If you are going to Paris, my advice is forget Disneyland, go to Louisland! Here you can experience what life was like in the days of Louis the XIVth, at least for the well off in society. But this place is huge, so you will either have to be selective in what you see, or perhaps you could spend two days here (with hindsight, this is what we would have done.)
In this review, I will tell you about what we saw, and perhaps a bit about what we missed, and offer some advice on how to make the most of the time you have available. I am afraid it might be a bit long, but you can always skip the bits that are not relevant to you, which is why I put headings in.
As we were staying in Paris itself, we took a commuter train from gare Montparnasse to get to Versailles. This was relatively inexpensive and the journey takes about 45 minutes. Bear in mind that taking a commuter train in France is a somewhat more pleasant experience than in Britain! On approaching Versailles, we realised with a mild panicky feeling that there were 2 stations to choose from. We chose Versailles Chantiers, but as it happens, it would have made little difference if we had got off at the other one. From the station, it is a pleasant 20 minutes walk to the castle, although had I known how much we were going to walk that day, I might have tried to find a bus or got a taxi. Many of the buildings you see on the way there are contemporary with the castle itself and were connected to it in one way or another. Among these are the Grand Stables, which house a Coach Museum. I haven't seen this, but it would probably be a nice little extra to visit if you had plenty of time. When you finally arrive, you go through a very impressive set of wrought iron gates and enter the Court Royale.
~Prices and visiting times~
Despite having a guidebook with us, this bit was very confusing. There were several lengthy queues around big A, B, C etc. signs. You have to be careful here as some of these queues are for groups only, and some are for visiting different parts of the estate. As we were trying to figure out what to do, we walked round towards the gardens and realised we could get a day pass there that gave us access to most places and the use of an audio-guide for the King's apartments for just 20 (about £13.50). We had beaten the queues, which bode well for the rest of our visit. :-)
~A little history~
From 1661 to 1668, a young King Louis had the hunting lodge built by his father embellished, then from 1668 enlarged. In 1682, it became the official residence of the court of France. This meant 3 000 to 10 000 people were in attendance at any one time, all hoping to curry the favour of the Sun King (This was the emblem Louis chose for himself, often having portraits or statues of himself as Apollo made).
Then along came Louis the XVth (funny that!), and his famous mistress Madame de Pompadour. You can visit the apartments she lived in.
His Grandson was Louis the XVI (you don't say) who was married to Marie-Antoinette of 'let them eat cake' fame. A bit more about her later.
Her excesses and frivolity did much to help bring on the French revolution. During this period, the chateau was stripped of most of its furnishing and what you see now was achieved after years of painstaking collecting of paintings and furniture and restoration.
Napoleon and Louis-Philippe both stayed in Versailles.
The treaties ending the Great War were of course signed in Versailles and the Trianon.
Charles de Gaulle, slightly megalomaniac as he was, nonetheless considered advice to take up residence in Versailles 'somewhat exaggerated'. However, he refers to the place 40 times in his memoirs. His presidency was the start of a tradition of glamorous parties in Versailles (with dinner in the Hall of Mirrors) for the likes of Khrushchev and Kennedy amongst others. This practice has continued ever since.
~The castle itself~
Again, we didn't visit everything here, as we really wanted to see the park too. The castle itself is visited by about 3,000,000 people every year (6.000.000 for the park). And believe me, it is busy. But as the place is absolutely huge, that is not really a problem, particularly if you start your visit early. First, we took the King's bedchamber tour with audio guide. Wow! It is hard to imagine such a place as this, and such a way of life. Every moment of Louis the XIVth life was public, with courtiers vying to share in the kings every (and most private!) moment. The sheer opulence of the place left us feeling incredulous. I couldn't help thinking about the way the rest of the population was living at the time.
We also visited the State apartments, with the famous Hall of Mirrors. Unfortunately, work was being done on this part, which robbed us somewhat of the full effect. However, the company that is carrying out these repairs has to be commended for being as unobtrusive as possible. Again, the sheer luxury of it all was breathtaking. From the Hall of Mirror, you get a great view over the gardens, in particular the grand Perspective.
After admiring the view from behind the castle, with the perspective stretching as far as the eye can see, basins, statues and fountains integrated within a natural setting, we walked around for a while. Although you think you can see everything from the castle, you keep discovering new bits as you walk, each hedge hiding an area with its own character, almost like rooms. My main regret about this visit was not to have spent more time doing this. In particular, I would have liked to look around the Orangery. My other regret of course is not to have seen all the fountains in action. But that gives me an excuse to go back there. The gardens are beautifully looked after and very tastefully planted.
~The Grand Trianon, the Petit Trianon and the Queen's Hamlet~
This part of the grounds is quite far from the main building, and there are several ways to get there. You can rent a little golf type buggy, which looks like fun, but you only get it for an hour and it is quite expensive, so we discounted that option. You can also get onto a horse drawn carriage, an option which appealed to me, but again expensive, particularly if you don't want to share it with other people. The most practical for us was to take the 'little train' (you know the kind I mean, you see them in touristy towns, usualy I wouldn't be seen dead on one of them....). This was fairly cheap, and gave us the option to get off at 3 different places, the Petit Trianon, the Grand Trianon and the Grand Canal. The total travelling time if staying on the 'train' is 40 minutes.
First stop, the Petit Trianon. This was built for Louis the XVth and his mistress, Madame de Pompadour. Marie-Antoinette, the wife of Louis the XVIth also left her mark there, nowhere more so than in the gardens. She had all sorts of follies built there, the most notable one being the queen's hamlet. You can reach this after a very pleasant walk. The hamlet itself is difficult to describe, I guess it was Marie-Antoinette's idea of peasant life where she played at being a shepherdess. It includes the queen's house, the guards' house, the dairy, the mill, etc by a small lake. All this is slightly smaller than normal size, giving the whole place a feeling of a toy village. It was definitely one of the highlights of the day, both for its beauty and also what it represented: the folly of a queen completely detached from real life and common people, now visited by millions of commoners such as us.
We then walked back to the Petit Trianon and then to the Grand Trianon rather than wait for the train. This was also built for Louis the XIV, to provide a retreat from the ultra-formal life at court. He spent short periods of time there in summer. Although we were tired, hot and had already seen so much, this was truly a marvel, with its beautiful pink marble. This is where visiting foreign dignitaries stay. We visited at no extra cost, then back onto the train for the final stop at the Grand Canal. Again, we could have got off here and enjoyed some refreshments, but time was marching on and we had little energy left. This would be ideal for families with children as you can rent pedalos and imagine you are on one of the king's gondolas or galleys. The Grand Canal itself covers 105 acres and measures around 4 miles around its edges.
Although we chose to bring our lunch and eat it in the king's own garden, there are cafes and restaurants about the place. There was a place by the Grand canal the terrace of which looked very inviting indeed!
There doesn't appear to be very many toilets around the place (mind you, there were none in the days of old Louis!), but I never had to queue to use the facilities, despite the huge number of people around. It will cost you 0.50 to use the toilet, but you get a ticket with 'Domaine National de Versailles' on it, so what more can you ask for? Oh, and the toilets are clean.
There are regular events in the park, such as musical nights where a combination of fireworks, water display and music recreate the lavish extravaganza of the Sun King's days. You probably need to book these well in advance.
This day in Versailles was definitely a highlight of our holiday. Although I knew about the place, I had never imagined the sheer scale of it all. In the word of Charles de Gaulle: 'Let's not sell grandeur short - Versailles takes some beating!'
This review was first published on Ciao by weetoon