Chantilly Concours d'Elegance: The world's poshest contest?
Less than an hour outside Paris is the Château de Chantilly, one of the finest jewels in the crown of France's cultural heritage. Dating from the 1500s, this awe-inspiring estate has inspired and hosted some of the greatest figures in France's history, from famed playwright Moliere to Queen Marie Antoinette and the Sun King himself, Louis XIV.
Today, the chateau is not just a magnificent architectural monument surrounded by some of Europe's finest gardens (designed by famed landscape architect Le Notre, who also designed the gardens of Versailles), it is also home to the largest collection of paintings in France outside the Louvre (including works by Botticelli, Raphael and Van Dyck), one of the largest collections of ancient books and manuscripts in the world (including 700 incunabula), and the grandest horse stables on Earth.
The first two attractions -- the art galleries and the library -- are the result of Chantilly's 19th century owner, Prince Henri d'Orleans, the Duke of Aumale, while the second attraction -- the stables -- are the result of the chateau's 18th century owner, Louis Henri, the Duke of Bourbon, who believed he would be reincarnated as a horse and therefore appointed his architect to construct an equine palace of opulent proportions.
An extensive restoration of the grand chateau was completed in 2008 at an estimated cost of €70-million, over half of which was generously donated by the Aga Khan, Prince Shah Karim al-Hussaini. Today, this splendid domain welcomes over 400,000 visitors each year who enjoy its gardens and grounds, halls and museums.
It's here at this breathtaking World Heritage Site that the Chantilly Concours d'Elegance is hosted. Now in its second year, the event -- officially called the Chantilly Arts & Elegance Peter Mille -- made such an impression on the world stage its first year that it was awarded the International Historic Motoring Award's 2014 Automotive Event of the Year.
Harkening back to the original French concept of a concours d'elegance, the Chantilly show focuses on the elegance and style of automobiles, both classic and modern. Very much a showcase of art with an emphasis on aesthetics and fine living, this unique event also features haute couture fashion and haute école equestrian demonstrations. The result, as all the glowing reviews and accolades attest, is an event that elevates the model of a refined car show to new heights and seamlessly integrates the rich offerings of its surroundings.
The setting enough makes this flawlessly executed event worthwhile in itself. But in addition to the elite classic cars on show, from early chauffer-driven motor coaches to open wheel race cars to the sexy mid-century sporting coupes, there are also examples of modern über machines from the likes of Bugatti, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, McLaren and others. Then, perhaps the crowd favorite, are the displays of classic cars from local clubs that have driven to the event, not to mention boat rides on the surrounding waterways and the opportunity to experience a hot air balloon.
A horse show -- a pleasant nod to the importance of horses in Chantilly's history -- portrayed a jousting tournament between medieval France and England to a captivated audience, while horn players dressed in traditional French hunting attire -- another pursuit famously intertwined with Chantilly's gentry -- announced the various goings-on throughout the day.
While concours Sunday was the focal point and the main attraction for the families that came out from Paris to spectate, there was a large international audience that came to participate in this and the private events surrounding it. From the concours d'elegance to a polo match, to an auction of classic cars hosted by Bonhams, to dinners and galas, the weekend was full of excitement and beauty. And, unlike other similar events like Pebble Beach, for example, Chantilly felt calm and manageable -- a compliment of attractions and, what the French impart so well, an overwhelming feeling of joie de vivre. Among all the classic motoring events there are in the world, Chantilly is not the biggest but it certainly vies for the best.