The sight of the Château de Vincennes is impressive. Massive moats and drawbridges, high towers and thick stone walls, a dungeon and a chapel… Although many royal medieval castles still stand in France, the Château de Vincennes is the largest of them all, and it is located only 8km to the east of Paris’ city center, in the town of Vincennes. Most of the castle is now used for administrative purposes, and only the dungeon and the chapel can be visited.
Parisianist Fun Fact: Charles de Gaulle, former president of France, wanted the Château de Vincennes to become the president’s residence, but this never happened. However, the Château would be used today as backup should the current presidential palace, the Palais de l’Elysée, have a problem.
The great thing about the Château de Vincennes is its accessibility. The terminal station of Metro Line 1, Château de Vincennes, brings you directly to the foot of the building. Once you enter the Château, walking over the large moat using the drawbridge, walk straight towards the clearly marked ticket booth located in the center of the castle grounds.
Parisianist Deathly Detail: On October 15th 1917, famous courtesan Mata Hari was accused of espionage and was shot by a firing squad in the empty moats of the Château de Vincennes.
With a height of 50m (164ft), the dungeon of the Château de Vincennes is the tallest dungeon in Europe, and is the only remaining medieval royal residence still standing in France. After crossing another smaller drawbridge and penetrating the courtyard of the dungeon, immediately turn left and take the stairs. Go all the way up to visit the terrace and bell tower first and then climb back down to walk on the ramparts before taking the bridge over the courtyard and into the dungeon tower. Only the 1st and 2nd floors are open to the public, which were the king’s living quarters.
Parisianist tip: from the terrace of the bell tower, you will have a great view of the chapel, making it a perfect photo spot.
The rooms of the dungeon are empty, but this comes as no surprise. Unlike today where each room has a purpose, the main central room served many purposes back then. The furniture was changed several times a day (for example, a table was set up for a meal, but quickly removed when the King had eaten), and the rooms were left empty when the King was away. With only one central pillar to support the whole tower, the castle was an architectural prowess at the time of its construction. The windows were wide, the chimneys were huge and latrines were found on each floor! The King’s bedroom was on the second floor, a much more colourful room, also housing a library, a treasure room and a music room. Each floor also had a small chapel.
Parisianist Fun Fact: Napoleon III asked architect Viollet-le-Duc, who brilliantly gave a new life to Notre Dame, to renovate both the dungeon and the chapel in the 19th century. The dungeon was also recently renovated.
The last 3 floors were used by the military and the people of service to the King, but cannot be visited. Therefore, take the small staircase that leads back down to the ground floor: the water (well) and food storage in the old days. A list of some prestigious prisoners and copies of the books that have been written by these prisoners while serving time in the Château de Vincennes are visible on the ground floor.
Parisianist Fun Fact: the massive iron doors in front of the well were the doors of Queen Marie Antoinette’s prison cell at the Prison du Temple (Temple prison) during the French Revolution. These doors were transferred to the Château de Vincennes when Napoleon brought down the prison in 1808 (cf Citinerary Marais 2).
Facing the dungeon is Sainte-Chapelle de Vincennes, a flamboyant gothic chapel inspired by the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. When Louis IX purchased the Holy Relics in 1237, they were kept in Vincennes before the end of the construction of Paris’ Sainte Chapelle. Since a fragment of the crown of thorns remained in Vincennes, King Charles V ordered the construction of Sainte Chapelle de Vincennes in 1379. Neither the fragment nor the Baptism Basin (Baptistière de Saint Louis presently at the Louvre) used for the baptism of Louis XIII can be seen, but you can see the original medieval bell that once hung in the dungeon as well as models of the medieval castle some 600 years ago.
Parisianist Tip: make sure you climb up the stairs in order to have a overall view of the inside of the chapel and the beautiful stained glass windows.
The castle started as a simple hunting lodge set up by King Louis VII in the woods of Vincennes in 1150. The site slowly grew to become a primary or secondary royal residence for the French kings. In 1337, king Philippe VI decided to fortify the area and build the dungeon, and his successor, King Charles V used the Château de Vincennes as his primary residence, installing the royal court and administration within the castle walls in 1371.
Parisianist Fun Fact: The fortified area could welcome and protect 10 000 people in case of a siege.
When the Château de Vincennes was abandoned by the kings of France, the dungeon became a prison, with a capacity of not more than 14 prisoners. Among them were famous philosophers Diderot and Voltaire, author Marquis de Sade imprisoned for his erotic novels, and politicians Nicolas Fouquet and Mirabeau. The rest of the castle welcomed the Manufacture de Vincennes, which specialized in porcelain and was later transferred to Sèvres (the workshop in Sèvres is now a porcelain museum).
Parisianist Fun Fact: during the time it was used as a prison, many prisoners carved or painted the walls, which is still visible today. Look closely and you will find 1789 graffiti!
If you are planning to spend a nice sunny day in the Bois de Vincennes, the biggest park in Paris, it would be a shame not to spend 1 hour to discover the dungeon and chapel of the Château de Vincennes, for its beauty and historical interest. Start by visiting the Château before walking through the Parc Floral and end up at the newly opened Vincennes Zoo…