The Palace of Versailles, c'est magnifique. It's about the same age as Buckingham Palace. It's got two big long wings, like Blenheim Palace. It rubs up against its local town, like Windsor Castle. For a while it was the home of the ruling monarch, like Kensington Palace. It's surrounded by formal gardens, like Hampton Court. It's located just over ten miles southwest of its country's capital, also like Hampton Court. But however Hampton Court-y it might be, the scale and grandeur of Versailles is unlike any palace in Britain. And it's doable in a day trip from London, just about.
How to get there: Take the first Eurostar out of St Pancras, the one that leaves at stupid o'clock, and definitely no later than 7am. From Gare du Nord you'll need a return ticket to Zone 1-4 (not the usual central zone), making your way by Metro to interchange with RER Line C. Take the train to Versailles Rive Gauche, not any similar sounding station, from where it's a five minute walk to the front gate. You can get from St Pancras to the Palace gates in under four hours (and then don't forget it's four hours home too).
Louis XIV is to thank for turning a hunting lodge in the woods outside Paris into a royal palace. Additional apartments were later wrapped around the first building, their interiors designed to amaze, and two enormous symmetrical wings added. The Palace of Versailles was used as a showcase for French materials and craftsmanship, and the gardens were laid out in opulent formal style. Most of what we see today was already in place when Louis XV came to the throne, his tweaks mainly to private spaces within the interior as well as creating additional pavilions far beyond. His son Louis XVI made even fewer alterations, while his wife Marie Antoinette misguidedly created her own rural playground at the far end of the park and paid the price. From 1682 to 1789 Versailles was the centre of royal power, but the French Revolution swept that away and the majority of the palace's contents were sold off. The authorities are still trying to get a lot of the furniture and fittings back, but the building itself has been royally restored and looks amazing.
It was very thoughtful of the three Louis to leave space out front for a giant coach park, inbetween the Stables buildings and the golden Honour Gate. It's not entirely obvious on arrival how you pass through the gilded fence, or step round it, due to the complication that there's free public access to the gardens whereas to get inside the buildings costs. A 'Passport' ticket allows you free rein across (almost) the entire estate, and can be bought in advance which speeds things up. But even with that and a map, I found it unexpectedly difficult to work out precisely where to go throughout my visit, this despite my A-Level in geography and my O-Level in French. Indeed it's only now I've come to research this post that I've come to realise quite how many rooms, chambers and ornate spectacles I entirely overlooked last week. Still, saw most of it.
The main circuit involves the State Apartments, a series of a dozen or so grand rooms around the outside of the main building. The first few are decked out on an astronomical theme, one classical planetary god each, in orbit around the throne room which is dedicated to Apollo - Louis being the Sun King. Then comes the pièce de résistance, the Hall of Mirrors. This is one heck of a long gallery, with chandeliers dripping from the ceiling and gold plated uplighters, plus the finest mirrors that late 17th century France could manufacture. The peace treaty that concluded World War I was signed in this room, and visiting dignitaries are still brought here to blind them with ceremonial. Normally I'm sure it's packed, but last Wednesday the palace was so empty that I managed several punter-free photos, and mumbled repeatedly under my breath at the sheer fortunate status of my visit.
OK, so the Queen's Apartments were closed for redecoration, which means I'll probably never see them, and the Galerie des Batailles (a long gallery of paintings celebrating France's military history) was closed for strike-related reasons. But the symmetricalMarble Courtyard at the apex of the palace was amazing, and somewhere else I somehow got to enjoy in perfect sunkissed touristless state.
I'd also booked for the guided tour, in English, which for an extra €7 takes you round the private apartments of the two later Louis. A dry but erudite lady led us through the back rooms to see gilded decor, gilded clocks, gilded ceilings and some surfaces with no gold leaf applied whatsoever. She delivered far more historical information than I'd have gathered from wandering elsewhere alone, but maintained a focus throughout on the irreplaceable fixtures and fittings and the stories behind them. Best of all was the opportunity at the very end of the tour to step inside the Royal Chapel and marvel at the almost-delusional levels of decor, while tourists who'd only paid for basic admission had to peer through the doorway and wave their cameras as best they could. Well worth a fiver, I'd say, even if by booking it you have to block an hour and a half out of what may be the middle of your day.
The one thing you need to know about Versailles' gardens is that they are enormous. Magnificent in their pristine regularity, as is the French way, but vraiment énorme. They possess a fractal quality, in that when you step out the back of the palace you think the area around the fountains is big, but before long you realise that's just a fraction of the divided parterre, and this in turn is but one corner of an extensive woodland estate. Small ornamental treasures hide at intersections of the geometric network of paths, and nowhere is the illusion shattered by a cafe, ice cream kiosk or tacky gift shop as would be the case in the UK. Better still, come on the right day and the fountains put on a musical show. The right day is a Tuesday, Saturday or Sunday during the middle of the year, if you want to plan your visit, although be warned that the Palace is hugely busier on water-gushing days.
The far end of the cruciform lake is almost two miles from the palace, while the main outdoor attraction (Marie Antoinette's estate) is more like a mile and a bit, and will take longer to walk to than you think. Entering this landscaped corner requires passing through a metal detector, as did entering the main palace previously, indeed I've never had my body scanned so many times in one day as Versailles and Eurostar security conspired last week. Marie lived in the PetitTrianon, originally built as a hideaway for Louis XV and Madame Pompidour, and to the north she created un Jardin anglais plus a model farm with sheep. Annoyingly it was here on my visit that time ran out, and my navigation skills again faltered, so I never quite made it to the Queen's Elysian hideaway. There is a definite case for allowing two full days to visit Versailles, or simply starting earlier in the morning than a St Pancras departure can allow.
Now, here are those photos again, and maybe they'll make more sense this time.