Never try to outdo your boss. The cheesy grin will always be followed by a knife in your back. This is the rule Nicolas Fouquet (1615-1680), protégé of the ultra-powerful Cardinal Mazarin, should have stuck to when he bought the site for his sumptuous château in 1641. In 1653 he was named Surintendant des Finances, and decided to build an abode that matched his position. He assembled three of France's most talented men for the job: painter Charles Lebrun, architect Louis Le Vau and landscape gardener André Le Nôtre.
Fouquet's fatal mistake came when he invited Louis XIV, the Sun King, to a huge inaugural party. Guests were entertained by jewel-encrusted elephants and spectacular Chinese fireworks. Lully wrote music for the occasion; Molière did a comedy. The king, who was 23, was outraged by his minister's show of grandeur. Shortly after, he had Fouquet arrested, accusing him of embezzlement of state funds. All of his personal effects were taken by the crown and the court sentenced him to exile; Louis XIV commuted the sentence to solitary confinement. Some say Fouquet was the 'Man in the Iron Mask'.
As you round the moat, the relatively sober frontage gives way to a stunning Baroque rear aspect. The most telling symbol of the fallen magnate is the unfinished ceiling in the elliptical Grand Salon, where Lebrun only had time to paint the cloudy sky and a solitary eagle. Fouquet's grand project did live on in some way, however: it inspired Louis XiV to build Versailles, using Fouquet's architect to do it.
Like at Versailles you can take in summer fountain shows (Mar-Oct), but the biggest draw are the candlelit evenings (May-Oct), which turn the château into a palatial jack-o-lantern.