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Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the royal town


saint-germain-1.jpgThe visitors interested in the guided tour gather in the "Tourism Office", located in one of the narrow medieval streets of the centre of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, in the street named "Rue au pain" (Bread Street). Our guide Mr Marouane Ouled Amor comes walking down the wooden stairs of the house, in which in 1862 was born the French musical composer Claude Debussy. A professor of history whose expertise and passion is not limited to the life of the French kings, but his admirable knowledge scale includes also the Indian cinema art and Pakistani poetry. The guided tour is bilingual, after each French sentence Marouane switches to fluent English with a nice British accent. And his linguistic skills go further. He speaks also Hindi, Urdu and Japanese. 

We get on a 90 minutes adventure in the steps of the French kings in the town of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the western suburbs of Paris, connected with the city by a metrsaint-germain-2.jpgo line RER A. The first question of the tourists is why Saint-Germain-en-Laye is considered to be a royal town. Marouane explains that 29 kings of France lived here, from Louis VI in the 12th century to Louis XIV in the 17th century. Louis XIV moved his residence in 1682 to Versailles. Several kings were born here and one died at this place. After the departure of Louis XIV to Versailles, the inhabitants of Saint-Germain-en-Laye got divided by two and 250 houses were on sale.
Even today in the crooked medieval streets of the town you feel the air of the royal past. The town is full of old aristocratic houses, in French called "hôtels particuliers", which were built in the times when the royal court lived in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. One of the first that we can see during our tour are the aristocratic house "Hôtel de Guise" or "Hôtel de la marquise de Maintenon". This house was bought in 1680 by Madame de Maintenon. Madame de Marquise de Maintenon was a nanny of the Louis XIV’s children and the king fell in love with her. After the death of his wife Marie-Thérèse he married the nanny. She never lived in this house since she was by the side of the king in the nearby castle Saint-Germain-en-Laye. She had no childrensaint-germain-3.jpg with the king. Besides the historical curious facts that make this house interesting, we admire also the beautiful wide balcony from the forged metal which was added to the house in 1880. On the square which leads us to the castle we observe the old houses "Hôtel de Soubise", which belonged to an aristocratic family and "Hôtel de Conti" which belonged to members of the royal family.
The castle built in the 12th century was destroyed by the English two centuries later. The only part which remained from the initial castle is the chapel that was built by the king Saint Louis in order to place there the Christ’s saintly relics. Today the relics are located in Notre Dame of Paris.
Before we enter the castle’s courtyard, we stop by the church built in the neoclassical architecture of the 18th century. The initial church was dedicated to the bishop of Paris Saint Germain and was also destroyed by the English. The king Charles V had it built again, and then the church was destroyed again and built for the third time by the king Louis XIV and for the fourth time by king Louis XV. A curious fact is that the entrance of the first three churches was at opposite side as today. The service was celebrated looking toward east, Jerusalem. The entrance of the present church is fsaint-germain-4.jpgacing the castle, the king. The guide shows us the commemorative inscription on the church, saying that king James II, the last Catholic king of England and king James VII, king of Scotland is buried here. It is one and the same person, a Catholic king of two protestant countries. His two daughters were protestant. He married a young Italian princess who gave him a son, a Catholic descendant.His residence was in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, he also died here and wanted to be burried at this place. However, the king Louis XIV did not think he was worth it and so he moved his relics to an English chapel in Paris. During the French Revolution the chapel was destroyed and the relics of James II disappeared. In 1820‘ two boxes were found in Saint-Germain with "noble parts of the king James" and were moved to the church in Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
The king Francois Ist in the XVIth century added to the medieval castle a new castle part with Italian Renaissance features. The castle is built in the shape of an irregular pentagon. Standing in the castle courtyard and admiring the walls of the castle, thanks to our guide we notice several important stone emblems. The letter F is a monogram of king François I. His personal emblem was a salamander, animal which is said to resist a fire, so metapsaint-germain-5.jpghorically the war. The letter N refers to Napoleon III and the letters RF for the French Republic. The walls of the castle have two colors, the pale stone is combined with the red bricks. At that time bricks were an expensive material and that’s why it was often replaced by painting. A part of the castle is the Saint Chapel with gothic rectangular high windows. Its decoration is modest, the only decoration of the glass mosaics is the lily flower. In this chapel the kings were married, such as François I. The king Louis XIV was baptized here when he was four years old. Marouane adds an explanation that at that time the child at birth was only undulated and the official baptism was done several years later. The chapel and the chateau were restaured in the 19th century, during the French Revolution it served as a prison. The castle was saved by Napoleon III, when he made a museum out of it.
Our tour continues in the castle gardens, designed by the famous French gardener André Le Nôtre. A typical feature of the French gardens was a central axe which prolongs the facade of the castle. The gardens were organized symmetrically. Initially there were five fountains but four of them were destroyed and today there is only one fountain.
Passing by a stone bunker, covered with the growing grass, Marouane explains that the town of Saint-Germain-en-Laye was a general seat of the German army during World War II.
We get to the last stop of our historical walk, to the place where in the past was stasaint-germain-6.jpgnding a so called "Château Neuf" (New Castle). "New castle" was destroyed and there is left only a piece of it, which can be seen from the 2,5 km long terrace. In the 17th century there were built seven gradual terraces in Italian style, connecting the castle with the Seine river. We observe the Seine river 66 meters from the upper terrace. On the right side there is an "Oratory" of the past castle "Château Neuf", the construction of which was ordered by the king Henry II and finished by the king Henry IV. Here, after the birth, was undulated the king Louis XIV and that’s why in the coat of arms of the city of Saint-Germain-en-Laye there is also a king’s cradle.
The gardens were located on a fragile soil and that’s why they degraded. During the reign of Louis XVI, the count Artois in the 18th century had a plan to rebuild the castle as a neoclassical villa and so by an explosion he destroyed the initial castle "Château Neuf". His plans were interrupted by the French Revolution in 1789. And so today we can find here only several villas and a restaurant to which used to come the writer Alexandre Dumas. He wrote his "Three Musketeers" in Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
Our guide puts down his black hat with red feather, our tour is finished and we go back to the medieval streets of Saint-Germain-en-Laye wiser, enchanted and enriched, seeing the town with different eyes. We stop in the bakery to buy a chocolate and pear cake which has a taste of an aristocratic royal town. 
Source of information: historical guide Marouane Ouled Amor (e-mail, links)
Maria Danthine, Paristep