Versailles. Gold. So much gold. And carp. Voracious carp, intent on sharing your picnic lunch as you sit by the Grand Canal.
These are my memories of Versailles the magical place I visited as a child with my family and Parisian relatives.
As I recall, I was not that fascinated with the grandiose castle, the Hall of Mirrors, the King and Queen’s apartments, but I adored roaming the grounds, playing hide-and-seek with my brother and cousins. After a while, we collapsed, ravenous, and enjoyed a picnic on the grass by the canal, tossing chips and breadcrumbs at the gigantic carp, laughing as the fish fought for scraps in the dark water, their menacing mouths gaping.
This summer, while in Paris, I decided to return to the Sun King’s estate, the castle of all castles. Things have not changed at all. The lines are still among the longest in Europe during peak tourist season. They meander through the giant courtyard, past the golden gates, all the way into the main building, formidable, inescapable, a European rite of passage.
Like many who visit Versailles during peak tourist season know, discovering the Sun King’s prized possession can be a grueling experience.
Moi? I stayed away from the palace. I skipped the long lines in the courtyard, aimed for the side entrance, leading to the gardens, and emerged on the other side of the main building, on the terrace overlooking the majestic grounds. I did not stop to take photos, but headed for Marie-Antoinette’s domain, at the back of the estate, a twenty-minute brisk walk, while many visitors stayed behind, congregating around the castle and the famous fountains. And what a walk that was! Classical music was coming out of the elegant groves (part of Versailles‘ summer “Musical Garden” show,) and I could picture Louis XIV and his court, strolling the grounds and listening to Jean-Baptiste Lully, the King’s favorite composer.
I was one of the first to enter the queen’s private domain. I had not seen it since it re-opened in 2006, and I was immediately charmed by its many facets and bucolic appeal. The newly-renovated Petit Trianon. The French garden. The English garden. The temple of Love. And the masterpiece, le Hameau, the Hamlet, a small village – once a working farm – where the Queen played shepherdess. One could spend a whole day (or two,) discovering Marie-Antoinette secret refuge.
|Le Hameau (The Hamlet)
Built 1783-1788, Richard Mique, architect
|La maison du jardinier (the gardener’s house)|
|Le Moulin (the windmill)|
|Le Petit Trianon|
|Le Pavillon Français (the French pavillon)
Built 1749-1750 – Ange-Jacques Gabriel, architect
It was hard to pull away, but after a couple of hours, I started walking back, taking a short detour to admire the pink marble splendor of le Grand Trianon. Then I found a spot in the shade where I enjoyed my picnic lunch, reminiscing. My brother and cousins were not there with me that day, but other children were having fun. “Imagine that,” I smiled, “summer camp where kings and queens used to play!”
I still had to discover my favorite section of the expansive Versailles grounds. As I approached the castle, I almost bumped into the famous Orangerie. Did my family skip it, years ago? I did not remember it. How grateful I was when I peeked through the gates.
L’Orangerie. Jules-Hardouin Mansart‘s masterpiece. Imagine hundreds of fragrant orange blossoms, lemon trees, palm trees, elegantly displayed throughout the grounds and kept in giant containers, so they can be winterized in the Orangerie‘s main building.
All plants and topiaries are still pruned by hand, by a small crew of young gardeners who were hard at work when I stopped by.
|Notice the cardboard shapes used to prune the trees…|
The Orangerie building, like the rest of Versailles, is magnificent. The sheer size of the doors, the height of the ceilings; it’s almost overwhelming. That’s exactly how the Sun King wanted it.
|While the plants are outside for the summer,
the building becomes an impressive exhibition hall.
“Yes,” I decided, “Versailles still has a lot to offer, and like Montmartre, the Eiffel Tower, or a Seine river cruise at sunset, it would be a shame to miss it.”
Versailles attracts over six million visitors a year. With a bit of planning (tickets can be purchased online,) you can skip the big crowds and find your happy place, as I did, at the Sun King’s estate. The city of Versailles is lovely. Try and spend time there if you can, after you visit the castle.
Almost three hundred years after the Sun King’s death, Versailles keeps us dreaming. It inspires movie directors, old and new.
|Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006)|
|Charlize does Versailles for Dior|
|Chanel’s 2012 Cruise Collection
(Karl Lagerfeld fits right in and does not even need to wear a wig!)
|Gorgeous Vanessa Paradis
(Photographed by Karl Lagerfeld)
|Vanessa Paradis, for her one-night acoustic concert at Versailles’ Royal Opera house,
“One Night in Versailles,” 2010