After Normandy, we relocated to a campsite to the west of Paris. The weather has turned very hot here and we are grateful to have a pitch alongside the River Seine, with plenty of shade to keep us cool.
The Palace of Versailles
I last visited Versailles about 25 years ago when I was interailing with my friend Janice and I remember being blown away by its scale and ostentation. So it was with great excitement that I set out today to take the girls to see its delights.
The Palace was only about a 40 minute drive from our campsite and we were able to park right outside. We arrived at about 9:30am and the queues were already building – the biggest one for people who already had tickets, queuing to get in. Andy and the girls joined that queue, whilst I went to the ticket office. Amazingly, I was able to walk straight in and buy our tickets. It was only €15 each for Andy and I and the girls were free, which we thought was pretty good for such a significant monument. Tight security was very much in evidence: our bags were visually searched at the first gate, then X-rayed as we got into the palace itself. There were also armed guards on the gate and patrolling around the grounds. I guess with recent events in Paris, the city and the country are on high alert for any terrorist action.
Despite so many people waiting to get in, the queues moved fairly quickly and it wasn’t long before we were picking up our audio guide and heading into the palace itself. The first section takes you through the development of the palace from hunting lodge to the grandeur of the mid-17th century when Louis XIV virtually emptied the kingdom’s coffers to create a palace that would project the absolute power of the French monarchy over its people. As well as state apartments and reception rooms, the palace has its own opera house and chapel and at its height employed thousands of people. It was where state and political business was conducted and the centre of the royal court from 1682 up until 1789 when the palace guard were massacred by the revolutionaries and Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were taken back to Paris and guillotined.
The palace itself is huge. It is splendid, ostentatious and opulent. There is guilding everywhere and the scale of it all (both the Palace and the gardens) takes your breath away. Some of the rooms, in particular the Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors), are simply stunning. This 75m-long ballroom has 17 huge mirrors on one side opposite an equal number of windows on the other, that look out over the gardens and the setting sun.
BUT, and this is a big one, we all came away feeling rather disappointed with our visit. So why, when it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in France, did we feel that way?
Well, firstly precisely because it IS one of the most popular tourist attractions in France I guess. This means that you are in a crush with literally thousands of other people, all of you trying to get the best view and take the best pictures. In places, we were hanging on to the children for fear they would get shoved out of the way by tour groups desperate to stay together or to get past. At one point I could feel myself being pushed along by the crowd from behind, with no-where to go to get out of the mêlée. Now, I know that I am as much a part of the crowd as everyone else, but for me it really affects my enjoyment of a place when it gets that busy (and yes, I know, going to Versailles in the middle of August is asking for it to be busy, but the timing is just how it worked out!!!!)
Secondly, we felt there was very little done to try to make the history come alive. And it really did need something, because basically all of the interior furnishings of the Palace disappeared during the French Revolution and so most of the rooms contain very little furniture at all. What furniture that is there is reproductions or items that have been brought here from somewhere else, but many of the rooms are just bare, save for the many portraits and other paintings hung on the walls, and again, most of these are not from the original palace. In addition, the audio guide was very dull, with long explanations as to what was depicted in each of the ceiling frescos or how the Palace changed from one era to the next, which had already been covered in the audio-visual presentation right at the start of the tour. The girls abandoned the audio guide quite early on because there was nothing in it to hold their interest. I persevered with it longer, but found it hard work.
There were a few funny insights that I can remember; apparently Louis XIV ate his dinner at 10pm every night with music playing and an audience watching. He sat in the same high backed red velvet chair with his back to the fire and his wife and daughters either side, but no-one sitting opposite him. This was to give the courtiers, who were allowed to sit further out in the room, a good view of him as he ate. And apparently they watched with great interest, observing his every gesture. I also learned (as we stood looking at the empty space where it would’ve been!) that the throne was apparently almost 3 metres high and needed steps to get up to it. Even when no-one was sitting in it, everyone was required to bow or curtsy as they passed. It would’ve been nice at that point to have at least a drawing of what it had looked like. Similarly, in the King’s bedroom, we were told that this was where the ‘royal rising and going to sleep ceremonies’ took place, but no details were given as to what these ceremonies involved.
The third reason we were disappointed with our visit is that quite a big part of the Palace – the Queen’s state apartments – were closed. This is because the Palace is undergoing a €400 million restoration project, which is not due to finish until 2020. And finally, none of the fountains in gardens were in operation. They are now apparently only switched on on Tuesdays and at weekends, which is a shame because they were one of the things that really brought the gardens to life when I was last here.
My favourite part of the palace was actually the Mesdames’ apartments on the ground floor. These were the apartments of the daughters of Louis XV and they were not as grand as the state apartments, but had a more relaxed and tranquil feel to them, with their light, floral furnishings.
The Gardens of Versailles
Anyway, after the palace, we headed out into the gardens. Apparently workers drained marshes, flattened hills and relocated forests as they created the extensive gardens we see today. They are laid out in the classical French style with geometrically shaped borders and flowerbeds, ponds, groves, statues and fountains and they are beautiful and striking in their scale. At the centre of the gardens there is a large lake with an impressively tall but rather incongruous fountain. This was actually working when we first moved outside, producing a massive cascade of water into the lake below. Later on though we noticed that it had stopped running and we could now see the structure of the fountain itself. It looked like what can only be described as a tower of scaffolding and was even more out of place in this elegant landscape than before.
I should say that within the gardens you can also visit the Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon and Marie-Antoinette’s estate. These were the more private palaces and homes built by Louis XIV in 1670 and used by him as a place to meet his lover and by future kings and queens to escape from court life. We decided not to include these in our visit as we are finding that, especially in the extreme heat we are experiencing at the moment, one attraction per day is enough to hold the girls’ attention and interest. However in view of our disappointment with the main palace itself, perhaps these would’ve been a more interesting choice. Who knows?!
A big surprise
Anyway, the biggest surprise and best moment of the day came whilst we were sitting in the gardens having lunch when Andy suddenly said “that looks like Maxine and Andy”. I looked over and sure enough, friends of ours were walking right past us out into the gardens! Maxine is a friend of mine from school and they now live in Oxford and we had no idea that they were even in France, never mind that they would be at Versailles today! What are the chances of that? Of them being there on the same day, at the same time as us and then, given the thousands of people who were wandering around, that they would walk right past the part of the gardens that we were in. If we had chosen a different bench to sit and have our lunch, or they had taken a different one of the many paths, or Andy hadn’t looked up at that very moment, we would never have seen them. What an amazing thing to happen!
We chatted for a while and caught up on what each of us was doing and took photographs of us all together, laughing and marvelling at the odds in a million that we would meet each other like that. As Maxine’s husband, Andy, suggested, it makes you wonder how many other people were there that you know, but you weren’t aware of it because your paths simply never crossed.
We were just about finished with our visit and they were heading out into the gardens to the Grand Trianon and Marie-Antoinette’s estate, so we said our farewells and headed back to the campsite. We didn’t want to wear the girls out too much as tomorrow we are going to DISNEYLAND PARIS!