ceiling. The walls and the ceiling are covered with seashells, mother-of-pearl and marble. These are laid out to form patterns and pictures. I can assure you that you will be seeing something extraordinary.

A design of seashells in the Shell Cottage.

A design of seashells in the Shell Cottage.

The Shell Cottage was built in 1779 for the Princess of Lamballe. She is the one who apparently said, when told that the people of Paris have no bread: “So, let them eat cake”. “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche“. Brioche is a round, sweet bun, often eaten for breakfast instead of a croissant.

The Princess of Lamballe did not survive the Revolution: first she was thrown into prison and then at her trial, she was dragged out to the street where a group of men lynched her.

This is a Dutch engraving of Lamballe's lyncing.

This is a Dutch engraving of Lamballe’s lyncing.

It was in Rambouillet Chateau where Napoléon 1 spent his very last night on French soil.

On June 29,1815, having said farewell to his Grande Armee at Fontainebleau Chateau, he went to spend the night in Rambouillet Chateau.

The next day, June 30, he set off to what he thought would be retirement in England, but tricked by the English, he found himself not sailing across the English Channel to England but south across the Atlantic to Saint Helena. (But that, as is said, is another story.)

It was also there in the chateau where on August 23, 1944, General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French, set up his headquarters after the June 6, 1944 D-Day landing of the Allies and the end of the Nazi German WW2 occupation of France, and where the general planned with General Philippe LeClerc France’s participation in the armed liberation of Paris. And it was from the chateau that he set off for Paris two days later, on August 25, at 2 pm to be taken by car to Paris, the capital finally free from occupation, the Germans having fled or having been arrested.

It was also there in the chateau where in November 1975, the first G6 summit was held. The G6  then consisted of the USA, the UK, Italy, West Germany and Japan. France too of course. France’s head of state was Valéry Giscard d’Estaing; America’s president was Gerald Ford; Harold Wilson was Prime Minister of the UK. Aldo Moro was head of Italy, Takeo Miki of Japan and Helmut Schmidt was Chancellor of West Germany.

Some practical info about Rambouillet.

It is not difficult to get there. You take the train from Gare de Montparnasse to Rambouillet town.   If you are on a train that stops at every station along the way it will take you an hour to reach the town. It is a pleasant ride though.

In Rambouillet you can walk to the chateau, and it is a pleasant walk too as it will take you through the centre of the town which is a pedestrian area. On a sunny day you can always stop at one of the many cafés and have something to drink, like a small black coffee. And after your visit to the chateau, you can again stop, but probably for something stronger than a black coffee.

Know that if your visit is going to be on a Saturday or Sunday, the locals tend to pop out at around 4.30 pm when they too will be having something stronger than a small black coffee in a cafés so these tend to be rather crowded, but by 6.30 pm all will leave to return home to switch their televisions on for a night of watching American soap operas.

The chateau is closed for visitors on a Tuesday. Also of course when a conference is being held there, or some head of state or crowned head is in residence.

The official tours set off at 10 am, 11 am, 2 pm, 3 pm, 4 pm and 5 pm.

It costs 7.50 euro to go in if you are 26 and over. If under 26 and you are a national of an E.U. country you go in for free. Bad luck if you are not an E.U.country national because then you will have to pay 5 euro to go in.


Your guide will give you a b/w map of how you can reach the Queen’s Dairy and the Shell Cottage on foot. Their distance from the chateau is 1 km.  This is indeed so if you turn right when you exist the chateau and you walk along the tarred road which will bring you to the Queen’s Dairy. You will then have to wait there until a reasonable number of visitors have turned up before a guide will show you around. You may have to wait up to half an hour. Maybe longer. Afterwards you have that 1 km walk back to the chateau.

My walk from the chateau to the dairy took almost 90 minutes. Ignoring the map I had been given, I had asked two old souls the way to the dairy, and, following their instructions, I had gone walking all round the park.

Something to ponder over.

Some ox bones have been encrusted into the façade of the Shell Cottage.

The guide told us that this was done as ‘decoration’. And he said that it was rather the customs those days among peasants.

I happen to know, and so may you, that animal bones are used in sorcery.

So indeed are seashells.

I therefore do not believe the story that the use of bones and shells in the Shell Cottage was for decorative reasons.

No, this cottage was all about sorcery.


Rambouillet (copyright marilyn z tomlins)

Rambouillet (copyright marilyn z tomlins)





Marilyn Z. Tomlins

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