Article first published in Bonjour Paris, 10 October 2022
The elegant little Château de Malmaison is in a lovely setting within easy reach of Paris, which is why Napoleon and Josephine chose it, but has few international visitors. You could make your visit even more satisfying by taking a little-known walk through the Parc de Bois-Préau next door, which once belonged to the château, to the church where Josephine is buried in the historic centre of Rueil. It is an attractive little town with a market, a good brasserie next to the church and a total absence of tourists.
You could end the trip with a short bus ride to Bougival to take a beautiful 3 km walk along the Seine at a spot made famous by the Impressionists, past the house of Georges Bizet to the RER station at Rueil-Malmaison, 25 minutes from central Paris.
The more you know about Napoleon and Josephine, the more rewarding the visit to the château will be. These two highly successful self-made people had a lot in common and each died with the other’s name on their lips. Josephine de Beauharnais was a 32-year old widow with two children, from a minor aristocratic family in Martinique, living on her beauty and her wits in the precarious world of the Directory which governed France from 1795 to 1799. She was six years older than the rising but socially unpolished young general when he met and fell in love with her. They married a few months later in 1796 despite the opposition of his family, who felt that he could have done much better. It seems that she was not in love with him and that Napoleon was furious when he found out about at least one lover soon after their marriage.
He turned out to be a devoted step-father to Josephine’s children and all the evidence is that she eventually fell deeply in love with him. The divorce in 1809 was reluctantly arranged so that he could marry again when it was clear that she could not provide the Emperor with an heir. He made a generous settlement on her, including Malmaison and its valuable contents, insisted that she keep the title of Empress, and continued to support her financially despite her extravagance. He once remarked that the only thing that ever came between them was her debts. They stayed good friends until her death at Malmaison, aged 51, in 1814. After his abdication on 22 June 1815 Napoleon spent a final few days at Malmaison before leaving France for exile on St Helena.
The 17th century château was acquired by Josephine in 1799 and Napoleon paid for it on his return from Egypt. He employed two young architects to do major renovation work on it between 1800 and 1802 although he curtailed their more ambitious plans to remodel it completely. Unlike Rambouillet and St Cloud, former royal châteaux which became Napoleon’s later residences, Malmaison was redesigned as a private country house where the First Consul could work, entertain and relax. Between 1800 and 1802 the government known as the Consulate (1799-1804), of which Napoleon was the leading member, met there frequently, in a more informal atmosphere than that of the Tuileries.
Josephine’s pioneering but expensive tastes were expressed most fully in the vast park of 726 hectares, which at one point included a menagerie of exotic animals, until Napoleon decreed that they had to go. Her lifelong interest was botany and the hothouses at Malmaison were filled with at least 200 plants unknown in France before then, dahlias, lilies and particularly roses, of which there were more than 250 varieties by 1814. She employed an English landscape gardener and kept up a correspondence with the director of Kew Gardens in London. During the war both the French and English admiralties colluded to allow ships carrying rare plants for Malmaison through the blockade and the beautiful flower paintings of her illustrator, Redouté, made his name.
After the divorce, her chief interest, after her grand-children, was her plants. It was Josephine who pioneered the modern hybridisation of roses and the use of vernacular rather than Latin names for them. She was also the first person in Europe to successfully rear black swans in captivity, brought from Tasmania in 1802. They have been re-introduced into the park.
Suggested visit to the Château de Malmaison
From La Défense/Grand Arche station follow the exit signs for the bus terminal inside the RER station and take the 258 bus to La Jonchère. Get off about 25 minutes later at ‘Le Château’, having pressed the red button beforehand to stop the bus if someone else hasn’t already done so. Cross the road, turn left and then first right down the quiet tree-lined Avenue du Château de Malmaison which leads to the château, 300 meters away on the right.
Napoleon and Josephine had the château redesigned and furnished in the fashionably simple yet elevated classical style of the Consulate, to which it has been carefully restored, right down to the striped curtains in the Salle de Conseil, recalling a military tent. The dignified half columns outside, supporting classical statues, were actually props needed to prevent the structure from collapsing while the house was being aggrandised for its new role as home to the First Consul and his wife, effectively the First Lady.
The black and white flooring on the ground floor was cleverly designed to unify the entrance hall, dining room and billiard room, which became one vast ballroom when the doors were swung back. The dining room frescoes of dancing girls in the Pompeian style recall Napoleon’s later rooms at Rambouillet, as do the Egyptian motifs. The portraits of Josephine reveal her elegance and her undisputed role as an arbiter of fashion. Like many other people at that time, she had decayed teeth and was always painted with her mouth closed, lips slightly curved in a mysterious smile.
The park contains a magnificent cedar of Lebanon, now higher than the château, planted by Napoleon and Josephine in 1800, the year of the victory of Marengo.
Although reduced to a tiny fraction of its original size, the park is pretty and quiet, landscaped à l’anglaise with a stream and a little bridge from which you can watch the black swans. In summer you can sniff some of the roses for which Malmaison became famous, including the beautiful sweetly-scented Souvenir de Joséphine.
There is no tea room at the château and you are not supposed to picnic in the grounds, so the Brasserie du Château, on your right at the end of the Avenue du Château on the way back is your nearest option for food. From there turn left into the main road for the 258 bus stop ‘Le Château’ going back to La Défense or you could take the 259 bus from the same stop if it comes first, getting off at the ‘Esplanade Charles de Gaulle’ stop for the RER station at Nanterre Préfecture, a 20-minute ride. These buses run every 10-15 minutes.
