So why bother with Versailles?
Even if you’re not a history buff, the 333 year old chateau is a visual feast. Following in the footsteps of French kings and queens down the halls of Versailles is an unreal experience, even if it’s harder to appreciate when surrounded by a thousand other tourists.
Beyond its spectacular beauty, Versailles played a pivotal role in some of the most defining moments of French history. It’s was the last royal residence of the French monarchy and in 1789 witnessed the angry mob of revolutionaries at its gates, who carried away the young King & Queen. Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were imprisoned and eventually put to death by France’s most infamous invention, the guillotine.
The extravagant palace and gardens can give you a glimpse of the luxurious lifestyle of the last French monarchs. It also can put you in the shoes of the French peasants, who were to become revolutionaries.
The storming of Versailles was a defining moment in French history. Moments like these change a country’s history and shape its culture, which is why visiting places like Versailles is a worthwhile way to spend a day for any traveller in France.
The Ghosts of Versailles
The Chateau de Versailles (ver-sigh) was the last home of the French monarchy, up till the French Revolution in 1789.
Versailles was home to the final three ruling kings of France, all named Louis. Fortunately, they all had nicknames, so we’ll use those.
Louis XIV (14th) was known as the Sun King. He turned Versailles into the spectacular palace that you see today. The Sun King still holds the record for the longest rule by any monarch in a major European country, with an impressive 72-year reign. You’ve got a long way to go, Liz!
Louis XV (15th) was known as Louis the Beloved. He was the Sun King’s great-grandson, and inherited the throne at the age of five. His grandfather, father and older brother were all before him in the long line for the throne, but they were all dead by the time the Sun King died.
Louis XVI (16th) was known as Louis Capet. He succeeded his grandfather, Louis the Beloved, because his father was already dead. He married Marie Antoinette and met his fate at the guillotine in 1791.
Versailles was originally a simple hunting lodge, built by the Sun King’s father, Louis 13th. The Sun King, who hated Paris after being forced to flee as a child during a civil war, transformed it into the grand chateau and made it the epicentre of the French monarchy. In short, it became the centre of France, and the cultural centre of the Western world. Before this, the seat of power had been the Louvre, when it was still a palace.
Versailles was the royal residence for the Sun King, Louis the Beloved and Louis Capet. It witnessed the mob storm the palace gates on that fateful day and carry the young monarchs to Paris where they were imprisoned and eventually executed. The palace played a crucial role in the rise of the French monarchy and of France, and it witnessed their mighty fall.
Marie Antoinette is probably most-associated with Versailles, despite being Austrian royalty who married into the French family when she married Louis Capet. The young Austrian is remembered for many of the same things as Versailles – for her extravagant wealth, over-indulgence and being completey out of touch with the masses. My favourite parts of Versailles, Petite Trianon and her village in the gardens, were Marie Antoinette’s.
She’s gone down in history associated with a quote that made her sound selfish, yet her last words are rarely repeated, perhaps because they make her sound human – and like a good one, at that.
Her famous response “Let them eat cake” when informed of the bread shortages facing her peasant subjects is actually a misquote. This rumour was already flying around when she was a child, years before she ascended the throne! Originally, this was attributed to one of her predecessors, Marie Therese, who was the wife of the Sun King.
Marie There actually did say something along these lines, although it has been simplified. When she heard of food shortages facing the peasants, she suggested that they should eat the crusts of her pate. Charming.
Unfortunately for Marie Antoinette’s reputation, the dangerous story stuck. Dangerous, because the story of such a cold, callous remark by their queen only fanned the flames of the French Revolution. Historians agree that saying something like this would be totally out of character for the Queen, who was very charitable and sensitive to her people, despite her own indulgent lifestyle.
They couldn’t just cart royals off the guillotine, and so they had to hold trials. She was falsely accused of several crimes and it her fate was sealed before she event went to court.
Her husband was at least taken to the guillotine in a carriage. Marie Antoinette was transported by an open cart, with her head shaved and she was leashed with a rope, while taunted by the peasants who called her “Austrichienne” for her Austrian nationality and chienne being French for female dog, i.e. bitch. A priest had been assigned to sit with her in the carriage, to capture her last confessions. She ignored him for the entire journey. She, like thousands of other royals and aristocrats, was executed in Place de la Concord, which is still a popular square in the centre of Paris.
If you visit Place de la Concord today, you’ll see that statues of horses rearing up on their hind legs. They look wild and angry – it is because they are angry at all the French blood that has been spilt in the Place de la Concord.
Oh, and her final words?
“Pardon me sir, I meant not to do it,” after she accidentally stepped on the toes of her executioner.
