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An Indian Day at a French race-course

Last year, a beautiful designed invitation card was put on the desktop. The invitation read Journée de Prix de Diane, Chantilly.The cover had a pictorial representation of an Indian monarch mounted on an elephant. Colours of India were evident and why not, India was the country of honour for this edition of the prestigious race. I was amused at the prospect of seeing India through a French lens.

 

Race in progress Château de Chantilly in background

 

Chantilly is less than an hour's drive from Paris. Known for its Château*, Hippodrome, museum and of course, the famous 'Crème Chantilly'- whipped cream of Chantilly! Spectators carrying their picnic baskets enjoy a relaxed noon in company before the races begin. There are make-shift restaurants and bars on the spot. Prix de Diane race was first held in 1843 in what was a French equivalent of the English Oaks Stakes. Referred sometimes as the French Oaks, the race has been held since in an annual competition. It was named after the Roman goddess of hunt- Diana (French name Diane). It is usually held on the second weekend of June. Carrying a whopping 800,000€ as the prize money, the competition invites the crème de la crème of thoroughbred fillies of three years from various countries. Hermès- the high profile luxury and fashion house has been associated with the Prix de Diane for several years. I could smell elegance in the air.

 

An Indian day at Chantilly

The big question mark was what to wear to an event like this. I am sure all those who assist at such events go through anxious rounds of their wardrobes. Usually, I try out this and that, before finally having a stroke of genius or a 'coup de foudre' for an outfit. Between ourselves who were to accompany me, I was asked if I would be dressing up in Indian costumes. Paris is the fashion capital of the world. It is no wonder then that the French pay attention to the presentation in terms of their clothes as well. Fashion scene is marked by segregation of colours for Spring-Summer or Autumn- Winter unlike in India, where a mélange of colours bursts forth throughout the year. I adopted the motto to better be safe than sorry with some wardrobe mishap in an elegant crowd. Vainly self-conscious, I decided to stick to western gear that is my companion in this chic city.

 

With what I was witness to, I could have sworn that the French looked more Indian than the Indians. They sure know how to rise to an occasion and give the word 'theme' a new meaning. Saris in beautiful colours draped around in a fashion telling the tale of lack of experience but no lack of enthusiasm, Sherwanis, colourful turbans, stoles, bangles, bindis, hennaed hands, anklets and whatever have you in the name of Indian. Some women were dressed in the image of their perception of Indian royalty through glossy coffee-table books - heads covered with pallav or even a turban, a tikka adorning the parting of hair tied in elegant knots, arms full of golden bangles and heavy jewelry. Going by the display of elegant gowns and hats designed to fit the Indian theme, one could say that the time spent in front of the mirror is worth it!

 

Tents were erected on the well manicured grassy lawns overlooking the race course. There were dhurries and mats, big and small floor cushions dressed in rajasthani mirror work, low tables with chandeliers - yes, the works! Cushions disappeared fast as people started to lay their picnic tables. There were make-shift restaurants serving Indian and French cuisine for the gourmet. Picnic hampers were available on the spot at a cost of around 90€ for two. The invitation had mentioned that a part of this money would be given for a charitable organization working with under-privileged children in India or such like. Tents at Chantilly

 

Races start in the afternoon around 2 or 2:30 PM. Picnic starts as soon as people reach the venue and feel a bit relaxed in the spring sun. Around 11:30, we laid out our picnic mat with pasta, assortment of mixed vegetables, sandwiches, wine, cake, tea and cookies . Finding a cushion or two was like finding a treasure on a hunt, and yet we did manage.The leisurely brunch continued over an hour and half with a colourful humdrum all about. It looked like a posh Indian village right next to Paris!

 


Crowd at racecourseHaving finished our repas, we returned our picnic hampers to the cars. The sun was getting overhead and the crowd was beginning to swell. We made our way to the seating area that were quickly being occupied. We were asked to show our invitations and then ushered to a place not too far from the podium. Lucikly we found ourselves in shade with seats that offered good view of the races that were about to begin. Two giant screens were placed on either end of the course. There were quite a few people making a beeline for the betting area to put stakes on their favourite participant.

 

The races were inaugurated by a show by Indian cavalry and Indian musicians. They were heartily applauded by the admiring crowd. There were about 7-8 races in total. The longest race was a little over 2 km. Whenever the charged horses would pass galloping in front of a section of crowd, they were greeted with adrenaline charged shouts. Prix de Diane was won by a filly named West Wind. With the attraction of the day over, we decided to return back to Paris. There were still one or two races to be seen, but that was a small price to pay to avoid getting stuck in the traffic jam with kindred folks returning from Chantilly to Paris. Just out of the Château area, we stopped by a cart of an enterprising local vendor selling ice-creams. A perfect finale to a lovely day. Make ice-cream while the sun shines!


*Details of the places mentioned in this article (addresses & how to reach):

Château de Chantilly

Château de Chantilly - Musée Condé
60631 Chantilly
Tel: +33 (0) 3 44 27 31 80

Open everyday except Tuesdays.

By Car: From Paris, Chantilly is about 45 minutes- 1 hour on the Northern highway A&.

By Train: RER D from Châtelet les Halles (around 45 minutes) or SNCF train from Gare du Nord (less than 30 minutes)

About a 35 minutes walk from the station, the castle, stables, racecourse and the museum are at the same location. Taxis are available at the station (approx fare 6-8 €)

 

Château de Chantilly official website (in English)

Chantilly Tourism official website (in English)

Prix de Diane official website (in French)

All about horse racing in France (in English)

 

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La Crème Chantilly- A Whipped Creamy Affair