Among the many wonderful palaces of Europe, Versailles is said to be the greatest and grandest of them all. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and is on almost every traveler’s list of “must see” destinations near Paris. Versailles’ an easy 35 minute train ride southwest of Paris (RER-C line, about 4 trains every hour); from the train station it’s only a five minute walk to the entry of the Palace. While grand in it’s scale and design, Versailles is not for everyone. I have to admit I don’t quite get what a lot of the fuss is about, but I’ll explain more about that later. First a little background…..
A Brief History of Versailles:
Versailles was a small royal hunting lodge (meaning it was a mega-mansion by most standards) whose environment inspired young Prince Louis. Situated about 20 kilometers away from Paris at that time, it was a quiet and private place in a beautiful forested setting that the young Prince fell in love with. I think he liked it because it lacked the crowds and bureaucrats of Paris. Later when he became France’s King Louis XIV, he made Versailles his personal project. Spending half the country’s gross domestic product for several years in it’s construction, Louis XIV transformed Versailles from a hunting lodge into a terrestrial home worthy of a God, because the self-proclaimed Sun King thought he was a God (he favored the name “Sun King” because he thought, like Apollo, he gave life and warmth to all he touched) .
Versailles was that talk and envy of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Apparently, despite his narcissism, Louis was a warm and approachable man, even to commoners, and was a well liked and effective king. It is perhaps because of his personal charm that the French Revolution did not foment during his reign because Versailles, more than any other place, showcases the “haves” in a manner the “have-nots” couldn’t help but notice.
After Louis XIV’s long reign his son and grandson, Kings Louis XV and XVI, also lived here but these men were not effective rulers like the Sun King had been; they withdrew into the fantasy world of Versailles and became more and more isolated from the lives and plight of their subjects. Still, during this time Versailles remained the center of European Power and France was at the peak of its influence — until the French Revolution in 1789 completely changed the playing field. Versailles fell as quickly as did Louis XVI’s and wife Marie-Antionette’s heads under the blade of the guillotine. The place was looted and abandoned until 1837 when it was reopened as a museum. It has remained a museum to this day.
Your visit takes you to three distinct areas, starting with the…..
1) Chateau. Your first view of Versailles as you approach it from the train station is of the main palace, with a horse-mounted statue of Louis XIV welcoming you into it’s courtyard. Further up you eye will be drawn to the famous Golden Royal gate, and behind it a large building with a clock, the rooms beneath the clock being King Louis’ bedroom. The palace itself is the main attraction of Versailles and getting in is not easy task. Be prepared for L-O-N-G lines. We had prepaid admission and still needed to wait more than an hour in line before even getting to the security checkpoint. Admission is certainly not cheap but includes a very helpful audio-guided tour of the Chateau explaining what you are seeing in a historic context.
You’re allowed to walk through the first and second floors of the central part of the mansion, the first floor being a mini-museum with short videos and the second floor the former royal residence, including the main rooms in the palace like the:
– Royal Chapel. The only place in the complex that recognizes God; everything else at Versailles is built as a celebration of man, specifically Louis XIV. This Chapel was where the ill-fated marriage of Louis XVI to Marie Antoinette was officiated.
– Hercules Drawing Room: Main suppers and receptions were held in this spacious room. There is a huge and famous painting by Veronese on one wall, a gift from Venice to Louis XIV. This was his second favorite painting, his most prized canvas being Da Vinci’s the Mona Lisa (which after the revolution was moved to the Louvre).
– Diana Room: Featuring a magnificent life-like bust of a youthful Louis XIV crafted by the great Italian sculptor, Bernini, the second best sculptor in the world (Michelangelo still holds the title as best in my humble opinion). The Diana room was the billiard and game room.
– Hall of Mirrors: The most famous room in Versailles, 250 feet (82 m) long with 17 arched mirrors reflecting the light from their window counterparts across the Hall. Mirrors were still rare and expensive when this Hall was constructed, so you can see what a stir it might have caused. It was and remains the most popular room in Versailles. Be sure you look out the windows to the Gardens — the best views of it are from the Hall of Mirrors.
It takes a few hours to move slowly with the throng of humanity and catch the highlights of the Chateau, after which you’ll be directed to the enormous….
2) Gardens. With massive, manicured lawns, trees and shrubs, it is decorated with numerous statues and fountains. Did I say it was massive? The Gardens were designed as a show-piece to impress by their sheer size, a manifestation to the world that the Sun King was in charge of everything — even nature — here at Versailles. Today the fountains are only turned on a few days a week in the summer time, these days being especially busy and frankly best avoided.
As you walk down the center of the garden, known as the Royal Drive, you approach the famous Apollo Fountain, of truly genius design. The fountain features the Sun King in his horse-drawn chariot starting his journey across the sky, like the sun rising above the horizon. I found this fountain to be, by far, the most impressive feature of Versailles.
Behind the gardens you find the Grand Canal, where you can rent a boat and paddle your way around. Louis felt the need to build his own version of Venice.
3) For those with some spare energy, go behind and to the right of the Apollo Fountain to see the Trianon Palace and domaine de Marie-Antoinette. While the Chateau of Versailles was a busy place in the 17th century, sometimes with thousands of guests and servants, these were private places reserved for the Royal family; a retreat from the mobs. The garden area of the Trianon was more colorful than the main gardens of Versailles, and the entire area became a playground for Marie-Antoinette. Interesting to see but if you’re feet are sore, this part can be skipped (or you can take a small toy-train like shuttle ride to it).
While I enjoyed aspects of Versailles, I was not drawn into it as I often am to interesting tourist sites. While there is grandeur to the place, Versailles is being loved to death by the crowds who flock there. The landscaping was not crisp and clean, as one might expect. But I think a big part of the reason I didn’t get into the experience was the enormous crowds which are very poorly managed. A visitor can expect to be one among thousands of people waiting a long time just to get in, then waiting to get a glimpse of the different rooms in the chateau, even waiting to use the washroom (for example, my wife had to wait an hour to use the lady’s room). This seemingly endless waiting truly is an annoyance and distraction, and I fault the management for not providing a better experience for it’s guests’ needs. What Versailles frankly needs is management of the type that Disney provides. At Disney there may be long lines, but they move and people are often entertained or distracted while waiting. And everything at Disney is meticulously maintained I can see French bureaucrats shaking their head in disbelief, for despite their neglect, the throngs still come…..
I, however, have completed my first and last visit to Versailles.
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