Palais Versailles

9 04 2007

Watching the lavishly photographed (except for one geographical error, scroll to bottom) Marie-Antoinette brought back memories of the last time I was at the Palais de Versailles. Within 50 years, the Château de Versailles was transformed from Louis XIII’s hunting lodge into an extravagant palace. Begun in 1661, its construction involved 32,000 to 45,000 workmen, some of whom had to drain marshes and move forests. Louis XIV set out to build a palace that would be the envy of Europe and created a symbol of opulence copied, yet never duplicated, the world over. Wishing (with good reason) to keep an eye on the nobles of France, Louis XIV summoned them to live at his court. Here he amused them with constant entertainment and lavish banquets. To some he awarded such tasks as holding the hem of his robe. While the aristocrats played at often-silly intrigues and games, the peasants on the estates sowed the seeds of the Revolution. When Louis XIV died in 1715, his great-grandson Louis XV succeeded him and continued the outrageous pomp, though he is said to have predicted the outcome: “Après moi, le déluge” (“After me, the deluge”). His wife, Marie Leszczynska, was shocked by the blatant immorality at Versailles. The next monarch, Louis XVI, (played as the Dauphin in the film with droll sensibility by Mr. Jason Schwarzman) found his grandfather’s behavior scandalous — in fact, on gaining the throne he ordered that the “stairway of indiscretion” (secret stairs leading to the king’s bedchamber) be removed. The well-intentioned but weak king and his queen, Marie-Antoinette (please don’t miss the hyphen, it is her complete name and not her surname), were well liked at first, but the queen’s frivolity and spending led to her downfall. Louis and Marie Antoinette were at Versailles on October 6, 1789, when they were notified that mobs were marching on the palace. As predicted, le déluge had arrived.

Napoleon stayed at Versailles but never seemed fond of it. Louis-Philippe (who reigned 1830-48) prevented the destruction of the palace by converting it into a museum dedicated to the glory of France. To do that, he had to surrender some of his own riches. Decades later, John D. Rockefeller contributed toward the restoration of Versailles, and work continues today. The magnificent Grands Appartements are in the Louis XIV style; each bears the name of the allegorical painting on the ceiling. The best-known and largest is the Hercules Salon, with a ceiling painted by François Lemoine depicting the Apotheosis of Hercules. In the Mercury Salon (with a ceiling by Jean-Baptiste Champaigne), the body of Louis XIV was put on display in 1715; his 72-year reign was one of the longest in history. The most famous room at Versailles is the 71m (236-ft.) long Hall of Mirrors. Begun by Mansart in 1678 in the Louis XIV style, it was decorated by Le Brun with 17 arched windows faced by beveled mirrors in simulated arcades. On June 28, 1919, the treaty ending World War I was signed in this corridor. The German Empire was proclaimed here in 1871. The royal apartments were for show, but Louis XV and Louis XVI retired to the Petits Appartements to escape the demands of court etiquette. Louis XV died in his bedchamber in 1774, a victim of smallpox. In a second-floor apartment, which you can visit only with a guide, he stashed away first Mme de Pompadour and then Mme du Barry (a sluttish mistress who had to achieve comtesse titling in order to be present in court). Attempts have been made to return the Queen’s Apartments to their appearance in the days of Marie Antoinette, when she played her harpsichord in front of special guests. Louis XVI had a sumptuous Library, designed by Jacques-Ange Gabriel. Its panels are delicately carved, and the room has been restored and refurnished. The Clock Room contains Passement’s astronomical clock, encased in gilded bronze. Twenty years in the making, it was completed in 1753. The clock is supposed to keep time until the year 9999. At age 7, Mozart played for the court in this room. Gabriel designed the Opéra for Louis XV in 1748, though it wasn’t completed until 1770. In its heyday, it took 3,000 candles to light the place. Hardouin-Mansart built the harmoniously gold-and-white Royal Chapel in 1699, dying before its completion. Louis XVI married Marie Antoinette here in 1770, while he was the dauphin. Spread across 100 hectares (250 acres), the Gardens of Versailles were laid out by landscape artist André Le Nôtre. At the peak of their glory, 1,400 fountains spewed forth. The Buffet is an exceptional fountain, designed by Mansart. One fountain depicts Apollo in his chariot pulled by four horses, surrounded by tritons rising from the water. Le Nôtre created a Garden of Eden using ornamental lakes and canals, geometrically designed flower beds, and avenues bordered with statuary. On the mile-long Grand Canal, Louis XV used to take gondola rides with his favorite of the moment.

