At Chimay, music reigns in the heart of Prince Philippe and Princesse Françoise

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The theater at Château de Chimay is inspired by Louis XVth’ theater in Fontainebleau

I had not been so moved by a concert in a private theater since I heard Natalie Dessay sing “the Queen of the night” aria at Château de Groussay in 2004… Last week, the occasion was the Royal Chamber orchestra of Wallonie performing Salieri, Mozart and Haydn in the ravishing theater of château de Chimay, in the South of Belgium. And Prince and Princesse de Chimay were hosting a group of friends a well as 150 members of the public who attend the concerts every month. This has to be the best kept secret in the music world! And I really loved Vahan Mardirossian‘s conducting, as well as soloists Jean Fréderic Molard at the violin and the alto Anne Pingen, who is quietly retiring after 42 years in the orchestra!

Prince and Princesse de Chimay celebrate the alto Anne Pingen

The drive from Paris was a smooth 3 hr 15, through very pretty landscapes and Soissons. The castle is nine kilometers from the border. We were welcomed by a joyful tea with amazing caramel brownies from the nearby Macaron, a pastry shop which won the best croissant of Belgium prize. Since she moved in twelve years ago, Françoise de Chimay has undertaken the renovation of parts of the house with great energy and talent, and runs it like a large company. Assisted by her old friend, Anne Deroover, she has new ideas every minute, and develops the activities of Chimay with yoga classes, oncology seminars and these monthly concerts which anyone can attend for 35€. The atmosphere in Belgium is much more relaxed than in France and even though the 15 th Princesse de Chimay (born Fitz-James) was Marie Antoinette’s best friend at Versailles, and Madame Tallien, a future Princesse herself,  saved the French from Robespierre’s murderous habits during the Revolution, the atmosphere in the castle is very warm and low key.

The entrance to the theater with the portraits of Emilie Pellapra who built it and the “Great (17 th) Prince”  by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

Visitors are taken around by smiling young guides and can play on the mini golf after seeing a fascinating film commented by Stéphane Bern. The castle has been in the family for centuries, transmitted through women and nephews from the first Prince de Croy, whose marble mausoleum is in the village church, to the d’Arenberg in the 17 th century, the Hénin-Liétard  and the Riquet de Caraman in the 18 th century. The Riquet family is well known for their ancestor who built the Canal du Midi in 1666.

Jean Louis Laneuville, Theresa Tallien in prison at La Force in 1796 holding her hair cut for the guillotine. She was nicknamed Notre Dame de Thermidor and married Prince de Chimay in 1805

Women have often been instrumental in running the place. First Teresa de Cabarrus (Tallien) who met the Prince de Chimay in Madame de Staël’s salon and married him in 1805.  A true musician, she will bring to Chimay, Luigi Cherubini who composed one of his Masses there. She is buried in the town’s collégiale with her husband François Joseph. Then Émilie Pellapra married to Joseph, who built the theater after the one in Fontainebleau,  Elisabeth Manset, the mother of the actual owner Philippe, who restored the castle after WW2, created the music Festival and opened the house to the public, and now Françoise Peter who married the 22 nd Prince and has put extraordinary energy into restoring every inch of the castle. She is attentive to every detail and does not stop all day!

The castle burnt down in 1935 and was entirely rebuilt

Portraits illustrate the historical heritage and the details of the living room and hallway are immaculate. The famous Belgian stage designer and decorator Thierry Bosquet, who restored the decors of the theater, has a room to himself. It is covered with watercolors of the castle and models of the bedrooms and halls that he created in great detail, including the boudoir of Madame Tallien. Inhabited by famous musicians and politicians over the centuries, the house still invites great talents.

The corridor leading to the bedrooms is spectacular

The film commented  by Stéphane Bern which all visitors watch when they first arrive, includes writers Franck Ferrand, Catherine Hermary-Vieille and Laure Hillerin who wrote the biography of Elizabeth Greffulhe (née Caraman Chimay) who was raised in the castle. In 32 minutes it tells the story of ten centuries spent at Chimay. Like at Château de Chenonceau, there are flower arrangements in every room and the house feels perfectly lived in. Watching the crowds of local tourists attend each visit on the week end, is very comforting.

The table is set for the supper after the concert, a very refined affair

On Sunday morning, suddenly mirrors appeared, to be installed to give more light in the hallway by the windows like at Trianon in Versailles. There is never a dull moment at Chimay. We all went to drink a Chimay beer made by the monks since 1862 at Notre Dame de Scourmont, in the center of town, and resisted ordering the shrimp croquettes. With a definite British influence, the castle is a dream  for visitors.

Conductor Vahan Mardirossian and the Orchestre de chambre de Wallonie on stage at Chimay

So when your steps lead you to Belgium, make sure to stop and visit this unique princely home. The next concert is on September 21.

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