When Louis XIV was pondering over how to create the most magnificent palace the world had ever seen, one that truly showed off his glory and absolute power, he can’t have had any idea just how many people would tread in his footsteps and gaze in wonder at his legacy. The Chateau de Versailles is world famous. But, I promise you, nothing you see on the TV or in photos prepares you for the sheer absolute golden glitz and glamour of the real thing.
Visit to Versailles
The Chateau de Versailles been on my bucket list for years, decades even. So, when I got the chance to visit on a four-day guided tour, spending three days at Versailles and ending with a day at the chateau of Vaux le Vicomte, the inspiration for Versailles, I was over the moon. I went with Martin Randall cultural travel company, well known for their gifted guides. It was without a doubt everything I’d hoped for and more. Three days is just about enough to get a really in depth, insider view of the palace, gardens and town. And, with this tour I got access to areas that the general public don’t.
The best bit though for me, was having a guide who really knew the history and details of Versailles so well. In this case it was Tony Spawforth, the editor of a fascinating book about Versailles, TV presenter, historian and terrific storyteller. His anecdotes of life at the castle and knowledge of history married to day to day life, the ordinary things that people did during extraordinary times, made the visit come to life in a truly special way.
The Chateau de Versailles
700 rooms, 1250 chimneys, 67 staircases and 2000 windows. The chateau of Versailles is monumental, a colossus of a building. It was originally six storeys high, but the top layers were levelled off in the 19th century.
Versailles has two facades – the Paris side and the garden side. The Paris side is approached by three wide avenues. They converge on Places des Armes which, once a parade ground, was paved over in the 19th century. We all know it for its shimmering view of the castle through golden gates. However, in Louis XIV’s time it was an important military palace and he loved to review troops here. Underneath the courtyard are the barracks where the guards lived in a whole other underground world. It was said that the smell from the soldiers latrines was so bad that a layer of mastic was smothered under the cobble stones. It was apparently only partially successful. The whole place was bristling with troops. This was the seat of government and monarchy, security was paramount. Though, as we all know, it wasn’t up to the job.
Inside the Chateau
During the French Revolution the famous golden gates were ripped down. It might surprise you to know that they were only replaced with accurate reconstructions in the 1980s. You can see an original gate still though – at the Potager du Roi, the king’s vegetable garden. It’s a short walk from the palace and a must see if you’re in Versailles.
The gates were important, they defined different areas, administration, residential and the inner court. “If you didn’t have the right clothes on, you didn’t get in, though you could rent outfits at the palace” says Tony. Guards as fashion police – forward thinking Versailles style.
If you’re lucky you’ll get to see the guts of the castle in rooms where there is ongoing work, the brick walls and ancient beams behind the glitzy facade. It’s a reminder of the reality of this place and how what you see is a façade. The beautiful wood panelling on the walls is detachable. During WWII it was removed and hidden in a coal mine in the Pyrénées.
Life at Versailles
When Louis XIV made Versailles his home, he wanted the aristocracy and nobles of France to join him there. It was a way to keep them from plotting against the royal family as much as anything. But it wasn’t a life of luxury. Rules for how to dress, where to sit, what to say and where to be at certain times were rigidly adhered to.
Even with more than a thousand fireplaces, the castle was bitterly cold in winter. It was recorded in 1695, that the King’s glass of wine froze on the table as he sat dining alone, watched by hundreds of courtiers. I was amazed that the room where this dinner ritual took place was quite small. You can really imagine everyone squashed in, eyes on the king and his heavily laden table, stomachs rumbling, hot and bothered in summer, shivering in winter!
We pretty much know what Louis XIV every day of his life, as courtiers kept copious records detailing the minutiae of life at court right up until the king’s death from gangrene.
It was rare for courtiers to have their own kitchens so they would send their staff out for food. A sort of shanty town grew around the castle and there were food booths and tuck shops on site.
The Chateau de Versailles was a massive apartment block!
The wings of the palace were essentially apartments which were home to more than 7000 people. Lots of records have survived from the days when courtiers lived there, there are logs of repairs and renovations and plenty of complaints, a princess without a bathroom, moaning about the cold and the fact there was nowhere to cook.
While in the winter it was wildly cold, in the summer it was roaring hot. In the King’s bedroom, sheets would be soaked in water and hung over the windows to try to cool it down.
The palace is a labyrinth of rooms and for the royal family it was almost prison. It was said that Marie Antoinette, desperate for privacy would roam the palace, going through room after room locking doors behind her. One time a lock broke and it took hours to find and rescue her. Louis XVI liked to sit on the roof of the chateau with a telescope watching the comings and goings in the town.
Etiquette and snobbery ruled the lives of all who lived there until the day when a mob turned up demanding access to the King and Queen. When they stepped onto the balcony, Marie Antoinette curtsied to the crowd, it was an extraordinary thing to do. Within hours the famous etiquette was destroyed.
The Trianons and the Queen’s Hamlet
The grand Trianon was commissioned by Louis XIV in 1670 and built by architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart in 1687. Today it’s more 19th century in style than it was at the time of the Bourbon royal family, after being renovated by Empress Marie-Louise, wife of Napoleon I and Marie-Antoinette’s great-niece.
The Petit Trianon was built in the park of the Grand Trianon was a gift to Marie Antoinette from Louis XVI but was originally built for Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of Louis XV. It later became a favourite with Marie Antoinette, bolthole to escape the rigours of court life. She redesigned the Trianon gardens and created a model village round an artificial lake.
The gardens of Versailles
The gardens at the chateau provided time out from the restrictions of courtly life. A series of lockable garden rooms and grand spaces with huge vistas were created. Fetes could go on for several days at a time in Louis XIV’s younger days. All in all there was a mind boggling 25 square miles of walled hunting park.
The King’s famous gardener André Le Nôtre had an army of gardeners. There were thousands and thousands of pots of flowers which were constantly being moved about so that there were always flowers in bloom. Deadheading was done vigilantly as the king wanted only to see blooming, healthy plants. Sometimes the scent was so overwhelming it drove people inside.
Today those gardens can keep you busy for hours and walking for miles – literally.
Versailles after the French Revolution and now
After the French Revolution, the furnishings were sold off at knock-down prices, the British royal family being keen buyers. The castle was saved when locals petitioned to keep it thinking that the royal family might return one day. It was turned into a rather innovative museum for the day and was meticulously restored to look just as it did on the morning of October 6, 1789. Huge amounts of research have been carried out. “It is, says Tony, “a work of extraordinary zeal and a miracle of conservation”. In fact work is still ongoing, when I visited, the bedroom of Louis XV, in which he died of smallpox, was being renovated.
It’s still in some ways a working palace. Queen Elizabeth II stayed at the petite Trianon when she visited Versailles, and high profile government meetings still take place here.
Versailles is one of those places you have to see for yourself, truly astonishing and unforgettable…
If you visit the chateau, don’t miss the town of Versailles too, there’s loads to see and do: 10 things to do in Versailles