Once the most extravagant palace in Europe
RER line C5, www.versailles-tourisme.com. The physical embodiment of Louis XIV’s neuroses and favourite dictum (“l’état, c’est moi”), the Palais de Versailles is a tour de force. It is a magnificent monster: an autocrat’s stronghold, a retreat from reality, an artistic treasure house, and totally exhausting. See www.palaisdeversailles.fr. It is impossible to see in a day, so follow one of the suggested itineraries, then head for the gardens. Survival tips include: be there early; wear comfy shoes; and buy a decent brochure if you choose not to take a guided tour.
Chased from Paris by the Fronde during his childhood, Louis XIV retained a deep-seated dislike of Paris and distrust for its nobles. On achieving his majority, the young king determined to move his court and the seat of government out of the capital, settling for the site of Louis Xlll’s hunting lodge at Versailles. Spurred on by the vision of Vaux-le-Vicomte, this section, he levelled the lodge, drained a swamp, hired the finest architects, painters and decorators in the land, and set about creating the largest and most extravagant palace in Europe. The palace was intended to dazzle, and it did. Visitors marvelled while Louis kept a close rein on his nobles by moving them into the palace – over a thousand of them with their families and servants until the entire court retinue numbered around 20,000.
Various tours of the palace cover the Grands Appartements, or State Rooms, for which Louis favoured a mythological theme. The throne room is dedicated to Apollo, the god of light, with whom the king compared himself and from which alliance he immodestly assumed the title of the ‘Sun King’. Some of the highlights are the magnificent Hall of Mirrors, where the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1918, Mansart’s Royal Chapel, and the Royal Opera. The Petits Appartements were the royal living quarters where Louis XV entertained Mesdames Pompadour and du Barry, and the child virtuoso Mozart played. The portraits in the Musée de l’Histoire Francaise put faces to names.
There is no escaping the grand scheme in the gardens either, with many hectares of parterre and fountains and a Grand Canal big enough to justify bateau mouche excursions. You can hire a bike near the Grand Canal, and there are a couple of additional pavilions to inspect. The larger Grand Trianon served as a Baroque marble guesthouse. Marie-Antoinette preferred the Petit Trianon where she could escape the pressures of courtly protocol, dress up as a shepherdess and trip across the garden to her private pastoral playground, Le Hameau, fill her Sèvres milking pails in the dairy and play with perfumed lambs.
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