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Vincennes

The chateau must be one of the most bad-tempered collections of buildings in the world, full of the prose of fortification and containment without any of the poetry of castellation. The vast medieval curtain-wall is opened out at the south end, towards the Bois, with grumpy classical buildings by Le Vau: on the north side there is the entrance tower, and brooding over the whole cross-grained mixture is the fourteenth-century donjon, which they say is the tallest in Europe; five huge storeys, surrounded by its own curtain-wall. Inside, the tall rooms, each heavily vaulted from a single pillar, give away nothing more than the facts of incarceration, if anything reinforced by the Gothic ribs and corbels that are familiar from less gloomy places. It is no illusion: Vincennes has a grim record and the tiny ill-lit cells are still all there to prove it. Would Harlech or Bodiam have the same effect, if they were roofed? I doubt it: there is something specifically implacable at Vincennes: and it has even invested the Sainte-Chapelle, opposite the donjon, which was begun in the fifteenth century and finished in 1552. The proportions were taken from the Sainte-Chapelle of Paris; but there, the inside was split into two floors. Here it is a single space, so a vault which was just right for the upper chapel in Paris becomes far too flat for the deeper space at Vincennes. Gothic life is completely absent; the chapel is as much an empty shell as a nineteenth-century copy.

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One final view, the only soft thing at Vincennes: the eastern side of the moat, choked with big trees, Nature at last getting its own back on man. But the town that has grown up opposite this wicked uncle is as different as could be – a kind of French Aldershot. Vincennes has many barracks, some of them still inside the walls, and France has compulsory military service. Across the road from the chateau is a bus terminus, the end of a Metro, a line-up of cheerful cafes, and a considerable variety of cheerful, cheap, not very good meals.

The New Paris Metro Map Vincennes: Saint-Louis

Droz and Marrast, 1924

Secondhand style, a kind of Byzantine, but not secondhand feeling. Though badly served by the decorative artist (who wasn’t, in 1920?) honesty and originality come through as they do in a good Victorian church in England. The site is a comfortable street-corner beyond the Porte de Vincennes. On it, the architects planted a tall tower and a church with a Greek-cross plan. Outside, stone and brick speak together as Lutyens made them do when he was young. The flat lid-like porch is not a decorative feature but a means of whisking you inside. And once inside, the giant pairs of intersecting arches which make up the cross surmount the banality of the painting which covers them. France has a good many churches in this style – there are plenty in the rebuilt villages around the Somme – and most of them are preposterous. The slow-spoken honesty of this one is particularly welcome.

(Just north of the main road out to Vincennes. I have forgotten the street, but the rue des Laitieres should get very near it.)

Bois de Vincennes: Lac des Minimes

The Bois de Vincennes is too scattered and patchy to have a single personality like the Bois de Boulogne. The Lac des Minimes is a crescent-shaped pool with three wooded islands in it, near the eastern corner. Still water, sinuous paths, banks of greenery: everything is first relaxed then turned in on itself so that the green becomes greener, the stillness even stiller. Half an hour seems like a day, the fishermen are fixed for all time, the runners (from the Centre National des Sports, nearby) a perpetual frieze. The landscape is a hall of mirrors, perpetually reflecting itself into the uneasy no-man’s-land between reality and illusion. You can see how they came to make L’Annee derniere a Marienbad: the extraordinary thing is that, with the same landscape forms, this effect would be quite impossible in singular, individualized England.

(Between N14 and N34, hence a good deal of traffic noise in the background. Best on the east side of the lake, probably best – unlike the London parks – at weekends when everyone else is there.)

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