Day 5: Tuesday, June 6 – Versailles
We found out last night that Le Louvre is closed on Tuesdays. Since it has gotten downright cold and it is raining on and off, we decide that visiting Versailles would be a good idea today, even though we may not be able to enjoy the gardens as much! I just read in the newspaper that certain parts of the gardens are still closed to the public anyway, after the tremendous storm of December 1999. Read more about this and about the Château de Versailles itself on its official website: http://www.chateauversailles.fr/en/
Of course, this is the first time I take the car out of the hotel parking! Fortunately, the hotel manager’s instructions are perfect, we get on the pÃ©riphÃ©rique in five minutes, and to my great surprise, in less than half an hour we are at Versailles! Although it is around 8 a.m. when we leave, I am surprised at the lack of traffic. Good for me! I am slowly getting the hang of driving here.
There is a huge parking lot (Place d’Armes) right in front of the castle. Make sure you keep your ticket with you because you will need to validate it to exit later. 45 francs ($7.00) is all it takes to get in the château since children under age 18 enter free. We decide, however, to get the tour on tape, which adds 25 francs per person but well worth it. The tape is rather confusing sometimes since numbered areas are not always shown throughout the château as they should be. But overall, the tape brings you a lot of information, music and anecdotes as you visit the various parts and it is well worth the money. Be prepared to leave your passport as “security”. They won’t release a tape recorder without that, and there is a good reason why they do that, I’ll tell you why later.
Ostentatious, majestic, opulent, sumptuous, magnificent, extravagant…sometimes downright decadent…can barely describe the château. An amazingly small portion of its 1,300 rooms are open to the public, but expect to spend several hours inside anyway. It is just that you hardly know where to look! Everything, every nook and cranny is interesting. As the girls say, everything is decorated: the walls, the ceilings, the doors, the carpets, the furniture, the floors… Of course, for me, having been raised in France, so many things seem to jump out of my old history books, starting with the portrait of Louis XIV as we ascend the grand escalier. I have been here before, barely older than Tiffany and I do remember the awe I felt back then and I can see it on my girls’ faces today! They have never seen anything quite like that before!
Although it was remodeled extensively inside over the centuries, the outside of the château hasn’t changed much since the end of Louis XIV’s reign. The Roi Soleil barely knew the place without noise, dust and perpetual construction yards from 1661 when the work started until his death in 1715. He left what he had set out to do: the most beautiful palace in the world.
The revolution of 1789 and the ensuing years were not kind to the castle. What furniture was not robbed was sold at auction in 1793 and the works of art were transferred to the Louvre. The castle was left to slowly decay until a wealthy American patron rescued the palace after WW1. The restoration has been ongoing ever since. Many of the original furnishings are finding their way back to the castle, thanks to curators who relentlessly raise money to buy back furniture, objects d’art and other artifacts at auctions.
There is one thing that I do not like about Versailles. It is always way too crowded. I talked to many other people, all through France and unfortunately, I have been told, it is always crowded. I had thought that the bad weather and the closing of Le Louvre on Tuesdays made for the particularly crowded day, but no, expect big crowds any time of the year, any time of the day.
Also, remember that between October and March of every year (starting in October 2000), the castle will be open free of charge on the first Sunday of every month, so whatever you do, do not go visit the château then! The money saved just isn’t worth the agony of fighting the crowds!
Go with an open mind and a patient heart, because, when all is said and done, this visit is worth fighting for!
You will visit the Royal Chapel, with its magnificent frescoes on the vault, its Corinthian columns on the first floor gallery and its high altar and rather imposing bronze decorations. Louis XIV never got to hear musical performances in the OpÃ©ra Royal but other kings did, although the cost of having spectacles there was prohibitive: over 3,000 candles were needed to illuminate the place!
The Louis-Jean-Jacques Durameau canvas of Apollo offering a crown to artists that decorated the ceiling was detached and placed at the back of the stage in 1871 while the room was used as the seat of the National Assembly and it did not find its place back on the ceiling until 1952 when the restoration of the OpÃ©ra Royal started in earnest.
The Hall of Hercules will lead you to the Grand Apartments where the King used to receive the Court. The six rooms, the Hall of Abundance, the Room of Venus, the Room of Apollo (the throne was in there), the Room of Mercury, the Room of Mars and the Room of War all offer distinct themes, colors, and incredible decorations. The Room of War opens onto La Galerie des Glaces, where the 17 arched windows overlooking the garden are matched by 17 simulated windows on the opposite wall, each richly filled with 18 panel mirrors with the “window” framed with gilt brass. Gorgeous Bohemian crystal chandeliers hang from the painted ceilings. I find the gilded wood candelabra almost too gaudy. But still, in my book, La Galerie des Glaces ranks right up there with the Sainte Chapelle as a tribute to France’s glory and fame! La Galerie des Glaces leads you to the Salon de La Paix where mirrored walls seem to continue the theme. The dÃ©cor dates from Louis XIV, except for the oval painting of Louis XV as the Peacemaker over the fireplace.
The Queen’s Apartments overlook the south gardens and include the Guard Room, the Antechamber, the Room of Nobles and, of course, the Queen’s Chamber. Back then, the silk on the walls, in the furnishings and upholstery was changed with the seasons! Summer is now displayed. Keep in mind that 19 “children of France” were born in this room, in public as was required by some ancient customs!
