diamond geezer

 Thursday, March 17, 2016

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 symmetrical Marble 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 Petit Trianon, 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.

<< click for Newer posts

click for Older Posts >>

click to return to the main page

...or read more in my monthly archives
Jan18  Feb18  Mar18  Apr18  May18  Jun18  Jul18
Jan17  Feb17  Mar17  Apr17  May17  Jun17  Jul17  Aug17  Sep17  Oct17  Nov17  Dec17
Jan16  Feb16  Mar16  Apr16  May16  Jun16  Jul16  Aug16  Sep16  Oct16  Nov16  Dec16
Jan15  Feb15  Mar15  Apr15  May15  Jun15  Jul15  Aug15  Sep15  Oct15  Nov15  Dec15
Jan14  Feb14  Mar14  Apr14  May14  Jun14  Jul14  Aug14  Sep14  Oct14  Nov14  Dec14
Jan13  Feb13  Mar13  Apr13  May13  Jun13  Jul13  Aug13  Sep13  Oct13  Nov13  Dec13
Jan12  Feb12  Mar12  Apr12  May12  Jun12  Jul12  Aug12  Sep12  Oct12  Nov12  Dec12
Jan11  Feb11  Mar11  Apr11  May11  Jun11  Jul11  Aug11  Sep11  Oct11  Nov11  Dec11
Jan10  Feb10  Mar10  Apr10  May10  Jun10  Jul10  Aug10  Sep10  Oct10  Nov10  Dec10 
Jan09  Feb09  Mar09  Apr09  May09  Jun09  Jul09  Aug09  Sep09  Oct09  Nov09  Dec09
Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08  May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08  Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07  May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07  Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06  May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06  Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05  May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05  Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04  May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04  Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03  May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03  Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
 Jan02  Feb02  Mar02  Apr02  May02  Jun02  Jul02 Aug02  Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02 

eXTReMe Tracker
jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

» email me
» follow me on twitter
» follow the blog on Twitter
» follow the blog on RSS

my flickr photostream