To continue our horse-centric French rendezvous we made a day of going to the horse races at the Hippodrome de Longchamp.
I have a love/hate relationship with horse racing. I love the stories of horses like Seabiscuit and see them at the track in person, but I’ve been close enough to the sport to know that racehorses are to most of their owners and handlers (I know there are exceptions) not much different from cattle. Once they are done, for whatever reason, they are gotten rid of in the quickest and most lucrative fashion. I’ve seen my fair share of legs broken on the racetrack and my dad ran a stockyards when it was legal to sell horses to the killers in the US. Quite a lot of the horses on those trailers were from the track. However, there is a spirit in many thoroughbreds that nothing can fulfil other than racing. It is powerful to watch such majestic creatures run their hearts out because it is what they were bred to do. It was with that spirit that I found myself at Longchamp.
It was easy to tell the moment we laid eyes on the horses in the paddock that they were extremely well kept. Their coats glistened, their hooves were shiny and, to our surprise, most all of their manes were braided. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a racehorse (in person) in the US with it’s mane braided. Their tails were also thick and banged (cut bluntly). I definitely have not seen many American racehorses with a nice tail! The paddock itself was lovely. Lots of green grass and beautiful flower beds.
The paddock at Longchamp
One of the differences between French and American horse racing that first struck me was the lack of pony horses. At all tracks in the U.S. racehorses are led onto the track, while on the track and often when leaving the track on pony horses. Meaning that someone riding another horse leads the racehorse. Pony horses are usually calm and put up with a lot of racehorse shenanigans. There was not a pony horse in sight at the French racecourse. The first race we watched were three-year-olds and they walked, pretty calmly I might add, from the paddock to the racetrack all by themselves. Most had a human handler or groom walking alongside, but they were pretty much on their own.
Headed to the track
The other difference was that the track at Longchamp is turf (grass). All of the Triple Crown races in the U.S. are run on dirt tracks. Most American tracks have a turf track, but more often run on the dirt. I thought it was a curious difference. The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe race is run at Longchamp and is the second richest race in the world. The turf does make for a much lovelier view than does dirt. At first it made me a bit nervous because grass can be very slippery. In none of the races we watched did any of the horses have issues with the footing, thankfully.
Running on the turf around the bend to the homestretch
We stayed for six of the eight or nine races being run the day we attended. We were there on a Monday afternoon so the stands were rather empty. We noticed a few other tourists, but most of the spectators were men and were betting. We had hoped to have a lovely picnic on the grass in the infield, but we couldn’t figure how to get to the infield so we settled in stands and enjoyed getting to watch the horses and general racetrack activity.
A small crowd made for great views, up close and personal.
My favourite part of each race was how calmly and orderly the horses left the track. The jockeys would ride them about 1/8 further down the track than the finish line, then turn their horses around and canter back to the same gate from which they rode onto the field. None of the horses jigged or pranced as they left the track in a single file line back to the paddock. I’m not sure that my 7-year-old thoroughbred (whom has never run a race in his life) would have done it so calmly.
Calmly leaving the track after running a good race.
All in all it was an enlightening and enjoyable experience. The horses were gorgeous, the racing was good and the weather was absolutely perfect. The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe was to be run a few weeks after our trip. It would be fun to see one of the fancy races in Europe, but I’ll hold out for Ascot one of these trips.
Paris in less than four days; do it! We did! WAY before our trip we had a few “planning” dinners at Saint-Emilion in Fort Worth. We felt the authentic French atmosphere really helped us get into the groove to plan our trip in France. The amazing food and wine was just an extra added bonus. We agreed that we weren’t going to focus on doing the most Parisy of Paris things while we were there. No Eiffel Tower. No Louvre. No love lock bridge. Our focus was on horses and fashion and eating. However, we did happen to fit a few touristy items into the agenda. My partner in travel had been to Paris within the last year and had some destinations undiscovered that she wanted to experience so we focused on a couple highlights and let the rest fall into place.
In keeping with our hunting theme we first headed to the Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature (Museum of Hunting and Nature). Other than the arbitrary contemporary art exhibit that was there on a temporary basis, this is my favourite museum ever. Small enough to get through, but interesting enough to spend hours. I feel like I could go there 5 times and immerse myself in a completely different part of the museum every time. It had incredible hunting art, guns and knives, taxidermy and fantastic explanations of the focus of hunting through French history. Our most favourite was Reynard sleeping in a chair.
Reynard is an often used name for the fox being hunted by hounds.
After our few hours at the Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature we decided to do the touristy of touristing and visit the Notre Dame. We were visiting on a Sunday and, to my delight, were able to go during mass. I felt tacky touring through the Notre Dame during an actual religious mass, but it was well worth the visit. You can’t help but feel some kind of spiritual presence in such a magnificent building. The mass was in French, but the emotion of the priest was palpable without fully understanding the words he was saying. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to hit the tourists being disrespectful and talking as they walked around the building.
