The château de Malmaison –
Josephine Bonaparte’s lush manor

The most famous château near Paris will always be Versailles, but it’s hardly the only château we have to offer. There’s the château de Monte-Christo – the dashing-sounding home of Alexandre Dumas – in Pont-Marly, 17km from Paris (that we would love to go and see to), but this month we chose the château de Malmaison which is less than 10km from the city limits and simple to get with public transport.

So forget the city of get ready to bathe in the rich luxurious fabrics and decoration of the place. It’s packed solid with Empire-style furnishings, thanks to the keen eye of a young lady called Josephine…

photos: JasonW

But first, a bit of history. The grounds were bought as early as 1390 and stayed in the same family until 1763 before being passed on to Jacques-Jean Le Couteulx du Molay, a rich banker, in 1771. The house became the scene of literary salons run by Madame du Molay, but the French Révolution put a stop to that, and in 1799 they sold Malmaison to Joséphine Bonaparte.

The sale was confirmed by Napolen Bonaparte when he returned from Egypte, becoming the de facto owner. From 1800 – 1802, the small château became – together with the Tuileries – the seat of the French government where ministers would frequently meet. From 1802 onwards, Josephine often came to what she called the “imperial place of Malmaison” to look after and expand the grounds.

After their divorce in 1809, the Emporer gave the house and its contents as a gift, and it’s where she died on 29th May 1814. Her son, prince Eugène, inherited the place, but when he died it was sold on several times before finally coming back to Napoléon III, Josephine’s grandson, in 1861. The next few yeas weren’t good for the place, the château got damaged during the war in 187°, then much of grounds were sold off piece by piece. Finally, in 1906, it became a museum.

We might as well tell you up front, the weather was pretty grim and cold when we visited the château de Malmaison. The driveway is probably much prettier in the spring. For the moment, the little rivers look cold, the rose garden – one of Josephine’s passions – is just brown leaves, the stone benches are all covered with moss…

However, in the 6 hectares that are left of the park (out of an original 726 in 1814!), there are some truly magnificent trees, some of which were planted by Napoleon himself. It’s difficult to give a true impression of their size with a photo, but perhaps putting a person next to one will help you get an idea. Can you see him?

The walk round the park doesn’t take long, but it’s an agreeable moment of peace and quiet . But now, time to check out the château! In the entrance hall there’s lots of marble and statues, with mirrors that could once be slid away to open up the side rooms and make one huge reception area…

A chequerboard marble floor gives a unity to the various rooms – when it’s not hidden under luxurious carpets. The fabrics are remarkable, and we especially like all the different chairs…

The music room was a great surprise, as its bright colour scheme seems extremely modern…

And the library is extremely pretty too, intimate, with a staircase hidden in one corner (htat the public is not allowed to see) going up to what used to be Napoleon’s bedroom.

Upstairs, other rooms have been preserved as they used to be. More beautiful fabircs, bright colours and a presentaiton room for the porcelain. Once again, the furniture was remarkable.

On the top floor is the exhibition space. During our visit, it was devoted to telling the story of Josephine’s wine cellar (13,000 bottles!) and the way that wine was prepared and served back in the day. The exhibition has been extended, and now finishes on 22nd March 2010.

And the visit finishes… in the gift shop of course, except this one has many interesting books about the era, the furniture and the Empire style of decoration. There is also a whole section devoted to flowers and plants, as Josephine was responsible for importing and growing many rare species.

We we inspired enough to buy one book before leaving, and another a couple of weeks later. Perhaps you will succumb too? For the visit, we suggest you also use the audioguide (available in English) as it gives you lots of great facts about the place, the history, the inhabitants and the decoration.

THe château de Malmaison has more surprises for you too. To see our slide show of the complete photo gallery, click the play button below, and then the four little arrows bottom right to go into fullscreen mode.

The château de Malmaison (here) can be reached by car, or by RER train + bus. Open every day except Tuesdays. Also closed 25th December and 1st January, and they close at lunchtime! Exact opening hours vary depending on the period (check here). Admission 8€/6.50€ when there are exhibition on, otherwise 6€/4.50€.

Official site: