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AS Chateau de Chantilly's crenellated towers silhouetted among the clouds, the sky lit up like a flash of lightning with a cascade of colours.

Grandiose chandeliers as magnificent as those in Versailles' famed Hall of Mirrors burst through the darkness like a spray of shooting stars.

It was in 1672 that Louis II de Bourbon, Le Grand Conde, welcomed His Royal Highness Le Grand Dauphin de France to his Chantilly estate and the tradition of firework displays in the town was born.

More than three centuries later Les Nuits de Feu (Nights of Fire) still gathers together the best pyrotechnics experts to combine symphonic music and stunning explosions.

The chateau's garden plays host to international firework competitions held every two years. Surrounded by emerald forest, I sat awe-stuck, as did 40,000 other revellers, allowing the stunning vision to imprint itself in my memory as, naturally, the French stole the show.

Gunpowder engulfed the air to conjure a colourful fog, and when the shadows melted as day steadily replaced night, the historic Renaissance castle awoke to display some of the finest art collections.

Its museum is the only one in France, save for the Louvre, that's home to three Raphael paintings, and together with its park, gardens and great stables, the chateau is very much the jewel in Chantilly's crown.

Lying 26 miles from Paris, the town - also renowned for its whipped cream, black lace and horse sports - has a certain air of sophistication and makes perfect the smart weekend retreat.

Amid verdant countryside, I spent two nights at Dolce Chantilly, a luxury hotel with three beautiful restaurants, two swimming pools, a fitness centre and an 18-hole golf course.

The destination is certainly an acquired taste, most appreciated by historians, horse enthusiasts and perhaps the older generation.

But French government tourist office Maison de la France were intent on showing me sights I may never have seen by personal choice, as we visited a host of majestic monuments depicting different chapters in French history - my favourite was the imposing 12th century Chateau de Pierrefonds, given second life by Napoleon III in 1857. Open to the public since 1867, the rebuilding of the castle inextricably combined archaeological reconstruction and an imaginary vision of the Middle Ages.

A bumpy coach trip along the Champagne route took us 100km from Paris to Chateau de Conde, a private estate in Conde-en-Brie, framed by parkland with 300-year-old trees. Inhabited all year round, its sumptuous 17th and 18th century interiors were created by the most prestigious artists at the behest of the Princes of Savoy and then the Marquis de la Faye. …