However, I have found it much more rewarding to prolong the trip by taking a 1½ km walk through the Parc de Bois-Préau to the church in the heart of the historic centre of Rueil, where Josephine is buried. There is a better, more authentic brasserie with a traffic-free terrace facing the church in the main square and it is an interesting short walk from there through the little town and its market place to the next bus stop.
Optional 1½ km walk through the Parc de Bois-Préau to Rueil
From the château gates take the pedestrian crossing to your right and go into the car-park. Turn left to eventually join a little footpath sign-posted ‘Parc de Bois-Préau’ (pronounced Pray-oh). Go through an opening in the wall ahead and turn left for the path into the park. Continue left, past les toilettes, and follow the main path and the signs for ‘Centre-Ville’ for another kilometer.
The park belonged to the Château de Bois-Préau, which you will eventually pass, and was landscaped à l’anglaise in the 18th century. Josephine bought it in 1810, with money supplied by Napoleon. It has kept its original appearance, offering wide vistas, a little stream, and some stately old trees, dotted with occasional statues and benches and roamed by a flock of Canada geese. I have found drifts of snowdrops growing there in January. There is a statue of Josephine in coronation robes in front of the château, which you will pass on your right.
The château, like the park, has become an extension of Malmaison, housing a museum dedicated to Napoleon’s exile, death and continuing legend. It is currently closed for renovation.
Leave the park at the exit just after the château, and cross the road on your right to continue straight ahead into the small semi-pedestrianised Rue Jean Le Coz, lined with 18th and 19th century houses. Follow it to the end, passing the Office de Tourisme on your right. You will see the baroque façade of the Eglise de St Pierre et St Paul framed between the buildings at the end of the street.
The church contains Josephine’s tomb surmounted by a statue of her kneeling, in the same pose as at her coronation.
Her tomb faces the mausoleum of her daughter, Hortense de Beauharnais, step-daughter of Napoleon, wife of his younger brother and mother of Napoleon III, who paid for the restoration of his mother’s monument in 1858. Although part of it dates back to the 12th century, the church feels very much like a Bonaparte family chapel and it is always open.
The well-established brasserie facing the church with a large outside terrace is aptly called Le Beauharnais. It is the best place in which to sit and savour the relaxed, almost provincial atmosphere of the little town. I have only shared a planche mixte here, a generous platter of cheese and charcuterie, but the menu includes classic French dishes as well as snacks and vegetarian options. My friendly neighbours at the next table confirmed that the place is deservedly popular with the locals.
Return to the Rue Jean Le Coz and turn right to follow a straight route down the semi-pedestrianised Rue Hervet, across the Boulevard de Maréchal Foch, through Place Jean Jaurès where a market is held on Tuesday and Saturday mornings, and along Rue de la Réunion, which ends back at the main bus route, Avenue Paul Doumer. Turn left for the ‘Danielle Casanova’ stop for buses 258 and 259 towards Paris.
To continue to Bougival for the riverside walk 3 km away, cross the road and turn left for the 259 stop towards St Germain-en-Laye.
3 km riverside walk from Bougival to Rueil-Malmaison
This part of Bougival with its pastoral views of the Seine was a favourite with artists and writers in the 19th century and has changed very little. The English artist Turner, often considered a forerunner of the Impressionists, first painted the Seine near this spot in 1831 and was followed by Corot, Renoir, Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Berthe Morisot and Vlaminck. Later Bougival residents included Mistinguett, the music hall star, Georges Bizet, the composer of Carmen, Ivan Turgenev and Alexandre Dumas fils. The village reached the height of its popularity as a riverside destination for eating, drinking, boating and dancing during the 1880s, its atmosphere captured by perhaps the best-known Impressionist painting of them all, La Danse à Bougival.
Get off the bus about 10 minutes and seven stops later at ‘La Chaussée – Musée Tourgueniev’, and continue walking for a few meters in the direction of the bus until you see the start of the footpath by the Seine. There is a reproduction here of Monet’s atmospheric 1867 painting of the Seine at Bougival in winter.
Turn right to follow the riverside path past some 19th century villas. You will soon pass the tall house briefly rented by Georges Bizet (1838-1875) in which he worked furiously to finish Carmen, an opera which initially shocked the public and critics alike. He died there of an aneurism at the age of 36, three months after its disastrous première. There is a small plaque put up in 1912 but it is easy to miss unless you are walking in the opposite direction.
You will eventually pass a tennis club with a garden and a cosy bar furnished with a log fire and armchairs, open to the public as well as club members. ‘Le Fruit Défendu’ (Forbidden Fruit) next door is an upmarket riverside restaurant, part of the same establishment.
Continue along the river, passing a pony club and a golf course en route, until you see a railway bridge ahead with a sign for the RER, with some huge barges moored nearby. Turn right along the Avenue de la Seine, following the railway line overhead on your left. At the end of the Avenue turn left to find steps leading up to a handy footbridge over the busy main road, taking you straight to the entrance to Rueil-Malmaison station and the 25-minute train ride to Châtelet-Les Halles.
This walk is a preview from the new updated edition of Half An Hour From Paris, to be published in January 2023
(NB all photos are by Annabel Simms unless otherwise stated)