Her & Louis’ bodies were thrown into a common cemetery, but have since received a proper burial at the Basilica of Saint-Denis in northern Paris.
Tips for Visiting Versailles in 2017
It is very easy to get to Versailles from Paris. Catch the regional train, on line RER C. The trip takes around half an hour, plus a pleasant ten minute walk from the station through the town of Versailles to the palace. All you need is a Metro Card and 18 Euro for the entrance fee to the palace & gardens.
It opens at 9am. Sundays and Tuesdays are often busier because many other Parisian museums are closed these days.
Even in off-peak times, you will need to go early. I arrived with my family one time at around 10 am in the middle of January, and the queues crossed the courtyard and were already trailing out of the gate. We decided to look around the small town for an hour or so, and then head back into Paris. Dad & I returned the next morning and set our alarms for 6 am. There was still a queue when we got there, at around 8:45 I think, but it was reasonable and only took 15-20 minutes to get in.
Unfortunately, Versailles is so busy that it is hard to remember that it was the last royal residence of the French monarchy, because it feels like a busy museum. There are so many tourists that it loses its magic a little.
Fortunately, many of the rooms are mostly roped off, apart from some room around the edge for tourists to stand in. This way you can look into the room as it was, without having people wandering through, ruining the illusion in their fleece pullovers and track pants, swining around iPads like cameras.
At Hampton Court in London they have paid actors dressed up like kings and other court characters, I think Versailles should do the same and let French kings and queens walk around the different rooms, working at the writing desks, snoozing on the couches, etc. I’d pay a few Euro extra for a guided tour led by Marie Antoinette or the Sun King!
Exploring the Chateau de Versailles
You can pick up a free audio guide at the entrance. I don’t think I ended up using mine much, but in hindsight I probably should have. The most lavish rooms are the King’s and Queen’s apartments (separate spaces),
The most famous room in Versailles is the Hall of Mirrors, which is the physical embodiment of the ego of the French monarchy and government. It was built as a lavish waiting room, designed to show off the economic, artistic and political victories of France at the time. The artwork depicts French victories, and the use of the 357 mirrors was somewhat of a victory in itself, as mirrors were crazy expensive at the time. It also suggested France’s economic power, and the potential for the French mirror industry to take over from the Venetians.
This is not something the Venetians took lightly. The Sun King worked very hard to make France economically independent, but no one in France knew how to make mirrors. He lured Venetians artisans to France with extravagant salaries and commissioned them to set up factories. This infuriated the Italians! When two of the best Venetian artisans were smuggled out of Venice to France they were poisoned by Italian secret agents, to keep the Italian techniques secret.
France’s ego was bruised when Kaiser Wilhem became ruler of Germany in the Hall of Mirrors, after beating France in a war. Years later at the end of WWI, the Treaty of Versailles was signed in this room – the French got their own back, because the document contained a lot of rules for Germany to provide reparations to other countries.
It’s the busiest part of Versailles. Last time I visited, the selfie was only just beginning, and mirror-selfies were the name of the game. It’s probably easier to visit these days, because everyone will be taking classic selfies with a selfie stick/raised arm, leaving the mirrors out of it. And yes, I totally took a mirror selfie with Dad in the Hall of Mirrors.
Each room is more luxurious than the last. Getting a glimpse of the Royal Chapel is difficult, as only one door is open to the chapel, and there is a permanent crowd clustered around the door, hoping for a peek. When I finally made it to the front, a middle-aged man walked up to the group and stuck his arm out, holding his camera right in front of my face, to get his own photos. This crappy behaviour is pretty common wherever tourists congregate, but it’s particularly rampant at Versailles. As per usual, I threw some shade and then marched away. I really can’t be bothered pushing and shoving to see something, because the moment is gone.
The Hall of Kings is a little less crowded, mostly because it’s just lined with white busts of various Kings of France. Impressive, but not as gobsmacking as the royal champers or the Royal Chapel. It’s a good spot to wander and take a breather from the zoo-like atmosphere of the rest of the palace. It’s much easier to imagine this spot filled with the French court, than it is in crowded spots like the Hall of Mirrors or the chapel.
Exploring the Gardens of Versailles
You’ll go for the castle, but you’ll stay for the gardens. The crowds thin out over the enormous garden, which is full of fountains, groves to get lost in, forests, canals and two smaller royal chateaus, Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon.
When I visited in summer the palace and the gardens were hosting various modern art installations, such as this tea party in one of the gardens.
Historic artwork often looks just like fancy flourishes, but most of the time there is more to it than meets the eye. Gardens in 17th century France were considered works of art, just as important as paintings and sculptures, and with just as many important political messages. In the case of the gardens, The Sun King’s main message was that he was enlightening the world.
