Nothing is more appropriate at the Palace of Versailles than the inscription atop the left wing of the castle: “A toutes les gloires de France– To all the glories of France.” When you read it and then turn around to see three football-field’s worth of tourists swarming the parking lot in front and happily babbling away in every language possible, it hits you that France indeed has a certain magnificence that draws people from all ends of the globe.
Lucky enough to have a friend living just steps away from the enormous palace constructed by Louis XIII in the 1600s, we awoke early on Saturday to beat the crowds. At the opening of the castle at 9am, a long line had already formed but moved quickly through the entrance and the security checkpoint.
“Bague,” the security guard said, pointing at me. Not a normal question at a security checkpoint, I thought, but logical enough.
“Non, j’ai pas de bague,” I said, holding up my hands to show that I wasn’t wearing any metal rings.
“No, bague,” he said pointing to my purse. “Sac.”
Aaaaaaahhhhhh BAG! Right. At tourist traps, everyone becomes Anglophone.
“Ah vous êtes française,” he said, taking a quick look inside my handbag.
“Euh, oui,” I answered, not wanting to complicate things, nor insult the poor man’s English.
I hurried through the medal detector to join my French buddies, who seemed to have found the whole situation hilarious.
Between showing the ticket lady that I was under 26 and an official resident of the European Union in order to get free entrance (the first occasion I had to do so, as my titre de séjour residence card had just been delivered two days earlier, after nearly seven months in France- more on my adventures with the immigration office in a later post), being mistaken for a francophone, and entering the realm of Marie Antoinette, the day was turning out to be even more Frenchified than my normal daily life here.
We made our way into the palace, audio guides at the ready, and entered the first few chambers. As a huge fan of Louis XIV (the “Sun King”) interior decorating, I didn’t tire of room after room of ceiling-high mirrors, windows and doors lined with gold, lavish furniture and fireplaces, and porcelain collections. Unfortunately, many of these furnishings were pillaged during the French Revolution and had to be bought back when the palace was transformed into a museum; much was destroyed or lost forever, including some statues and furniture in the magnificent Hall of Mirrors.
For a minimal fee, we accessed the gardens where the nobles socialized and partied back in the day. Our idea of the “French garden” was actually born there, although the word “park” is more appropriate at Versailles given its size. Look at a map of Versailles and see that the grounds take up about half of the city!
For nearly three hours we were busy strolling through the narrow passages of trees, listening to the classical music of the time period floating through the gardens, and passing from fountain to fountain representing Greek mythology or religious scenes.
Next it was off to Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon, a getaway house on the opposite end of the garden from the palaces; she had received this mansion as a gift from her husband, Louis XVI. Behind is a small “neighborhood” of quaint cottages, farms and gardens that were also at her disposal. A short walk away is the Grand Trianon, where Louis XVI could also escape his work at the palace and receive guests in a less formal atmosphere. Not a bad way to live, we thought, until we considered the whole beheading thing at the end…
We finished the tour around two o’clock and after five hours of nearly non-stop walking, we were still excited to head to Paris (40 minutes by train) to spend the evening atop the Arc de Triomphe and on the Champs-Elysées. We made it back to Versailles early to get a good night’s rest before a tour of the rest of the city the next day.
The city of Versailles is almost void of tourists, which is surprising considering that 5-7 million stream through the castle each year. It’s a rather quiet place, neat with large open boulevards, plenty of flowers (the national school of gardening is found here- not a surprise), a fun Sunday outdoor market, and a Starbucks, McDonald’s and Buffalo Grill all right next to each other near the train station. We finished our tour, made our way back to Paris for a quick afternoon coffee with friends, hurried to the Gare de l’Est, and curled up on our Strasbourg-bound TGV for a nap, with thoughts of queens and kings and fancy balls in mirrored hallways rocking us to sleep.