Now that I'm counting down the days until my imminent departure I've been trying to live my Parisian existence to the fullest (and I've got the extra pounds in macarons, pastries and café crème to prove it). However, this being a three-day weekend in France (for Pentecost of course--although avidly atheist, the French will never give up their Catholic holidays), and me being a fidèle, tourist-snubbing Parisian, I just had to escape the city.
And that is how this morning we found ourselves all dolled up in a train packed full of well-dressed people, headed towards Chantilly. A small town just north of Paris, Chantilly is known for two things: its crème Chantilly (whipped cream--it claims to be the birthplace of this foamy delicacy), and its horses. While I won't pretend that I didn't indulge in the first regional specialty, it was the latter--more specifically, the annual Prix de Diane Longines horse race--that was the draw on this particular day. The energy in the standing-room only train on the way there was almost palpable, with men perspiring in their pinstriped summer suits and women jousting with ornate hats, battling for head space.
The town's love of horses was evident from the moment we stepped off the train and saw a street sign:
We arrived a few hours before the first race, which gave us a good amount of time to grab some lunch (we turned down the pre-packed picnic-complete-with-champagne-in-a-collector-hatbox kits for a more humble and affordable ham sandwhich) and check out the scenery. Feeling snazzy, we strolled the 'red carpet' to admire the many designer horse sculptures that had been custom made for the event, watched a free concert by a Regina Spektor-esque French artist and splurged on a rather extravagant ice cream smothered in the town's trademark cream.
By far my favorite activity of the day was hat-watching. As a fan of My Fair Lady, I already knew about the tradition of wearing ridiculous headwear to horse races, but nothing could have prepared me for the scope and variety (and age range! it started at about age 4 for the children of posh parents).
Some of the more ridiculous hats of the day:
Men were not entirely excluded, either, although their options showed much less imagination. Here's a shot of the rich old man viewing box, which guarded to protect them and their brandy from the common riff-raff. I wondered if they had a top hats only dress-code:
A few younger women, rocking the black and white look:
Finally, it was time to make our way over to the track to figure out how odds and betting worked. Here's me on the track before the first race, rocking my own (slightly less fancy) hat:And when all the bets were laid and the spectators in place, they were off! Here's a shot from the first race--see the horses?
To my dismay, my tactic of picking horses by fun name (Invincible Viking! Andromeda!) or by the look of their jockey's jersey turned out to be a poor strategy, and I lost every single one of the 2 euro bets I placed. Tom managed to win twice--once on a horse to "place" and once on a horse to "win," meaning that our collective gains outweighed our collective losses by about 8 euros--enough for a glass of wine each in a bar on our way home.