Published on July 19th, 2017 | by Ann Rickard0
Kangaroos and Pineapple in Paris?
Kangaroos hopping among flourishing pineapple plantations in Paris? Difficult to believe. But it was so when Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, bought a crumbling manor house just outside Paris in 1799 and set her sights on turning it into a grand chateau with a difference.
She bought the property without conferring with Napoleon who was away fighting the Egyptian campaign. He was furious with her on his return, as most husbands would be.
However, Napoleon, as we know, was a man of great passion as well as a powerful military man who went on to become emperor of France – and he was madly in love with Josephine, which always helps when a wife has spent too much money shopping.
The chateau, now named Chateau de Malmaison, and its grounds needed immense renovation and Josephine went about transforming the crumbling estate into an elegant property with ‘the most beautiful and curious garden in Europe.”
She had a thing for kangaroos, obviously unheard of in France at the time. At one stage, kangaroos hopped freely around the estate along with emus, black swans…even zebras. She also had more than 300 pineapple plants in a heated orangery.
It seemed strange to envisage kangaroos and pineapples so close to Paris as we looked out the elegant windows of Chateau de Malmaison during a tour of the property.
Chateau de Malmaison may now be bereft of exotic animals, and its famous rose garden is somewhat diminished but the chateau is filled with riches: lavish decorations, extravagant furnishings and large portraits including one of Napoleon on a rearing horse.
“He loved that portrait,” our guide told us, and then pointed to another on the opposite wall showing him sitting demurely on what looked like a trotting horse. “He did not like that one,” the guide said. “It did not show him as a man of action.”
Apart from his military achievements and his great love for Josephine, perhaps Napoleon is most known for being a short bloke. But in fact, he was not so diminutive – just short in a Tom Cruise kind of way. But very imposing.
The ground floor of Chateau de Malmaison has a large hall, waiting rooms (guests had to go through two waiting rooms before they were granted an audience), a billiard room, an antechamber, a gilded room, a music room, grand dining room, council chamber and a library. Each room is a vision of gilt and wood and chandeliers and sumptuous materials.
On the first floor is Josephine’s bedroom, a drawing room, the Josephine room, and the dressing room, her favourite place where she spent many hours each day with her ladies-in-waiting having her hair dressed and deciding on what clothes she would wear for the day. There was much gossip and eavesdropping in this room.
Our guide pointed out a private study on the ground floor, where Napoleon would sit late at night when unable to sleep, and compose messages to be sent to his military men. A Donald Trump similarity, no?
From 1800 the chateau became one of the places where political decisions were made and meetings organised, along with receptions, concerts, balls and games in the gardens. But it remained a private home, famous for the beauty of its gardens and for the rare animal species Josephine loved.
We are all vaguely familiar with stories of the great love between Napoleon and Josephine, but to visit the chateau where they lived during their short marriage brings the stories to life, gives a personal connection. Napoleon’s passion for Josephine is well-documented in the many love letters he wrote to her. One line in one letter stands out: “I awake all filled with you, your image and the intoxicating pleasures of last night, allow my senses no rest.” Hot stuff from a smitten bloke.
Josephine had a marriage and two children behind her before she married Napoleon. She was never liked or accepted by her mother-in-law, and Napoleon regretfully divorced her 1810 when she could not give him an heir. They remained close friends until Josephine died in 1814 at age 50. She died at Chateau de Malmaison in her bed carved with swans.
Today Chateau de Malmaison is an important historic site that attracts hundreds of visitors every day.
Chateau de Malmaison is on the Western Bank of the Sein. Avenue du Chateau de la Malmaison
Tours can be arranged from any number of operators in Paris