I do not know if I dream the place or the place dreams me but my recurrent memories of Compiègne have fluid boundaries, where the firm recall of my visit merges with vague sensation of déjà vu and moments to come . On the face of it, this is another royal residence of the many circling the Paris Basin, on the outskirts of a sleepy French provincial town. The palace has two facades, two dimensions, a yin and a yang. On the external side, the military parade square leads to the “court d’honneur”, the courtyard flanked on three sides by the symmetrical and clean lines of the neoclassical construction. On the garden side, like a reclining courtesan, the long façade sits on a terrace whence the eye can survey the tops of a tight profusion of trees and bushes and a vast expanse of greenery beyond. The house ignores the triumphs and power of royalty and seems to meditate on itself. One experiences a redolent emotion, as if a hidden meaning is waiting to be unlocked, not vastly mysterious, more like a comforting point of arrival.
And so I discovered that Compiègne is an addition to the locations that make my visits to historic sites inspiring and in many instances intriguing, an adventure of sorts. Sightseeing conceals a second dimension, a pulsating life unrelated to the narratives and the protagonists of the place. The scents rising from the slightly damp grass, the rustling of leaves on the trees, the waning light of an afternoon manufacture an atmosphere inviting to transport. Add an imposing silence to the picture and an eerie absence of visitors. You are there living your yin and your yang: entering into the depth of your emotions and yet fully connected to nature, arousing your senses and penetrating into your own sanctum.
I am not sure what Empress Eugenie, so fond of the gardens and the forest of the domain, experienced on her afternoon walks after the “fif’o clock”, as the French amusingly named the British afternoon tea, in the company of the selected guests that the sovereigns invited to their week-long parties or “Séries”, where intellectuals, writers, scientists and politicians mingled and shared games, charades or improvised theatre plays. Perhaps the stimulating conversation did not offer room to experiment anything close to what my few hours at Compiègne offered me. I guess the thing that I shared with all of them is the privilege of having enjoyed this enchanted spot even if it is unlikely their joy had much to do with mine.