The Sun King chose the Greek Sun God Apollo to represent him. Apollo enlightened the world, and in return the whole world revolved around him. You can start to see what the revolutionaries were going on about, can’t you?
You can find Apollo in a few of the fountains throughout the gardens, the first of which at the start of the massive central walkway down from the palace at the Latona Fountain.
In the Latona Fountain you can see Zeus’ first wife Latona, with her two children, Apollo and Artemis, fleeing the wrath of Hera, Zeus’ second wife. Hera had some shepherds stir up mud in the pond to prevent Latona and her children from drinking from the water, and Latona had Zeus turn the two shepherds into frogs, doomed to be stuck in the muddy waters they created.
Latona represents Louis’ mother, Anne of Austria, as she fled Paris during the Fronde, a series of civil wars in France, with her two small children. The frogs represent the Frondeurs, or Parisians.
The fountains inside the frog’s mouths are very rarely turned on. Even during his reign they were only turned on as he approached and were turned off after he passed. Nothing was too frivolous for the Sun King.
You can find Apollo again at the Basin of Apollo. Apollo is rising from the fountain with his chariot of horses to bring light to the earth. Everyone at Versailles knew that this was actually representing The Sun King enlightening the world.
When you can claim to be enlightening the world and keep a straight face, the power has officially gone to your head.
Louis was not modest, but he did at least earn his reputation, unlike his two successors. He successfully united warring feudal lords who came to Versailles to wait on the King instead of fighting, and under his rule the arts and sciences flourished in France, making it one of the leaders of the western world at the time.
There are also four fountains at different intersections of the groves, representing each season. Flora fountain represents Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, garden and springs.
When Dad and I visited on a frigid winter’s day, we were a little short on time by the time we finished looking at the palace. During winter the long walk to the end of the gardens, where you can find the two Trianons and Marie Antoinette’s hamlet, is long, cold and not particularly pretty. We hired a buggy. It let us zip down to the other end of the grounds and get a hot chocolate at the cute cafe to warm up before visiting the rest of the grounds.
When I returned in summer it was a pretty walk down to the end of the gardens and I left enough time to walk down and back.
The Grand Trianon is built from red Languedoc marble, which gives it a dusty pink hue. The low-lying, sprawling residence is where the Sun King liked to escape the pressure of court life with his mistress, Mme Montrespan. After he lived there, many other royals lived in the Grand Trianon, and even Napoleon lived there eventually! I didn’t go inside Grand Trianon, since it was closed the day I visited. I think it was undergoing renovations, because it looked a bit worse for wear at the time.
The mistress of King Louis XV (15th), Madame de Pompadour, started building Petite Trianon but she died before it was complete. The king’s new mistress, Madame du Barry lived there instead. When King Louis XVI (16th) married Marie Antoinette, he gave it to her. She loved to escape to Petit Trianon and spent as much time there as possible because she hated being at the court in Versailles. Before she even arrived in France, the aristocracy and court had nicknamed her the “Austrichienne” (chienne being French for dog, or bitch).
The palace looks magnificent these days, but during Louis Capet & Marie Antoinette’s rule, Versailles was in a shambles. The monarchy was weak and running out of money. The entire palace reeked and any man could enter, as long as he had a rapier (a type of sword) and a hat, which you could rent from the Concierge. Commoners and aristocrats alike used the hallways and stairways as bathrooms and the palace was in disrepair. It was pretty disgusting.
It’s no wonder Marie Antoinette spent all her time as far away from Versailles as possible! She was ridiculed for building her little hamlet, which people mockingly called “Little Vienna,” and it does seem a bit inconsiderate to build a pretty, fake village when actual peasants were living in crumbling ones. For Marie Antoinette, it was a simpler, happier place in the sunshine – her sanctuary. Surrounded by her chickens, sheep, rabbits and her two cows, Blanchette and Brunette, she was much happier.
I really liked Petit Trianon because you could see the bedrooms, living rooms, games room and kitchen, without nearly as many crowds as in Versailles. It was quiet enough that there was only a handful of people in each room at a time, so you could more easily imagine this being the home of Marie Antoinette.
Marie Antoinette was criticised for spending time too far away from the palace, and for her strict invite-only policy. The nineteen year old always felt like she was being judged by her new French family and the court, and so by order of the Queen, only people she invited could enter Petit Trianon. It was like her little fortress from her strange, new social circle. She only let in her closest friends, which infuriated the rest of the French court even more. As the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette didn’t have to care too much about pissing off some social climbers – and as it turned out, there were deadlier enemies lurking around the corner.
Have you been to Versailles, or would you like to go? What are the most beautiful or interesting castles or palaces you’ve visited?
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