Inside the Notre Dame during a Sunday Mass
Destination number three for the day was the Luxemburg Gardens. Have I mentioned how perfect the weather was during our entire trip? Lots of overcast skies, but nary a drop of rain and the delightful temperature almost every day of around 72F. PERFECT weather to visit parks and gardens. We knew before going that Luxemburg Gardens are home to one of, if not THE, oldest carousels in the whole wide world. My Mom LOVES carousels so I really wanted to see it during our visit. We wandered around the entire garden and watched at the adorable pond where kids were sailing little sailboats around and people were camped around in the grass with picnics. There were a lot of picnickers in Luxemburg Gardens. We came across this breathtaking bronze of some stags. With the green grass and sharp colours we had to get a photo.
Stag family in Luxemburg Garden
We followed the sounds of a plethora of energetic kids to find the carousel. It was much smaller than I imagined it would be and there was no one around it. There were signs that said 1.5Euro, but the gates were closed, not locked, and no one seemed to be attending the ride. While the gates were closed, they were not locked, so we took it upon ourselves to open the gates and head in to get a closer view and photos. Just in time for a small Asian man to come hustling out of a little room and chastise us for going through the gate. It was hilarious! I thought he was telling us no photos, but turns out he was telling us no rides (or something like that). There was no way I was going to try to ride one of those tiny carousel horses, but it makes for a funny story. Right?! Interestingly, all the tails from the carousel animals have been removed. Perhaps from age the have fallen out over the years, or were taken off for reasons of durability.
Very old carousel at the Luxemburg Gardens in Paris
We headed back towards our hotel and opted to wander down the Champs Elysees. Let me tell you, it is highly overrated. Full of American chain stores and overrated “high” fashion. My favourite part of the Champs Elysees was the car removal we watched. They evidently don’t tow cars like we do in USA, which I can understand considering the narrowness of most streets. However, I can’t say I’d be all that confident in this guy moving my car from it’s parking space. He bumped the sides and bumpers of this poor chap’s car a few times before he finally got it out and situated on the trailer. Nevermind the large crowd that gathered to watch. It was pretty hilarious.
This is how your car gets towed in Paris
I recently had the amazing fortune to spend 10 days with a delightful friend in France and England. It was the horsiest non-riding vacation imaginable and it was heaven! Not to be rude, but I generally have little or no interest in looking at other people’s vacation photos. So, rather than inundate the world with annoying photos I’m going to blog about a few of my favourite parts of the trip, include a few photos and keep the rest for myself to enjoy the memories that go with the photos.
Our first full day of the trip was spent visiting the Domaine de Chantilly with priority given to the Grandes Ecuries (aka Grand Stables). This trip was ALL about HORSES. Anything we could possibly do that involved horses, without actually riding one, we pursued. And let me tell you. These stables are GRAND.
View of the Grand Stables and Hippodrome (or race track in English).
I can’t even comprehend what went into building a stable like Chantilly. The focus and energy that went into horse care during a time when the horse was the hot rod is difficult to wrap one’s head around 100 years after the automobile has taken over as the choice of transportation. Horses today are just something that little girls (and some big girls) obsess about and are a luxurious hobby. These stables were the difference between Jay Leno’s garage to store priceless Maseratis and street parking an old Honda Accord in a bad neighbourhood today.
Imagine warming up your horse in this setting in preparation for a morning stag hunt (I should be wary of imagining such things considering women at the time the stables were built were assuredly NOT going on stag hunts).
From the description of the Grand Stables, this may have been where the hounds were let out just prior to hunts, but is now a lovely riding area.
We toured the stables and clucked at all the horses, however they were onto the clucking thing and were having nothing to do with the tourists. Most of the horses in the stables were Spanish types, which we found odd but they are likely more suited to living in a stall and doing public shows than the average Selle Francais. We also toured, and loved, the Musee du cheval (Museum of the horse). It was without a doubt one of the best presented horse exhibits I’ve ever seen.
To finish off our Chantilly horse fix we attended the Equestrian Spectacle. The show was lovely, not the most amazing horsemanship in the world, but they do the show most every day and the horses and riders are actually lovely. Definitely a flight of steps higher than Medieval Times in the US. They did all the announcements before the show in French and (evidently) a select few in English at the end. One of the ones they didn’t say in English was no photography, so I got yelled at by the cute French boy charged with chastising audience members for photography. BUT not before I got at least a couple of good shots. We think this location was probably where the horses were shown off during the heyday of the Grand Stables.
Breathtaking architecture and a beautiful horse.
As a relative newby to the sport of fox hunting I really enjoyed the French take on the sport. The Chateau at Chantilly is full of art and homages to the sport of hunting. The French did/do a lot of stag hunting as well and it is depicted in their art. At the entry to the Chateau grounds there are stags on either side of the entry and then further at the actual structure are hounds. I would LOVE to have a larger than life bronze of my hounds at my front gate. Someday.
The stags. Kind of hard to see, but they are on either side of the entry way.
If you are going to France and you are horse crazy, I highly advise going to Chantilly. It is a short (and lovely) train ride from Paris and is an unforgettable experience.