Malmaison, the Empress Josephine's country chateau in the suburbs of Paris, is where she lived out her life after Napoleon divorced her. (Zofia Smardz/The Washington Post)

The young desk clerk in our Paris hotel gives me a perfectly blank look.

“Malmaison?” she repeats, her eyebrows reaching for the ceiling. “It is a . . . restaurant?”

“Mmm, no,” I reply. “A museum.” No reaction. “A historic house.” Still nothing.

“Of Napoleon,” I add.

She frowns slightly. “Please could you write it for me?” she asks, placing paper and pen on the counter.

Well, well. You mean it’s not just American kids who don’t know their history?

I scribble down the name, and she turns to her computer (of course!) and calls up the Web site I’ve already checked and prints out the directions I’ve already found. But at least she can tell us exactly how to get to the proper Metro line that will take us to the RER train that will take us to the suburban bus that will take us to the little country chateau where the Empress Josephine lived out her life after that cad Bonaparte threw her over for a younger, more fertile model. Back in the days before any wag had dreamed up the term “trophy wife,” even.

Thanks to Hurricane Irene in Washington, we’re stuck in Paris (yes, yes, I know), and I’m not happy about it (I know). I’m toured out from a week in Italy and ready for home. But since we’re stuck, I figure we’ll visit two sites I remember fondly from, oh, about a century ago, when I was a student in Europe, wandering dreamily around the continent’s capitals.

In my memories, these places are quiet and empty; I’m practically the only visitor. Well. I know I was last here eons ago, but what’s with that line stretching up the block for the Rodin Museum? (They didn’t show that in “Midnight in Paris.”)

Okay, we skip it and end up at the military museum complex of Les Invalides instead. But staring at Napoleon’s monster sarcophagus there, I think, I’m going to Malmaison.

Josephine’s petit palais sits about seven miles outside Paris, in the suburb of Rueil-Malmaison, and everything about it is as small in scale as everything Napoleonic is huge. It’s in a hidden park off the main road through town; you wouldn’t know it was there if you weren’t looking for it, and even looking for it, we have a little trouble finding it. (As do two American women on our bus; they veer off in the completely wrong direction.)

But once at its gates, I’m gratified to discover that the estate is as pretty and evocative — and empty — as I remember it. We’re practically the only visitors. (The two Americans do eventually show up.)

It’s late summer, and the flower beds lining the wide gravel walk to the palace are crammed with vivid blooms of orange, yellow and purple. Stunning. And a harbinger of the burst of color that has overtaken the chateau’s interior, which in my recollections is a delicate pastel shell, pale and dainty, like the portraits of its erstwhile mistress.

Well, if it really was that way (I can’t swear — you know how memory fades), it isn’t anymore. Now it’s a veritable riot of rich, deep, muscular hues, as though it’s had a Mount Vernon-like refacing (which, I read later on the Web site, it largely has; renovations to restore the appearance of around 1814 began in the 1980s — after my visit — and are ongoing). We wander from room to room with our audio guides and I’m dazzled by the brilliant green walls in the billiard and music rooms, the painted floral ceiling and the red draperies in Napoleon’s library, the striped walls and bold red and green upholstery of the council chamber where Bonaparte (pre-divorce) conducted official business, the spectacular checkerboard marble floors in the vestibule and the dining room.

The place may be small (as palaces go), but boy, it’s lavish. There’s ornate artwork everywhere, murals and frescoes and gilt-framed oils. The latter cover the walls in the music room, an elongated chamber that now displays Josephine’s contemporary-art-of-the-day collection, most of it paintings in the troubadour style, hazily romanticized medieval and Renaissance scenes.

They’re all beautiful, but none of them grabs me like the painting displayed on an easel in the main salon, or gold room. This is a rendering of that same room, showing Josephine, flanked by her son, daughter and grandsons, receiving Czar Alexander I of Russia, who was apparently a frequent visitor in 1814. Which was the year Josephine died (a few days, turns out, after catching cold on a stroll through her famous rose gardens with the czar). Which is why the painting (although it dates from a half-century later) gets me so.

It captures the thing about Malmaison. Josephine and Napoleon shared at least 10 years here — acquiring the palace in 1799, she preferred it to the royal apartments in the Tuileries, which she found too cold and grand — but after the humiliating divorce by Bonaparte in 1810, it was her retreat alone, where she was left to relive her memories. Which makes it a melancholy sort of place, a place that’s slightly, for all its beauty, forlorn.

The salon painting makes me think of that. So does the gilded and canopied bed upstairs, the very one in which Josephine, at age 51, breathed her last, as Bonaparte languished in exile far away on Elba. (How sad is that?)

So does the swan motif on the bed and in the upstairs sitting room that leads to Josephine’s apartments. There are swans woven into the carpet, and swans form the arms of the empire-style chairs. She was a swan lover, you know. I wonder: Because they’re so graceful? Or because they tend to mate for life? If the latter, you can see how all these swan images might have gotten her down, later on.

On my first visit, there were real swans floating on the stream that runs behind the chateau. At least that’s what I recall. But there are no swans on this late August day, and the stream is low after a dry stretch. In the replanted rose garden — Josephine was also a huge rose champion, cultivating more than 200 species from around the world, some brought back for her by Napoleon’s armies — the blooms are pretty much blown out, too.

But the statuary-dotted grounds — just 15 acres left of the original 150 — are still lush, and hushed as we take a brief promenade beneath the trees. We stop at the great cedar of Marengo, planted to commemorate Napoleon’s victory against Austria in the battle of the same name, during the Italian campaign of 1800. That’s one old tree, I think, reading the marker. And imagine: The pair had no inkling of the future when they happily planted it, but less than 10 years later their marriage would be, um, history.

Ah well. It’s a history that speaks to me, anyway. Even if you can’t count on the youth of France to know all the details anymore.


Chateau de Malmaison

Avenue du Chateau de Malmaison

Rueil-Malmaison, France


Open daily except Tuesdays. April-September, weekdays 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 1:30-5:45 p.m., weekends 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 1:30-6:15 p.m. October-March, weekdays 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 1:30-5:15 p.m., weekends 10 a.m. to 12:30 and 1:30-5:45 p.m.

About $8, ages 18-25 about $6. Grounds only, about $2. Free on the first Sunday of the month.