When I think of France and its history, one of the most prominent figures is the larger than life character of Louis XIV, ‘The Sun King’. His life, legacy and the magnificent palace of Versailles fascinate me.
Of course, living just above the Loire valley with the historic city of Le Mans a short distance away, I can hardly complain about the lack of historic buildings and chateaux right on my doorstep, however, I have always wanted to visit Versailles and so recently I did.
Situated just outside Paris, it took us a couple of hours to drive there. Nothing could have prepared me for the left turn into the road leading up to Chateau Versailles. Ahead, at the end of the long straight road stand the magnificent chateau’s golden gates with a cobbled area in front. In the foreground stands a column, where atop, The Sun King is mounted on his charger, a truly breathtaking sight! Behind those gates, we caught our first glimpse of this imposing chateau with its gilded roof.
Surprisingly, we managed to park in the parking area between the stable blocks and the chateau. Even though there were hundreds of visitors of countless nationalities, the entry is well organised, it is possible to buy tickets beforehand online – so we did. I was very impressed to learn that since my daughter Michelle is a student in the EU and under 26 years of age, her entry was free, what an excellent way to encourage young people to learn about European history. This ticket system and the efficiency of the staff enabled us to quickly enter and pick up our excellent audio books, which were available in many languages.
It is hard to comprehend that this chateau started life as Louis XIV’s father’s hunting lodge. The Sun King’s evolution of the fairly modest building into the truly magnificent chateau we see today, took many years and the village of Versailles grew around it to accommodate the thousands of workmen whose skills and hard work eventually realised the King’s grandiose dreams.
If our first impressions of this chateau were fantastic, nothing could have prepared us for the opulence and brilliant reconstruction of the rooms within. Never have I been in a chateau where so many rooms are open. Standing there you could imagine yourself transported back in time, as you viewed the magnificent salons, richly decorated and with amazing ceilings. The Hall of Mirrors was a remarkable sight as were the King’s bedchambers situated just off it, incredibly ornately furnished in velvet and gilt, as you would expect for The Sun King. Personally, I loved seeing the dining room where Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI (Louis XIV’s grandson) ate whilst being observed by their courtiers. There was so much to see outside that it was mid-afternoon before we ventured into the grounds.
Walking out onto the vast terraces the gardens landscaped by the famous French Garden Designer André Le Nôtre lie before you. The magnificent Fountain of Latona is an incredible sight and you can see Le Nôtre’s vision as The Grand Perspective leads your eye downwards, past magnificent statues, across the parterres, along the Grand Canal to the horizon. On either side of this spectacular vision are beautiful gardens and hedges. Refreshments can be bought from many small kiosks in the grounds, at a surprisingly reasonable price. There are restaurants, brasseries and even an Angelina’s tea room at Versailles as well as some spectacular places to enjoy a picnic.
As the formal gardens give way to a more natural parkland landscape, we took the opportunity to follow a path towards The Grand Trianon. This building was named after the small village (Trianon) Louis had demolished existing buildings in order to create the Grand Trianon when he bought the land to extend his estate in 1668, however, the building you see today is not the original Porcelain Pavilion but something much grander.
The Petit Trianon, which is near to The Grand Trianon is a building I was very keen to see. A gift from Louis XIV’s grandson, Louis XVI, to his wife Marie-Antoinette, when he became king. This small chateau, built in 1761 by Gabriel, was much grander than I imagined it would have been. This was Marie-Antoinette’s special retreat, she planted rare plants in it from the Kings garden in Paris, the Jardin des Plantes and it had its own hamlet, aptly named The Queen’s Hamlet which was modelled on the villages of Normandy.
For those who prefer not to walk for hours, between the Chateau and The Petit Trianon there are a series of mini trains that run around the grounds of this awesome chateau. It is also possible to hire electric cars if you have limited mobility.
Despite our best efforts we came away knowing that soon we will have to return, there is so much more to explore and see, so watch this space for an update.
For more information see the Chateau Versailles website
Paris to Versailles by train
SNCF from Paris Montparnasse to Versailles Chantiers station or from Paris Saint Lazare to Versailles-Rive Droite station and then a 15 minute walk.
RER C (suburban train) – take the yellow line to Versailles-Rive Gauche and it’s a 10 minute walk, if you are very lucky you may catch one of the Versailles decorated trains – an incredible sight and fitting way to arrive at the Palace of Versailles.