By Maria Doulton in London
A sunny Sunday in September in the glorious grounds of Chantilly is the perfect excuse to dress up, put on your finest hat and head out of Paris for a day in the country at Chantilly Arts & Elegance. Which is exactly what I did a few weeks ago in the company of Richard Mille, the Swiss watchmaker.
Richard Mille decided to sponsor the maiden edition of Chantilly Arts & Elegance as the brand is close to the world of cars and, of course, elegance and glamour. The mechanical and artistic prowess of Richard Mille watches, handmade by master craftsmen, was not lost on the car connoisseurs who understand the complexity of these somewhat smaller machines for the wrist. Adding a dose of celebrity glamour, friend of Richard Mille, Natalie Portman, and her husband Benjamin Millepied attended the gala dinner the evening before the event opened to the public. Natalie Portman was wearing her Richard Mille RM 09-01 with a diamond-set spider inside the movement, which she helped design.
Cars were, of course, the main focus of the day, and 100 years of motoring history spread itself graciously across the acres of manicured lawns and rolling dells and woodlands of the estate. Steamboats plied the mirror-like lakes leaving behind great plumes of steam, and an earlier form of transport, the horse, was celebrated in a spectacular show of equestrian daring. The highlight of the day was the various car competitions, judged by a distinguished panel of car lovers and presented by Alain De Cadenet, whose wonderful French commentary, with a reassuringly English burr, set a genteel tone as the cars paraded around the ring in the afternoon heat, birds singing overhead.
With the chateau as a backdrop, the "Concours d'Elegance" was open to concept cars, each matched up with a leggy model wearing a couture creation to complement the car design. The classic "Concours d'Etat" was all about good looks and included a tribute to Bugatti and even some pre-1904 cars with steel wheels that entered the ring with plenty of atmospheric sputtering and horn tooting. The "Grand Prix des Clubs" attracted competitors from the many auto clubs across France and Europe, who earlier had graced the lawns with their elegant luncheons on the grass. I saw folding dining tables, candelabras, fine china and silver wine buckets emerge from trunks and heard plenty of champagne corks pop. The Rolls Royce club did a particularly fine job at showing just what a dejeuner sur l'herbe is all about.
The very first edition of this event attracted 500 classic, vintage and concept cars, but though the focus of the day was evidently motoring, there was plenty of time to enjoy the many other events and show off my hat. A hot air balloon offered a bird's eye view of the estate, and the grand rooms of the chateau itself and its art galleries were open to visitors. The stables, which are as magnificent as the chateau - the Duc de Bourbon believed he would be reincarnated as a horse - provided a cool retreat from the sun.
Children raced around in miniature pedal cars, were conveyed in pony traps or on the back of Shetland ponies while the ladies tried on hats and learnt about the art of flower arranging and table setting. As the last picnic hamper was packed up and the cars crunched over the gravel drives of Chantilly, I would wager that in most people's minds was the thought, "we will be back next year".
For more on my day in Chantilly with Richard Mille watches, view my latest video.