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Racing Time

Every June, Chantilly in France takes itself back to the graciousness of its past, via the sport of kings.

india Updated: Jun 25, 2011 17:59 IST
Veenu Singh
Veenu Singh
Hindustan Times

At a time of year when Delhi resembles nothing so much as a blazing tandoor, an invitation to visit France seemed nothing less than a miracle. Paris, I thought dreamily. The Eiffel Tower. The museums. The streetside cafés. Ah, Paris. And then I took a closer look at the invitation. Not Paris (except to pass through). My invitation was to Chantilly. But where, I wondered, was Chantilly. And what’s so interesting about it?

Since few people appeared to know, I turned to fail-safe Google. Chantilly, I learned from several websites, is the horse racing capital of France. Horse racing was first introduced from England in 1830 and today Chantilly still trains about 3,000 thoroughbreds in the surrounding forests and countryside. June marks the beginning of the flat racing season, and it attracts the biggies of European society for two historic trophies - the Prix du Jockey-Club and Prix de Diane. My invitation was from the watch brand Longines, the sponsors of the Prix de Diane. So, I was going to watch one of the most prestigious races in the world – and would also get to meet Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Longines’s brand ambassador. Not a bad reason to get out of Delhi.

This was going to be no ordinary trip, I realised, when I received my itinerary. There, among the details of hotels, flight timings and so on, were dress codes. One for every event I’d be attending. So not only did I require an evening gown for the gala dinner, I also needed a hat for the Prix de Diane! Naturally this called for hectic shopping for everything from matching shoes to accessories, but I finally landed up at the airport to take the Turkish Airlines flight to Paris via Istanbul.

The home of princes: The Château de Chantilly offers visitors a trip back in time, from the Middle Ages to the 19th century

Grey skies and a chilly breeze welcomed us at the Charles De Gaulle airport in France, setting the mood for the next few days. A taxi was waiting to take us to the hotel Tiara Château Hotel Mont Royal in Chantilly. The hotel has a lovely location, almost in the middle of a forest. The rooms, done up Victorian style, were comfortable and offered an excellent view of the lush green trees all around. And though Chantilly is known for racing, it also seems to be popular for weddings. Or at least, that’s what I gathered, watching the hectic preparations at the hotel for a wedding over the weekend. Makes sense, I thought sleepily, as I headed for my room and bed. With the parks and forests we saw on our way in, this is a very romantic place.

My first full day in Chantilly was scheduled to be a long one. A tour of Château de Chantilly during the day, then the gala dinner at night. The way to the Château was beautiful – we drove past open fields, lovely houses and quaint cafés offering a variety of delicacies. Nestled in the heart of the town, the Chantilly Domain (home of princes) offers visitors a trip back in time, from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. The guided tour begins with the history of France seen through the lives of the princely families who occupied Chantilly. It also offers a great insight into the history of French art and architecture as seen in the unique collections of paintings and books preserved in this Château. Because the area is famous for its lace – Chantilly lace is renowned all over the world – there are samples preserved in the Château. Out in the estate, the tour takes you through the history of landscape gardening via design traditions of the 17th to 19th centuries. The Château also boasts of a restaurant called La Capitainerie, which occupies the very kitchen run by the renowned Francois Vatel, master steward for Louis II de Bourbon-Conde, Prince of Conde, who died in 1686. In addition to the sumptuous meals that Vatel made during his time at Chantilly and his contributions to the era of the Grand Conde, he is also credited with creating the famous Chantilly cream that is still a favourite all over the world.

Cultural appreciation over, it was time to get ready for the gala dinner – which meant we’d be going back to the Château. That the evening was going to be exciting was clearly visible from the way everybody was dressed up. The Château looked beautiful in the evening, bathed in a blue light with a blue carpet welcome (the colour for the Longines brand) for everyone. It reminded me of star-studded awards nights where all eyes are on the people walking the red carpet.

After cocktails in the courtyard, we went in for a four-course sit-down dinner in the banquet hall where magnificent dinners must have been held in the past. The evening ended on a high note with a spectacular display of fireworks that left us spellbound. Although the next day was a Sunday, there was no question of lazing around. This was the day of the much-awaited Prix de Diane Longines. More than anything else, I was keen to check out the wide variety of hats that apparently are an integral part of the event. Since the Prix de Diane was created, a hat has been an essential accessory. And just as at Ascot, eccentricity and extravagance have become the norm amongst female race goers. In fact, as Chantilly residents say, a Prix de Diane without the ladies’ hats is like a jockey without his cap!

Winner all the way: French jockey Martin Guyon, riding Golden Lilac, celebrates after winning the 162nd Prix de Diane Longines in Chantilly

The Prix de Diane, sometimes referred to as the French Oaks, is a Group 1 flat horse race in France, open to three-year-old thoroughbred fillies only. First run on 18 May 1843, it has become a June tradition, covering a distance of 2,100 metres. Since tradition seems to be in charge for this race, we went to the Hippodrome De Chantilly, the racecourse next to the Château de Chantilly in beautiful carriages. Nearly 40,000 people from all over Europe were gathering to watch the event: the place looked like one big party. Which, actually, it is. Traditionally (there’s that word again!) a giant picnic is organised in the centre of the Jardins de Diane, surrounded by the racetrack. And a concert is also organised on the central lawn. This year, Coeur de Pirate from Quebec gave an unforgettable performance.

Meanwhile Longines’ brand ambassador Aishwarya Rai Bachchan arrived in a carriage, wearing an Elie Saab dress and matching hat and acknowledging the cheers of the crowd. After the picnic lunch, the races began and there was another kind of excitement altogether, with people betting on and cheering for their favourite jockeys. As the day drew to an end, I sat back, thought of what a great time I had had… and remembered my time in Chantilly was now over. Well, at least I had a hat for remembrance.

- From HT Brunch, June 26

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First Published: Jun 24, 2011 16:27 IST