Today the suburb of Vincennes is one of the most densely populated cities in Europe, but back in the twelfth century, it was nothing more than a forest outside Paris. Much like its more famous cousin in Versailles, the Palace at Vincennes started off as a hunting manor. It was built by Louis VII sometime in the mid-twelfth century. There are only a few scattered archaeological remains of the original chateaux. In the intervening centuries, the castle was expanded. It would eventually serve as a prison, a park, an arms factory, a World War II military headquarters, and finally a museum and historical site.
Vincennes Castle has an eclectic mixture of architectural styles, owing to the fact that it was constructed over such a long period. The castle’s keep (or donjon in French) was the tallest fortified structure in medieval Europe, at 50m. It was built, along with the outer walls (or enceinte in French) and moat, in the mid-fourteenth century during the reign of Charles V. The heavily fortified Vincennes had served as a refuge for the royal family in times of trouble, but it was a grim, medieval construction. In 1654, architect Louis Le Vau (also responsible for the Louvre and Versailles) commissioned the King’s and Queen’s Pavilion. These are the epitome of the classical style. The other notable architectural feature is the Sainte-Chapelle de Vincennes. This gothic chapel was consecrated in 1374.
The castle is now home to the Defence Historical Service, the historic archives for France’s Ministry of Defense. The main attraction is the donjon, which is now a museum. The prison there was once home to Marquis de Sade and Denis Diderot, author of the Encyclopédie. The chapel has excellent stained glass, but there’s an extra charge to get in. The grounds are beautiful as well. Vincennes is less well known than Versailles, but its history is just as interesting. This is also a great place to go to escape the crowds.
Address: Avenue de Paris, 94300 Versailles
Metro: Chateau de Vincennes (1), Vincennes (RER A)
Telephone: +33 01 48 08 31 20
Hours: September 1-April 30 open from 10:00-17:00
May 2-August 31 open from 10:00-18:00
Closed on holidays.
Admission to the courtyard free; charge for donjon and chapel.