We dedicated the last day of our museum pass to Versailles, the palatial complex built by various kings and queens of France (mainly Louis XIV in the late 17th century) to escape the rigors of public life in Paris, and to impress various constituents at home and abroad. It’s a little over a half hour train ride from Paris to Versailles. It is a place of grandeur, built to reflect the immense ego of the Sun King. Every angle and detail designed to put you in your rightful place far below the king. So of course, we were curious to see if it would live up to its reputation.
Versailles is so popular, especially in the summer, that you either have to get up really early and get there before it opens, or get there in the middle of the day and do the normal route backwards. We decided to take the latter option, and headed to Versailles at about 11am. We had a rough idea of what to do based on our tour guidebook. But there were a number of things that we couldn’t really know.
It’s hard to understand how big Versailles is until you get there. It’s like going to an entire different city in and of itself. Not just a beautiful palace and gardens… it was built to be an escape from Paris, and they kept building palaces to escape further. Sometimes they built palaces to escape from their palaces. It’s all rather ironic.
Anyway, we got off the train with the idea that we would go check out Marie Antoinette’s area of Versailles, which opens at noon and is in the back, away from the main chateau that most people queue up for. Unfortunately, the maps we had were somewhat confusing and we found ourselves in one of those lines that we were trying to avoid, only to discover that we could have bypassed it altogether. There were just SOOOOO many people there, it was like being herded around like cattle, through various gates and barriers.
After that mishap, we got some direction and headed towards what looked like an opening into the gardens on our map, that we could enter, rent a bike, and ride up to the secondary area. Amy hadn’t done most of the research, so she was shocked at how far away Marie Antoinette’s chateau was. At the train station, the guy told us it would be a 20 minute walk and it wasn’t worth waiting for the bus that only ran once an hour between the train station and Marie Antoinette’s area. This may have been true, but we made a few mistakes that extended our journey (a common theme for us… it’s hard to over-research for these things; we tend to under-research).
First off, when we got to the side entrance to the gardens, we found out that we weren’t able to purchase the special garden tickets that were required in addition to our museum passes (due to it being a special musical fountain day at Versailles). So, we had to take a longer route through the town. Eventually we got to a bike rental station, but we forgot our identification which made it impossible to rent bikes (the alternative to an ID was a 100 euro per person deposit). Continuing on foot, we took the long way accidentally, which to be fair was quite a beautiful walk through the countryside, but started to wear on us as it was quite a long walk and we were hungry and thirsty and tired. We did like that it felt like we were miles…or kilometers, away from the masses back at the entrance to the main chateau.
Eventually, we made it to Marie Antoinette’s estate. We toured a few of the “mini palaces” and marveled at the scale and beauty of this escape. As we wandered into the rest of the estate, we laughed about Marie’s desire to live a “simple peasant lifestyle”, which she attempted to accomplish by building a little farming village with thatched roof homes, animals, footbridges, etc staffed by many servants that she could walk around dressed in her simple white peasant’s dress. Of course, the farming village also had an extensive library, places to perform live theater, and other such “necessities”. Very fun to wander around as it’s quite beautiful and makes you feel like you’re in a movie. Marie Antoinette’s unfortunate end comes into a different light when you look at the disconnect between her desire for simplicity and the extravagance of her actual lifestyle.
Amy was worried about running low on time, so we kept on pushing forward with our itinerary, which next included the main gardens of Versailles. We had to ask for some clarification on whether the next entrance to the gardens that was close to us would allow us to buy the special access tickets. After finding out that it would, we headed that way, and made it to the base of the Grand Canal, just outside the gardens. We picked up some sandwiches and coffee, and sat down by the canal in the shade, taking a much needed break. There were people all over the place. Near us, there were families picnicing, and young people playing with soccer balls and flirting with each other. Further away on the canal, there were people in rowboats, and up the hill towards the gardens and main chateau there were hundreds of people exploring Versailles. Nathan said it felt like being inside Seurat’s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (the one in Ferris Beuler’s Day Off, for those of you who get that reference).
After lunch, we bought tickets to the gardens, grabbed a map, and began our own exploration. The scale is just monumental. You can wander the gardens for hours. On days like today, the fountains are all running, some of them synchronized to classical music blasting from the bushes. Many of the fountains and their water special effects were built over 300 years ago – ridiculous! There are many moments when you’re wandering through the gardens of Versailles where you turn a corner and something magnificent, unexpected, and just cool greets you.
We wound our way towards the main chateau, making sure to get there in time to get through and see especially the Hall of Mirrors. Once again we were herded like cattle through room after room of sumptuous furniture, wall hangings, paintings, and architectural details. There were SOOOOOOO many people! We can’t emphasize that enough. Once you get to the Hall of Mirrors, however, it opens up a bit and you can pause, take in the beauty, and take some pictures, which we of course did.
We knew Versailles would be incredible – and it was that and more. We just kept looking at each other, wondering if it was real or if we were in a movie or a dream. At the same time, it was so crowded that it was a bit exhausting and overwhelming.
On our way out, Amy found a new skill: bartering. She wanted the Versailles postcard set (12 not so great postcards of the different parts of Versailles). You could buy it for 12 euro inside; outside, the hawkers were offering it for 5. Amy got a pretty good set for 3 euro. High on her victory, she saw a guy selling water, and he also had a can of Coke (which she was craving). So she walked up to him and asked how much? He said 2 euro; she said “no, no, no” and kept walking. He said “1 coke and 1 water for 3 euro” and she said “no, I’m ok”. She kept walking, and he said “how much?” and she said “1 euro” and he accepted. Nathan was a bit wowed and asked her where she had acquired these skills. She said, “I don’t know, but I would have paid 5 euro for that Coke – good thing he didn’t know that!”