Published: June 29th 2009May 26th 2009
We set off for Versailles today despite the dark clouds gathering in the sky. Originally the de facto capital of France Versailles is now a suburb of the sprawling city over 17 kilometres from the city centre. We hoped we might be lucky with the weather and since we only have two whole days in Paris anyway we either had to go today or tomorrow. We'd been told at reception to leave by 8-8.30 but by the time we'd got ready, had breakfast and made a packed lunch it was a bit later than that. We took the metro to Bir Hakim where we could get the train onward to Versailles. Although our metro passes let us on to the station they weren't valid for the train so, not wishing to risk a fine, we walked up and down the platform in search of a ticket office. We eventually located it at the far end of the platform and fortunately the man there spoke English and very helpfully showed us the cheapest way of getting the tickets.
We waited for the next train only to find that despite being a double decker there were so many people there was literally nowhere
to sit, or even stand comfortably. We ended up standing on the stairs wedged in the middle of the crowd. Fortunately everyone seemed to be in good humour about the squash and helped each other fit in and stay balanced. One of my neighbours saw me studying my map and anxiously trying to see the name of the stations through the press of bodies around me. She spoke to me first in French, then English and reassured me I was on the right train and Versailles was the last stop anyway.
Eventually enough people got off at various stops so we were finally able to sit comfortably for the rest of the journey.
We arrived at Versailles-Rive Gauche and followed the crowd in the direction of the palace.
Versailles was the principal residence of the kings of France from 1678-1793. It was also the seat of government from 1682-1789. Versailles is first mentioned in a medieval document dated 1038CE. At this time Versailles was a small village surrounding a medieval castle and the Saint Julien church. Versailles' farming activity and its location on the road from Paris to Dreux and Normandy brought relative prosperity to the village. However, the Hundred
Year's War in the 14th century brought death and destruction. The village though started to recover after the war in the 15th century.
Martial de Loménie, secretary of state for finances under King Charles IX, became lord of Versailles in 1561. He was murdered on 24th August, 1572. The Gondi family took control of his estate in 1575. In 1624, King Louis XIII ordered Philibert Le Roy to build a chateau on a land he bought in Versailles. Eventually, King Louis XIII acquired the lordship of Versailles in 1632 and proceeded to enlarge the chateau between 1632 and 1634. King Louis XIII died in 1643. His son, Louis XIV, resumed work on the chateau in 1662. Louis transformed the chateau in order to accommodate the royal court. The court and the government was established in Versailles on 6th May, 1682. The royal court, however, departed from Versailles for Paris in 1789. In 1837, Louis-Philippe converted the palace into a museum of French History and the building continued to be used for significant occasions, including the end of WWI as the Treaty of Versailles was signed.
The building looked suitably impressive and grand as we walked through the huge gates and
joined the ticket queue. A huge queue of people with pre-bought tickets started to form across the way and trail down to the main gates, until finally they began to file inside.
We started to wonder why our queue wasn't moving at all. We took photos of the outside of the palace and watched some pigeons taking a morning shower under a little water fountain. It started to spit with rain and we were getting a bit fed up of standing outside. After about 20 minutes the ticket office opened and we began to slowly file inside. I asked at the information desk for a map and also learned that there was a strike on and only a limited number of staff were working. As a result they were late opening, only part of the palace was open, there were no audio guides available and while Marie Antionette's estate might open later in the day they currently weren't selling the best value 'passport ticket' which would gain us entry to everything. In addition there was a 'water show' in the gardens so we wouldn't have the normal free access to the gardens but would have to pay to get inside.
As a consolation though we got our chateaux tickets for 10 Euros instead of 13... something of a booby prize really!
Finally we were free to join the massive queue in front of the palace. The queue moved quickly and after stepping through a metal detector and having a security guard give an apathetic glance inside my bag we explored the marble courtyard and took photos. We ran inside just as the heavans opened.
Inside the chateaux we joined a crowd jostling for a look at the chapel. Begun in 1689, construction was halted due to the War of the League of Augsburg; Jules Hardouin-Mansart resumed construction in 1699. Hardouin-Mansart continued working on the project until his death in 1708, at which time his brother-in-law, Robert de Cotte, finished the project. Dedicated to Saint Louis, the chapel was consecrated in 1710. Adhering to ecclesiastical decoration, the chapel’s decoration refers to both the Old Testament and the New Testament: the ceiling of the nave represents “God the Father in his glory bring to the world the promise of redemption” and was painted by Antoine Coypel; the half-dome of the apse is decorated with Charles de LaFosse’s The Resurrection of Christ; and,
above the royal tribune is Jean Jouvenet’s The Descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Virgin and the Apostles. During the eighteenth century, the chapel witnessed many court events. "Te Deums" were sung to celebrate military victories and the births of children born to the king and queen; marriages were also celebrated in this chapel, such as the wedding of the dauphin—later Louis XVI—to Marie-Antoinette in 1770.
