The Beginners Guide to Versailles

The Château de Versailles is, let’s face it, one of my most favourite places that I’ve ever visited. In my naivety I’d imagined that visiting it would be a bit like visiting a National Trust house back at home, and in a way it is…it is a rather large royal residence after all. But this Palace is off the scale of splendiferous, so large and ornate and full of stories that I was blown away and could not get enough of it. I spent a day there in August, and despite the fact that we were there for a good seven hours, I felt like we can’t have seen even half of what there is to explore.

But before I talk about the actual place: a story, combined with a plea.

When you enter the palace, after guiding visitors past the rather beautiful Royal Chapel, the main route takes you through a series of rooms featuring a whole tonne of paintings of the people who made the estate what it is today; the gardeners and architects who designed and landscaped the whole thing, along with paintings of Versailles as it developed over time. As is normally the case with large old paintings, underneath each one is a short piece of text explaining what that person did, or in some cases a really juicy story about that person- good times- or for what reason something was built in the first place. Now I understand that not everyone finds this kind of thing interesting, and that is fully fine, but on this particular day there was a woman who seemed downright annoyed that I, on the other hand, do. Oh you guys. I am still shaking my head at her as I write. Really, I am.

Every time I stood reading the little piece of text adjoining each painting, The Woman would appear behind me, pat me on the shoulder in the style of a seven year old getting an adult’s attention, and then point at her camera whilst gesturing for me to move and tutting. Then she’d take either a photo of the painting, or a photo of herself with the painting, and swiftly move on without actually taking any notice of what it was she’d just photographed. SHE DIDN’T EVEN KNOW WHAT SHE WAS PHOTOGRAPHING!! AND ALL SHE HAD TO DO WAS WAIT THIRTY SECONDS FOR ME TO FINISH THE VERY SHORT INFO CARDS!!! This happened five to six times, with her getting increasingly annoyed that I was in the way of the selfies she wanted to take (I can tell by the amount of eye rolls she did), and me getting increasingly annoyed that any time I tried to learn anything, I’d feel an increasingly aggressive patting on my shoulder and be shooed onwards. WELL. I. NEVER.

Hopefully one day The Woman will stumble across this blog and find something out about that place she has loads of photos of for no apparent reason. Is it normal for people to go somewhere so full of stories without wanting to learn about any of them at all? Please pals, don’t be that person. The world is too awesome a place to ignore a good story.

The Beginnings of Versailles…

Versailles was originally a little village outside of Paris, where once upon a time the young King Louis XIII used to visit to make use of the surrounding forest which was chockablock full of pheasants and wild boar and other such animals that he could go out hunting for in the usual royal style. Eventually he decided it was the perfect spot to build a hunting lodge so that he could escape from the confines of Paris Court life and be free to hunt even more animals than he ever had before. Visitors in those days didn’t think this place was particularly astonishing to look at at all, just the kind of house that a ‘mere gentleman’ would live in; not a full on King of France extraordinaire with a long fancy schmancy hairdo and jewels galore. The original house still makes up part of the entire present-day palace, although with a whole load of adjustments from the generations that followed.

The Sun King

Eventually when Louis XIII died, the crown was passed on to his 5 year old son, who was from then on known as Louis XIV (or, as he quite liked, The Sun King). Obviously 5 years old is a bit underage to be in charge of an entire country, so up until his early twenties a posse of advisors did this for him, while his mother instilled in him the idea of the divine right of kings; that is to say that Louis fancied himself to be very much godlike, as god himself had chosen him to have control over the people of France. Ooh la la. He was a highly religious man who in perhaps an oxymoronic way had countless extramarital affairs with all sorts of lasses from the royal court, because God told him to, and he believed he was quite godlike himself as we’ve already established: what Louis said, went.

In fairness, what The Sun King did to the palace of Versailles was very interesting and very clever. First of all he stuck images of the Sun all over everything, just to put his own personal stamp on the place and to remind everyone who was in charge. Building work commenced very early into his reign and lasted for the entirety of it, extending the buildings and gardens like some sort of very extreme version of Grand Designs to include enough space to house the entire royal court and French government, as well as cementing it as potentially the most impressive palace that all of Europe had ever known. Louis knew that the government were not his biggest fans and therefore didn’t fancy trekking out of his beloved home territory all the way into Paris where who knows what might happen, just to see a bunch of people he didn’t like and didn’t trust. So he made them move to him. The crafty old soul.

Not only was he a big fan of the arts and all things downright beautiful looking, he was also very aware of the fact that word would reach the rest of the world that France was a rich and formidable power when foreign visitors came to stay and saw how opulent and majestic his palace was. Kind of like when people buy the biggest and best car just to prove to everyone else that they can afford it, you know? The ceiling of the Hall of Mirrors- probably one of the most famous rooms in the palace, where a whole plethora of VIPS have been greeted- is decorated with paintings of some of the Sun King’s greatest victories, so visitors were clearly subliminally bombarded with reminders that he was incredibly rich, incredibly powerful, and had eyes everywhere (those suns are on EVERYTHING).

The Gardens

I’m going to cut straight to the chase here, the gardens of Versailles are INSANE. Like the palace buildings, the gardens were sculpted and added to again and again and again, to form a place that is truly magical to look at and to be in. Various groves, walkways, hidden gardens and fountains depicting fables or mythology are laid out all over the place and kept in pristine condition by the team of gardeners today. And the people who designed all this were honestly GENIUSES. A day to explore these gardens is just not enough, there’s so much hidden around each corner and to find out about each new place. The Orangery (in the picture below) is probably the most famous of the gardens at Versailles, but in all honesty the number of different gardens seem infinite, punctuated in places with the odd pond or extremely large canal just to change things up a bit.

