Reflected in the shimmering waters of its moat, the Château de Chantilly looks like a fairytale castle, almost too perfect to be true. And in a way, it is: the Renaissance-style Grand Château isn't much more than 100 years old (although the adjoining Petit Château dates from the 16th century). The castle that previously stood on this site was razed during the Revolution by angry citizens for whom Chantilly, fief of two ancient warrior families, the Montmorencys and the Condés, symbolized aristocratic privilege and military might.
The Grand Château houses the Musée Condé, a jewel of a collection which ranges from the curious — a wax head of King Henri IV, the pink Condé diamond — to the sublime: Piero di Cosimo's Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci, Raphael's Virgin of Loreto, works by Botticelli, several pictures by Poussin, two masterpieces by Watteau, a splendid series of Renaissance portraits by the Clouet father and son (including the famous Catherine de Médicis and Henri III), and an admirable collection of illuminated manuscripts. Arranged just as the Duc d'Aumale, the last owner of Chantilly, left it (with orders that it never be changed), the museum has the personal and agreeably eccentric style of a private collection.
Connoisseurs of fine equines know Chantilly as the site of a famous racetrack and Thoroughbred training center. A fascinating “living museum” (Musée Vivant du Cheval) devoted to horses occupies the colossal 18th-century stables. From an architectural viewpoint, these Grandes Ecuries are more imposing than the château itself. But then that is not so surprising: the Prince of Condé, who built the stables, was convinced that he would be reincarnated as a horse!
The château's majestic park, complete with a canal, gardens and pools planned by 17th-century landscape artist André Le Nôtre, is crisscrossed by shady walks and velvety lawns. But the immense (nearly 16,000-acre) Chantilly forest, with its hiking paths and ponds, is by far the best choice for a long woodland ramble. Take care, though: between 9 a.m. and noon some 3,000 Thoroughbreds thunder into the forest for their morning workout!
For a bird's-eye view of the château and surrounding areas, a hot-air balloon tethered there takes 30 visitors at a time up to an altitude of nearly 500 feet (150 meters).