La Chambre de la Reine eventually brings you to The Coronation Room which was extensively remodeled by Louis Philippe in order to house the very large canvases by Louis David, the Coronation and the Distribution of the Eagles (both painted in 1810). Actually it is a copy of the Coronation that you see here, the original is at Le Louvre. However, the copy was painted by Louis David himself!
As the castle was slowly converted into a Museum after the Revolution of 1789, the Gallery of the Battles was inaugurated in 1837 in what once was the apartments of the Enfants de France and the close relatives of the royal family. This vast gallery now houses huge paintings commemorating famous battles from Clovis to NapolÃ©on. You might say that the inauguration of this gallery at Versailles was a political ploy: satisfy those longing for the Ancien RÃ©gime, while at the same time appease those yearning for the times of Bonaparte. You will have to crook your neck, but don’t miss looking at the beautifully carved domed ceiling.
The King’s Apartments overlook the Marble Court (itself a work of art) and include the Room of the Ox-eye, so named because of the oval opening in the frieze in the ceiling vault. Who is Who of the time gathered there every morning, waiting for the king to wake up at 8 o’clock sharp! The frieze itself is an unbelievable work of art showing children’s games on a lattice background, all in gilded stuccoes. There is so much gold in this room, it almost blinds you, no kidding!
More white and gold follow in the Chambre du Roi where only the grooved gilt piers remain from Louis XIV’s time. All the gold and silver brocade of the furniture, the alcove, curtains, bed and bedspread dates from 1980 when the textile manufacturers of Lyons recreated the fabrics after the original. Again, expect to crook your neck because beautiful paintings are high up there, between the modillion frame and the ceiling. There are also painted medallions above the doors, and as Tiffany says, Mom, how could they stand so much decoration…
The Council Hall follows, apparently Louis XIV’s favorite room, which he had decorated with his finest collections. Large strategically placed mirrors help reflect the light provided by the two windows.
The Queen’s Private Rooms have recently been restored and show an exquisite octagonal room which was used by the Queen for her afternoon nap. The King’s Private Apartments include the Petite Chambre du Roi (probably for the afternoon nap, too), the Dining room of the Return from the Hunt, and the Cabinet de la Pendule, with its marvelous gilded bronze astronomical clock, surmounted by a crystal globe with the moon and planets moving around the sun. Louis XVI’s Library is the only room in the château not overly decorated.
Your ticket can also include a visit to the Dauphin’s Apartments, which were restored early in the 20th century. The Chamber has a beautiful variegated marble fireplace decorated with bronze statues. Every door has an overdoor painting. The Library is particularly pretty with a huge mirror over the fireplace and overdoor decorations and paintings.
Twice during our morning there, Tiffany and I “lose” Kimberley, so we retrace our steps, allowing us to view some of the rooms all over again. At one point, I get to see the Galerie des Glaces with very few people in it. I recommend retracing your steps from time to time (even without looking for a lost kid!) to your favorite rooms, you may get lucky and not have to elbow your way through them the second time around!
As we leave the castle, we can’t find the place where the tapes should be returned. I listen to my kids’ tape (in English) and the instructions are as bad as on the French tape! Many tourists go around and around as clueless as we are, so it isn’t just us! Someone semi-official looking physically takes us back to the proper place. So, no wonder they ask you for your passport as “security”, it’s not just that people would steal the tapes, it’s because they would just leave them on the floor just about anywhere.
It is early afternoon now and the girls are screaming for food. We buy some postcards (which we promptly lose or leave on the counter), and the DVD of Versailles. We will have to finish our tour later on DVD because it is extremely cold and the gardens’ visit wouldn’t be much fun. I did visit the gardens, the fountains and even got to see a light and sound show at night years ago. If you go visit in the summer, do come back at night when shows are offered. The shows are a blend of light, music, pageantry, beautiful costumes and often fireworks that you will never forget.
To fully enjoy the castle you will need a full day, a minimum of five hours to visit inside, and the rest of the day for the gardens and the Petit and Grand Trianons which are tiny castles on Versailles’ grounds. You can walk there or a small “train” can take you there, although I think it is more fun to walk everywhere through the gardens. Please wear comfortable, flat shoes. Cobblestones abound outside and the wood floors are fragile inside the castle. Let’s all do our share in protecting this splendid heritage!
The DVD on Versailles is outstanding! It works on PC and Mac and provides a wealth of information, gorgeous pictures of all the artwork, furniture, rooms, etc. It takes you through all the gardens. I recommend that you buy it, it’s the best souvenir of Versailles that money can buy!
Leave your car where it is at the Versailles parking lot because you won’t find any other place to park in the village. I think it costs the equivalent of $7.00 or less, anyway. There is a kiosk where you can validate your ticket by paying with bills and coins, but it is even simpler to just slide your debit or credit card at the exit. It works perfectly!
It’s almost 2:00pm when we leave the castle, and all the restaurants are closed. We find an English pub that serves food all day, on the square right by the castle. Their pizzas are rather good actually. “After so many old things,” as the girls put it, they are ready for some beaches, so we decide to head for Normandie. We have made a reservation in Falaise at the local Ibis Hotel because Caen and all surrounding “D-Day beaches” towns and villages are full. June 5th and 6th commemorate D-Day, and Normandie is celebrating! A lot of veterans will be there, we will get there in the evening of the second day of celebration.