Voltaire lived with his lover, Emilie de Châtelet at her charming Château de Cirey in Champagne. The modest château sits comfortably in the lush countryside of the River Cirey valley. It’s in the Grand Est region, in the Haute Marne department of Champagne. To one side there’s a large farm with red brick outbuildings and a gated entrance. To the other, the warm yellow stone château where Voltaire spent 15 years with his lover and fellow intellectual, the highly educated and beautiful Emilie du Châtelet (1706-1749).
Most people know the name, but unless you studied something about him at school or college, you probably don’t know a whole lot about one of the French literature greats. I know I didn’t and I studied both French and history. That all changed after a visit to the delightful château de Cirey.
François-Marie Arouet was born in 1694 in Paris. A Jesuit schooling, then with the ambitions of his father for his son to follow his profession and become a lawyer thwarted, the precocious young man chose the life of a writer. He became the most celebrated French enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher. He was also highly critical of the status quo in government and religion.
A Brush with Authority
In 1717 he was imprisoned in the Bastille for his satirical poem accusing the Regent of France of incest with his own daughter. 11 months later he left the notorious institution, taking the pen name of Voltaire.
An Unscheduled Trip to London
It wasn’t the only time Voltaire fell foul of the authorities. In 1727 he was forced to flee to England in 1727 after a dispute with a major aristocratic family. He lodged in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden to be near his English publisher. Welcomed by the English noble families, politicians and intellectuals of the time, he avidly studied Britain’s political system. Constitutional monarchy was a far cry from the French ancient regime.
Exiled – again
Once back in Paris, Voltaire didn’t stop his criticism of France. In 1734 he escaped another imprisonment after publishing Letters On the English Nation (Lettres philosophiques). The book criticised French institutions and compared them unfavourably to the more enlightened English model. Voltaire was forced to flee the capital.
Exile in Champagne
He had met Émilie du Châtelet (the Marquise du Châtelet) in Paris in 1733. Emilie was the perfect counterpart to the writer who produced over 2,000 books and pamphlets as well as Candide, his best known satirical novel.
She was fluent in Latin, Italian, Greek and German by the age of 12, and was taught mathematics, literature and science. It was an unusual upbringing, her father making sure her education was as comprehensive as possible. She was a formidable intellect, and translated Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy adding her own commentary. It’s still the standard translation of the seminal work.
Voltaire works on the Château de Cirey
Voltaire fell in love with the small château as well as with his mistress and set about improving and extending the building.
A visit to the Château
You walk into the small hallway through Voltaire’s flamboyant doorway, part of a new facade with elaborate stone carving. The hallway was, and still is, cold in winter, decorated with stuffed deer’s heads on the wall, and looking just like any country estate.
The rooms you see have polished wooden floors, grand furniture and even grander tapestries. It could be any château except for the details that catch your eye and bring the 18th century, and the couple, to life.
Instruments they used in scientific experiments are dotted around along with devices to interpret Newton’s theories on energy, an elaborate china chocolate jug, a pretty dog basket, and table settings.
It’s the feeling of intimacy, of being in a real house belonging to real people, albeit now the ghosts of the past, that makes this such an attractive house to visit.
The all-important Kitchens
The kitchens, in the basement of the château, are some of the best I have seen. A vast fireplace big enough to take a whole lamb revolving slowly on the spit; a huge iron kitchen range, heated by wood, to cook vegetables, boil water, warm dishes and heat the little irons that kept the clothes of the very fashionable lady crease free. Hams hang from the rafters; bunches of herbs stand in pots by the sink; a cold cupboard is full of cheeses. You can almost feel the heat from the fire and hear the voices of the staff and the clatter of the copper pans as the cooks prepare pies, roasts and dishes fit for the feasts that entertained the guests upstairs.
Voltaire’s Home-made Theatricals
Go up a narrow staircase at the top of the building and you come to what was Voltaire’s passion, theatre. Here in his private theatre he would first direct and then watch performances of his own plays. But it must have been quite an ordeal for the actors. Voltaire sat in a box set half way up the wall, ready to descend at any time to remonstrate with the performers on their dire intepretations of his words.
It’s a wonderful room with a tiny stage, showing, when I was there, a country cottage with a wooden table and chairs and a back window looking out onto a forest. Sometimes this changes to one of the other two stage sets: the forest and the exotic garden, all painted in trompe l’oeil.
The Château de Cirey Park
The Park surrounding the Château de Cirey is as delightful as you would expect. It all seems far from the 21st century with its gently flowing stream and fields of contented cattle munching their way along the river banks. The only modern touch is the iron sculpture of a man standing looking seemingly two ways.
Château de Cirey
33 rue Emilie du Châtelet
Tel: +33 (0)3 25 55 43 04
Open Château: July and August: Every afternoon; May and June: Sunday afternoons and bank holidays; September: Sundays afternoons
Mid March to mid November: Tues-Sat 9.30am-6.15pm
Admission Château Guided tour and Park: Adult €8.50, 10 to 12 years €5; under 10 years free; Park Adult €3; under 18 years free
How to get to Cirey
Cirey-sur-Blaise is on the D2 between Doulevant-le-Château and Juzennecourt. It’s 16kms (9 miles) from Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, home of Charles de Gaulle and the Memorial to the former French President.
A couple of suggestions…
If you like châteaux, skip forward a couple of centuries and go north to the Château Hardelot. Here it’s Dickens and the Entente Cordiale rather than Voltaire.
If you’re in Champagne, consider a visit to one of the great Champagne houses in Reims.