The city of Versailles is located just west of Paris and is where Louis XIV had the Park, Chateaux, and Gardens created to intimidate the peasants with his great wealth and power. It was always intended to be a symbol of the Absolute Monarchy System. He managed to hang on to his power until he died of gangrene at age 77.
After the French peasants had finally had enough, there was a revolution. The current monarch of the time (Louis XVI) had his head chopped off, and in 1837 Versailles became a museum. In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles ending World War One was signed at the Palace. The French government owns and operates the property.
We chose to take the train on a Monday and stay overnight at the Ibis Versailles Chateau, located steps from the Palace. Our room was modern and well-appointed. A key card elevator added a level of security that we valued. The staff was charming and helpful. The bar looked good but we only bought water to go. As soon as we settled in, we walked around the hotel to the main entrance to the estate.
Versailles has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979. The Palace(s) are open every day except Monday but the gardens are open every day... and on Monday, there is no charge to visit. Bonus for budget travellers!
The original building by Louis XIII was a simple hunting lodge but Louis XIV greatly expanded the chateau into a grand palace dedicated to excess. The first sight of the sheer grandeur and gold on the exterior of the building and gates was striking and I hadn't been inside yet. I tried to imagine how the peasants who built the chateau and gardens and served the royals would react to such extravagance.
We planned our travel to arrive Monday mid-afternoon, so we would have time to explore. This was a great plan as there were very few visitors and we had plenty of space to wander and take unobstructed photos that didn't include crowds. The fountains weren't running, but it actually allowed us to really see the fountain detail and marvel at the size and number of the carp swimming in every fountain, large or small.
The park land includes a formal walled garden, the Grand Fountain Plaza and the wide Promenade down to the canal. On each side of the promenade are many treed walkways leading to small gardens and fountains. Along the canal is parkland. The Grand Trianon can't be seen from the Chateau but is located at the end of the cross of the canal behind the park. We would be exploring those the following day.
Each little grove was a delight. It was May, so the summer plants weren't ready but there was plenty of spring colour and beautifully scented plants. We wandered along randomly choosing a direction at each fountain "intersection". We were enjoying the coolness and peace after our stressful travel day. It was twilight as we left in search of dinner.
The following day we went straight into the Palace. It was everything I imagined but so much more. The Chateau is ornately decorated in every space. Louis XIV desire for the best of the best required 50 different types of marble, imported from all the corners of Louis' influence.
One of the first rooms we encountered was the two story chapel. As God's chosen King, Louis ensured that he was able to create an inspiring room that would "prove" his right to rule.
The court of Louis XIV was large, and many rooms were required. Nothing the king did was private. He was constantly surrounded by courtiers ensuring that every aspect of his life became part of constant ceremony. Each room is lavishly furnished in bold patterns and colours and includes chairs and stools for the privileged courtiers. Ceilings are painted and every room includes several different types of marble. Gold is everywhere.
Intricate carvings and plasterwork are designed into the cornices, furnishings, and even the walls.
Framed artwork, often depicting life at court and the Sun King himself in heroic scenes hung everywhere. The textiles are rich and lush.
The Hall of Mirrors is where Louis really showed himself. His desire to dazzle his visitors is on full display. With crystal chandeliers sparkling in the sun and the mirrors reflecting the art and decor, he created a very unique room for the times. Mirrors were a very expensive and very rare commodity. This room includes 357 mirrors.
As we left the palace, we wandered through the walled garden. There are two parts, the main section is large and includes many citrus trees and other food plants.
On one side is a smaller sheltered garden with beautifully scented plantings, topiary, and sculptures.
Soon, we made our way to the canal where we had booked a row boat to get out on the canal and see a bit more of the park. I was a bit concerned about how we would manage, since we both have bum shoulders but we were not the worst rowers. Neither of us was sore, so we felt like winners.
The estate not only includes the Grand Chateau and gardens but also the Palaces of the Grand Trianon, the stables, and a park, altogether covering almost 800 hectares. To see everything, you are going to need a plan. It's all walkable but there is a petit train and golf cart & bike rental, too. We took the train from the canal to Grand Trianon.
The Grand Trianon was originally built for Louis XIV and his family as a retreat. Later his daughter-in-law used it during the summer. Napoleon had the Trianon fully refurnished and occasionally spent time here with the Empress Marie-Louise, his second wife.