From the chapel we slowly shuffled with the crowd through the various rooms of the palace. I was astounded by the beauty of the painted and gilded ceilings and the often ostentacious, even garish, room decorations. The experience was spoiled somewhat by the crowd. Whether it is always busy or whether it was due to the closure of parts of the palace and the sudden downpour keeping everyone from the gardens, it was crowded and frequently hard to stop and take a closer look at anything as there were always more people filing in behind us. I was also disappointed by the lack of an audio guide as it would have been nice to have more information on each room we visited.
I did however enjoy the lavish surroundings, including the King's truly
ostentascious bedchamber with pink and gold brocade hangings and everything else gilded with gold. The Hall of Mirrors was perhaps my favourite part of the palace... in part because the size gave us a brief repreive from the push of the crowd. We walked through the War Drawing Room into the Hall of Mirrors which is an amazing 17 metre long corridor connecting the King's apartments with the Queen's. It owes its name to the seventeen mirrors facing seventeen arcaded windows overlooking the gardens. Each arch contains twenty-one mirrors with a total of 357 used in the decoration of the Hall of Mirrors. The construction of the Hall of Mirrors began in 1678. It was the grandiose setting of the 17th century French superpower monarchy's celebrations and has since been the setting of many important events including the 1871 proclamation of the German empire by Otto van Bismarck and the 1918 signature of the Versailles treaty which ended World War 1.
We sidestepped to view the adjacent rooms and then continued to the end of the Hall of Mirrors and walked through the Peace Drawing Room.
Beyond the royal rooms we entered a room displaying the impressively large painting if
Napoleon crowning his empress and from there a series of rooms giving information about the Imperial rule and the life of Napoleon. From there we walked across an elaborately carved landing into a large gallery which displays images of old and modern warfare. The huge dramatic paintings of the Napoleonic wars and other battles are jutxtaposed with photos of Afghanistan and Iraq while the gallery itself is as elaborate and oranate as the rest of the palace interior.
We eventually left the building to visit the gardens. Fortunately the rain had stopped in spite of the wind chill and the huge puddles everywhere I was keen to see the gardens. We of course had to pay to get in but at least we managed to get a student rate. We splashed through the puddlesand I waited with my camera poised for the odd bit of sunlight sneaking through the clouds and adding a bit of colour to the rather beige looking facade of the palace.
We decided to splurge with our money and buy tickets for the mini-train. At another 6.50 Euros each the day was proving to be rather expensive but in my opinion it was completely worth it
- I got a seat, shelter from the wind, good views of the gardens and a chance to eat my rather sorry looking packed lunch retrieved from the depths of my bag. The Park of Versailles spreads over more than 800 hectares and includes the Orangerie, the Grand Canal, the French gardens, the fountains, and the Estate of Marie-Antoinette with the Petit Trianon and the Grand Trianon.
We got off at the Grand Triannon hoping it would be open. It was but at another 10 Euros each we decided it wasn't worth it. We took the next train to the grand canal. The cross-shaped Grand Canal is 1.5 km long, 62 m wide and the total rim is 5.5 km and was used during royal events as a starting point for fireworks or as a theater set. During Louis XIV reign, it hosted a three-masted ship, a galley, rowboats and gondolas from Venice. From a practical point of view, the Grand Canal is located on a lower level than the palace, it collects water from the fountains and pump it back to its starting point. We decided to walk back up to the palace past all the water fountains. Unfortunately
it was at this time the rain started again. Struggling to pull on very unflattering green plastic ponchos as the wind whipped the plastic around our heads we eventually managed to knot them around our waists as we sheltered behind a statue. We came out just in time for the start of the water show. The water show sounded rather grand and for 8 Euros at the full price I was expecting something a little more impressive than the reality. The 'water show' apparently consisted of classical music played over loud speakers combined with the admittedly very pretty water fountains in full flow.
We splashed our way from the Neptune fountain upwards and found a very pretty side garden with water fountains circling a central statue. The rain lessened and finally stopped and we were actually able to get some nice photos by hurriedly stripping off all our outer layers and pretending it really was a lovely sunny day. I have to wonder what the French aristocracy would think could they see into the future and witness the bedraggled tourists roaming the gardens, fighting to open umbrellas in time and ducking into alcoves to adjust rainmacks!
We stopped at the
Latona fountain which I think is the prettiest one of all. It depicts the goddess Latona protecting her children (Apollo and Diana) from the uncouth, Lycian peasants and frogs who are squirting water at them. The fountain was originally carved in 1670 though has been modified since.
When we reached the palace again we decided to hop back on the train. We ended up back down by Marie Antoinette's estate and finally realised that the 10 Euro ticket would have gained us entry to the whole estate not just the Grand triannon. Still the weather was so tempermental the visit still may not have been worth it and I'm just going to hope I can come back one day in good weather, when there are no strikes on! We took the train the full loop back up to the palace and set off for home.
After drying off and warming up in the hotel we returned to our pizza restaurant from yesterday. the waiter was very entusiastic to see us and greeted us with high fives. We shared a pizza and pasta dish and at the end our waiter returned with mints and toffees and made a grand show out
of seperating them so I got all the pink and purple ones. We stopped off at the supermarket to buy more food and then I located a cashpoint and replenished our sorely depleted funds!
There are more photos below