[Published in the Toronto Star on Bastille Day, 2011. I visited the Palace of Versailles for the first time in May and came away with a clear understanding of why there was a revolution!]
VERSAILLES, FRANCE — When Louis XIV built the Palace of Versailles he said he wanted it to be the envy of Europe. The man who believed he had divine right managed to outdo himself. He horded wealth, talent and labour to construct one of the most spectacularly grotesque displays of lavishness humanity’s ever known.
Versailles blows away anything the Hapsburgs, Egyptians and even Peter the Great ever built. It’s headshakingly awesome — and I didn’t even go inside. Talk to Parisians and they’ll tell you the grounds are what you come to Versailles to see — despite the fact the interior of the palace is sometimes called the largest history museum in the world and is home to the Hall of Mirrors, where the famed treaty that ended World War I was signed.
An abundance of manufactured gems are everywhere in and around Paris; Versailles is refreshing because its wealth is in its real estate: 800 hectacres of splendid flora and greenery that attract picnickers, bikers and busload after busload of tourists. Roughly 10 million visitors arrive annually to take in the grounds that include more than 200,000 flowers, 372 statues and enough fountains to make the Bellagio in Las Vegas seem small-time. Such popularity makes the palace the most visited attraction in France.
The Sun King’s wish to keep the palace far from Parisians (he moved the French seat of government to Versailles in 1682 in part to get away from his critics) was expunged long ago. This is the people’s palace now and do they ever make great use of it. On weekends and holidays such as Bastille Day, Versailles explodes with crowds the way its 250 acres of palace gardens do with blooms. Rowboats fill the sensational Grand Canal, a 1.6-kilometre-long waterway that used to feature gondolas. Now, happy young couples take turns rowing each other through the gentle waters, flirting all the way. Children saddle up on tiny ponies, patio restaurants teem with activity, daytrippers walk the grounds that connect to the former estate of Marie Antoinette. There are restaurants, a sheep farm and a tram that can be hired to move guests from site to site.
You can stop for ice cream at a number of places, with a single scoop costing about 2.50 euros, and even have large meals, although at tourist-trap prices. Your best bet is to do what Parisians do: pack a picnic (a baguette, brie, foie gras, grapes, salad, chocolate, wine and a blanket, or hotel towels) from the city and head for a shady tree on the far side of the Grand Canal, getting you away from the crowds and into a spot to view from a distance the exquisite rear of the chateau, or “the garden side,” as Voltaire called it.
The French philosopher described Versailles from that vantage point as “an immense palace whose defects are more than compensated by beauties.” By the time Voltaire was in his enlightened prime, Versailles was seen as a symbol of oppression by a government spiralling into debt. The Sun King was dead and his heirs were terribly mismanaging the nation’s finances, leading to famines and uprising. Under Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, the French Revolution peaked, with one of the monumental episodes occurring in 1789 when a mob of mostly women marched on the palace demanding bread.
After the monarchy’s reign ended, Versailles fell into a destitute state. Napoleon didn’t want to stay in the chateau and it wasn’t until 1833 that it became a museum recognizing “all the glories of France.” Restoration continues, even as it now houses a number of government offices and wings that are open to the public.
As far as weekend getaways go, this spectacle a half-hour train ride from the centre of Paris is as good as it gets. The palace is at the heart of a rich, beautiful town of about 90,000 people that’s full of restaurants, galleries and small, chic accommodations. Imagine Niagara-on-the-Lake but five times the size and with a colossal, historic structure dominating it.
The palace takes up 18,000 square metres, features 2,000 windows and 1,250 fireplaces. You could spend a year there and not discover all of its 700 rooms or climb each of its 67 staircases. And, really, you may not want to. As Parisians make clear: The palace provides a beautiful backdrop to what is really important. All the gold and jewels Louis XIV acquired do not match the pleasure of stretching out on a field of tall grass and savouring a glass of Côtes du Rhône red under a powder blue sky that belongs to no one, and everyone at the same time.
VERSAILLES TRAVEL TIPS
ARRIVING: From Paris, take the C suburban line (one of the Metro trains designated as “RER”) heading west to the Versailles Rive-Gauche stop. From the train station it’s a two-block walk to the palace gates. Round-trip fare is 6 euros (about $8.35 Canadian).
ENTERING: Admission to the Chateau is 13 euros (about $18.05); admission to the smaller palaces, including the Trianon and Marie Antoinette’s estate is an additional 6 euros; there’s free admission on the first Sunday of each month between November and March; the gardens are free to visit. The Chateau is closed on public holidays (and France has many of those, as I discovered).
STAYING: In Paris, Hôtel Athénée (19 Rue de Caumartin) is a terrific boutique hotel with 20 rooms and accommodating staff. It’s within a short walk to three metro stations. Room rates are above 200 euros a night.
KNOWING: Funding for the palace construction came in part from revenues collected from New France (Quebec).