New, inaugurated late in 2004, developments within the sprawling infrastructure created by the monarchs of France is the opening of Les Grandes Ecuries (the Stables), Avenue Rockefeller, immediately opposite the chateau’s main front facade, where the horses and carriages of the kings used to be housed. Visitors can watch a team of up to a dozen students, with their mounts, strut their stuff during hourlong riding demonstrations within the covered, 17th-century amphitheater of the historic stables. Do not go with any expectations that the horsemanship will re-create exclusively 17th- and 18th-century styles. With a painted backdrop that reflects a circus theme, and with costumes that are colorful and artful but not exclusive to Versailles during its heyday, the focus is on showmanship and equestrian razzmatazz rather than exact replication of period costumes or riding styles. Each demonstration lasts about an hour. Demonstrations are conducted Tuesday to Thursday, and Saturday and Sunday, at 1000 and 1100, when entrance costs 7€ ($9.10). There is an additional presentation every Saturday and Sunday at 2pm, when admission costs 15€ ($20). Ring the Versailles Tourist office (01-34-83-21-21) or the chateau directly (01-30-83-78-00). Incidentally, participation in this event provides the only official way a visitor to Versailles can easily gain entrance to the stables, which contain a warren of narrow stalls for horses, as well as a large space with a plastered ceiling that’s used as the amphitheater for displays of horsemanship.

On Christmas 1999, one of the worst storms in France’s history destroyed some 10,000 historic trees on the grounds. Blowing at 100 mph, gusts uprooted 80% of the trees planted during the 18th and 19th centuries. They included pines from Corsica planted during Napoleon’s reign, tulip trees from Virginia, and a pair of junipers planted in honor of Marie Antoinette. Still, much remains to enchant you, and the restored gardens get better every month. The French government is going to pour out $455 million into a grand restoration of Versailles and its splendid gardens. The project, it is estimated, will take 17 years, but the attraction will remain open during the work in progress. The grand design of the architects is to make the palace, dating from the 17th century, look much as it did when it was home to Louis XIV, XV, and the ill-fated XVI. Some features will be removed, such as a wide staircase ordered built by King Louis-Phillippe in the château’s last major rebuilding in the 1830s. Other features will be added, including a replica of the grille royale that was torn out after the 1789 Revolution. Facilities for those with disabilities will also hopefully begin to exist. Some tips when you go there –

  • Buy your one-day Versailles Passport at the Information SNCF counter (16 to 25 Euro) near the Virgin Megastore at the Louvre (you should also buy advance tickets to the Musee Louvre here and come in through this less crowded entryway). This “Passport” is a good deal as it includes your roundtrip RER fare and entry to the grounds. You must buy tickets in advance as there are termendous line ups at every possible counter. Also pee before you enter the grounds. We packed a picnic lunch (foresight) and took the Metro to Gare d’Austerlitz and therefrom the RER (about 45 minutes) to the Versailles Rive Gauche staion. Be sure to board only any train that says VICK or VERO as others do not go all the way. From the RER, it is only a short brisk walk to the chateau peppered by hawkers and peddlers. Go to the C2 Office for an Audio Guide (a must, and included in your ticket price) and walk straight into the State Rooms and Gardens. Hit the State Rooms first as the peasants hit the gardens first. We liked the Trianons more than the Chateau.
  • The State Rooms are elaborate but curiously lacking much annotation which diminishes the effect significantly. The Hall of Mirrors is currently partially under renovation by VINCI and the court yard is dug out. Be aware of this as it detracts from your expectations. The fountains are on only from 1030 to 1200 and then again 1530 to 1630. They are not musical fountains a la Bellaggio in Vegas (pardon) but there is simply baroque music emanating from obviously faux rock speakers. Don’t bother to time your walks around this.
  • Food is spectacularly sparse on the grounds. As they ran out of pizza and panini by lunch time, we had to recourse to a hard baguette with bad cheese slammed in for 5 euros. There are only three (3) sets of toilets on the entire grounds and the one next to the cafe is a travesty. The one next to the Petit Trianon (restricted hours of entry when it rains, which is often) requires 50 eurocents. Exact change only. The Trianon toilets are marginally cleaner.
  • Fares are reduced on Sundays but all the students will be there so don’t even think about it. Ticket prices fall after 1530 but they will close the booths at 1600. Those are nonviable tourist traps.
  • The chateau is closed on Mondays, bank holidays and when official ceremonies are held so check local listings. Arrive in advance of opening (which is at 0900). The grounds admit until 1700 or 1800 (winter, summer) respectively. You must absolutely walk to the Queen’s Hamlet and the Trianons. There are intermittent trams that take you about. I believe that is an extra charge. Take umbrellas. It is quite wet with no shelters about.