The Home Decor

The style of the interior design is flamboyant and dare I say it in actual fact all a bit garish. I. LOVED. IT. It goes without saying that rooms like the Hall of Mirrors would be all splendour and chandeliers, but this pretty much went for the private apartments as well. Each room is so well coordinated that it had me cracking up round every corner, with matching four poster beds, carpets, curtains, upholstered furniture and even wallpaper. What a commitment. And call me crazy but what I would give for a carpet in the same very brightly coloured design as the one below. French taste in the 17th Century was luxurious and, I reckon, a little bit eccentric too.

Big Trianon, Little Trianon

Believe it or not, there is more than one palace in the grounds of Versailles. The Grand Trianon is one of these, housed within a park, and built when Louis XIV got so fed up of court life that he fancied a place for him, his pals and various lady friends to get away from it all and be a bit more casual. Can you imagine. When his son Louis XV came to the throne, he decided to give his chief mistress (it was all about the extramarital affairs in those days)- Madame Du Pompadour- the gift of her own Château, within the park of the Grand Trianon. (Pretty nice gift I’d say, and on a side note I’d like to mention here that Louis and Pompadour got together at a masked ball when he was dressed as a yew tree of all things. What an intriguing costume.)

Madame du Pompadour died four years before the Petit Trianon was completed, and when 20 year old Louis XVI eventually became King, he gave the house (along with its own patch of parkland) to his wife Marie Antoinette, for her and her pals to party and hang out in. And boy oh boy was she a true party girl if ever there was one.

That moment in life when you’re so bored of your house that you build a village

Alright pals, maybe she wasn’t bored of her house, but it’s true that Marie Antoinette did have an entire village built near to Le Petit Trianon, just because she felt like it.

When the Austrian Archduchess initially married Louis XVI the people of France were quite supporting of her and the marriage; she was a pretty lass and quite likeable as most accounts go. But she also spent a lot of money, on parties, food, drink and gambling, and a whole lot more money on clothes, shoes, and incredibly large wigs. A bit like an 18th Century Kardashian to be honest. Meanwhile France was in a general state of despair; unhappy with the way that they were being governed, and starving hungry with nowhere near enough food to go around, a plight to which the Queen seemed either completely unbothered by or oblivious to.

When word got out about the Queen’s Hamlet, you can imagine that the general public can’t have been too impressed. Gathered around a small lake she commissioned a working dairy, dovecot, watermill, lighthouse and farm complete with animals, amongst a selection of other buildings, for her to roam about dressed as a shepherdess and have a simpler life than the one she lived at Court. Built in the very simple Norman country style which was becoming all the rage but was also for most normal folk just their normal everyday look, and I’m not gonna lie: despite shortcomings in its reasons for being built, this place is pretty. It looks like the opening of Beauty and the Beast could very easily be filmed there, and it’s easy to see how Marie Antoinette got by very easily living in this fantasy bubble-world she created for herself.

Let Them Eat Cake

Marie Antoinette was so out of touch with her royal subjects that the phrase ‘let them eat cake’ is said to have come from her, though whether this was actually the case we will never know, alas. But the point is that whilst the people outside were starving, the French nobility was having a right old laugh and the time of their lives going about their business as normal. If the people are starving because there’s no bread…let them eat cake instead. Obviously if there’s no bread there certainly won’t be cake you idiot, Marie. Oh dear oh dear oh dear.

In 1789 a motley crew of extremely angry women from a market stormed through Paris, enraged at both the price of bread and how little there was of it, obtaining weapons and new members of their mob. They stormed to Versailles and laid the whole place under siege until the King promised to give them more food in an attempt to ward off the famine that the whole country was feeling, and this was one of the key starting points of the French Revolution and the eventual upheaval of the monarchy.

So, pals…the long and short of it is that this place is astonishing for so very many reasons, and I want to go back ASAP just to find out even more. I am no history expert, but to walk around a place like Versailles and not have a sense of wonderment at the millions of moments that have taken place there seems near enough impossible.

LOGISTICAL STATISTICALS:

  • Tickets for the entry to everything (main chateau, Grand Trianon, Petit Trianon, are €20 (or €27 if there happens to be a musical fountain show happening that day)…
  • …unless you’re under 18, or if you’re an EU resident under the age of 26, which in my opinion is ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT. Those Brexit supporters clearly didn’t consider this when they voted Leave, did they!? I shake my head in sorrow, guys, I really do.
  • You can buy tickets on the day, but considering the length of the queue to enter it’s definitely worth buying these in advance so you don’t have to stand in line too long.
  • To enter the gardens of the Palace, you needn’t pay a single penny, pals! It’s all 100% free of charge.
  • Big giant bags are NOT ALLOWED IN! Everything is screened airport-style before you enter the buildings, and then placed in a locker room for you to pick up when you leave.
  • It’s closed on Mondays!! Plan ahead, people.
  • If you happen to buy some sorbet from the little really cute looking sorbet stand in the gardens next to the boating lake, for the love of god DO NOT get the pink grapefruit flavour. You might think it’s a really unique-sounding interesting option but I’ll tell you now that it is probably the worst, most bitter-tasting thing I’ve ever sampled. And I am not a fussy gal when it comes to food.

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