The petit train stops in front of the Grand Trianon. The first area to be seen is the Peristyle, a sheltered colonnade that connects the two wings. It's open to the courtyard on one side and the gardens on the other. During Napolean's time, he had windows installed into the arches but those were removed in 1910
The Trianon’s original furnishings were destroyed or lost during the Revolution. Nowadays, the palace is staged as it would have during the First Empire period.
Visitors first explore the left side, featuring the bedroom of the Empress and the rooms used for her purposes. The first impression of the Palace is much more calm and understated than the Chateau. Colours are less garish and the overall design is more muted. The walls are light-coloured which adds a more open and calm feeling to the room, in spite of it's grandeur.
The Mirror room is the grandest of the rooms with windows overlooking the canal and bringing in the sunshine to reflect off the mirrors. Louis XIV used it as his council chamber. Marie-Louise used it as her reception room.
Across the Peristyle were the rooms of the Emperor. and later Napoleon. The Emperor's Private Chambers include 5 connected rooms (Map Room, Antechamber, Private Chamber, Bathroom, and the Emperor's Bedroom. Napoleon moved in after he divorced Josephine. During Louis-Phillipe's time, it was used by his youngest daughters.
The Music Room also served different functions for the various residents. Originally it was Louis XIV's antechamber to his bedroom. Napoleon used it as an Officer's Lounge and Louis Phillipe turned it into a billiard room. The shutters above the doors is where musicians would be seated, concealed, above the guests during Louis XIV's dinners.
Every room of the Trianon looks out onto the gardens. Plants were chosen not only for their colour and shape but also for the scent. Many of the paintings that adorned the Palace walls were inspired by the gardens and all the furnishings and colours inside were chosen to harmonize with the views of the gardens.
After wandering the gardens for a bit, we reboarded the Petit Train to Le Hameaux de la Reine (The Queen's Hamlet) which was Marie Antoinette's project. After redesigning Trianon's gardens, she decided that she wanted the gardens extended north and a little model village to be built around the lake. The cottages may look rustic from the outside, but inside they were lavishly furnished and decorated. Marie Antoinette often used these cottages to host tea parties and other small gatherings. She insisted that it was farmed and the royal children were encouraged to spend time learning about the animals and farming techniques. Almost all the village has been recreated multiple times over the years.
Marie Antoinette preferred the Petit Trianon. It was built under the direction of Louis XV, who died of smallpox shortly after its completion, leading to the reign of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Louis XVI gifted the estate to Marie, who quickly ordered many changes to rooms and gardens and continued to make improvements and changes for the rest of her life. The estate was occupied during the revolution for use as a hostel. After the Revolution, Napoleon restored the estate and gardens.
It's a much smaller and more modest home. To avoid it being too simple, each facade is decorated differently. It sits on a slope, so some of the first floor rooms open directly onto the gardens. The pale marble creates a lightness and feeling of space. The restrained decor continues throughout the Petit Trianon.
I really enjoyed the Rechauffage, (reheating room). The kitchens were in the basement, so food to be served needed to be warmed up before serving. On the other side of a small door on one wall was the dining room. Hot food would be passed from the kitchen staff to the serving staff through the little door. Marie Antoinette soon closed this room because she didn't like the food smells that drifted into her apartments.
After a full day of walking, rowing, and being surrounded by such splendour and extravagance, we were quite tired as we caught the Petit Train back to the canal and wandered through the main gardens trying to make sure we had seen all the groves and fountains.
Based upon our experience, I would advise travellers to take at least two or three full days to ensure that you see everything. In 1.5 days, we missed a lot but had hit our endurance limit on both visits, partially because of the large estate but also due to the heat of the day. There is a free guide app that can be downloaded and used (needs WIFI connection) throughout the estate and many different paper maps available.
Ticket prices vary according to what you want to see and do on the estate. You can get a multi-day passport that gives you access to all buildings and gardens, and you can choose to add on row boats, bicycles, and the train or you can buy each part separately. Check the website carefully and be realistic about how much you can achieve in a day. Ideally, I would suggest a day for the gardens (including rowing or picnicking near the canal), another for the Chateau, and a third day for the Grand & Petit Trianon and Queen's Hamlet. For those hoping to just do a day trip, focus on which part is most appealing to you, do it well, and plan another trip to see the rest.
We were glad that we finally saw Versailles. There is no doubt that the extravagant splendour is a tremendous showcase for French history, politics, and art. On the other hand, we were unsettled as we imagined the peasant's reactions and the starkness of their lives. We enjoyed our visit but neither one of us expect to return.
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