The town of Compiègne plays foil to its star attraction, the opulent Château de Compiègne, with extensive gardens that make excellent picnicking territory. The eighteenth-century château, two blocks east of the Hôtel de Ville along rue des Minimes, inspires a certain fascination despite its pompous excess. Napoleon commissioned a renovation of the former royal palace in 1807, and the work was completed in time for the emperor to welcome his second wife, Marie-Louise of Austria – a relative of Marie-Antoinette – here in 1810. The ostentatious post-revolutionary apartments stand in marked contrast to the more sober Neoclassicism of the few surviving late royal interiors, a monument to the unseemly haste with which Napoleon I moved in, scarcely a dozen years after the Revolution. The Théâtre Impérial was first planned by Napoléon III in the historic apartments of the Second Empire. It was only completed with a restoration project in 1991 at a cost of some thirty million francs. Originally designed with just two seats for Napoleon and his wife, it now seats nine hundred and is used for concerts.

To see the Musée de la Voiture in another part of the vast palace, you have to join a one-hour guided tour. It contains a wonderful array of antique bicycles, tricycles and aristocratic carriages, as well as the world’s first steam coach.

You can visit the palace gardens separately. Much of the original French-style garden was replanted on Napoleon’s orders after 1811. The result is monumental; the great avenue that extends 4.5km into the Forêt de Compiègne was inspired by the Austrian imperial summer residence at Schönbrunn on the outskirts of Vienna.

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