Versailles! Abode of kings and queens, opulent and grandiose, a monument to excess and the single-minded pursuit of splendour and luxury….
Few palaces in the world can compare with the sheer scale and grandeur of this erstwhile French seat of power. Visitors who flock here from all over the world cannot help but be overwhelmed by the over-the-top display of Baroque style design and architecture.
There is nothing restrained or subtle about the French aesthetic as epitomized in Versailles. There is a profusion of statues and paintings, frescoes, endless marble corridors, tapestries and brocades and rich gilding; nothing it seems was too much. It was the French imperial power satisfying its every whim and flaunting its splendour to the world. Of course, it was this very excess that led to the one of the bloodiest revolutions the world has seen.
However, Versailles survived the revolution pretty much intact. Angry mobs did hold protests outside the palace gates but once the royals were removed from Versailles, the property itself was not ravaged. And over the years, many of the artworks and furnishings which were removed from the palace were returned. This is why the palace and its grounds survive in splendour today as part of a proud French heritage, earning the republic millions of francs in revenue.
How to Get There
Versailles is easy to visit if you are in Paris. Trains and bus routes are available or one can book a tour, choosing any one of the many tour operators. Rates vary so do take the time to do a little research.
We opted to take an Uber to Versailles, which was is only a half hour drive away from the centre of Paris. We had pre-booked tickets online which saves the hassle of buying tickets at the gate. Despite the pre-booking we found ourselves in a long line but it moved fairly fast. One advantage of booking a tour is that many skip ahead of the lines.
Also make sure your tickets cover access to the palace as well as the gardens.
When visiting historical sites, I am always enveloped by the feeling that these ancient edifices have been privy to countless secrets, intrigues, revelry and romances. The walls and floors carry imprints and echoes of lives lived and events which have unfolded here. Walking through the long, marbled corridors and magnificent archways, I could just imagine the rustle of satin skirts, twittering of the ladies in waiting and the click of high heels on the polished floors.
Inside the Palace
Access to the palace is arranged in a manner that one begins by walking through the apartments of less famous queens. Ultimately one is led to the chambers of Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI. Draped in the most plush fabric, the actuals beds occupied by the royal personages seem rather small by modern standards.
Then its onwards to the most splendid of all rooms, the famed Hall of Mirrors. Rows of gilded statues and an endless ray of chandeliers reflect off the mirrored walls presenting a dazzling sight.
The Gardens of Versailles
The palace grounds are so vast that it would take hours to traverse on foot. One option is to catch Le Petit Train that takes visitors around and one can hop on and off to explore areas of interest.
The Sun King
Versailles is inextricably associated with Louis XIV, the Sun King, who is responsible for developing Versailles and who designed many features of the palace. Originally a hunting lodge, Louis XIV would visit here with his father as a child. He was so taken with the place that he went on to move his entire court there.
Versailles is, of course, also integral to the stories of Louis XVI and his queen Marie Antoinette who were at the palace when the revolution began. The queen was at the Petit Trianon, a retreat within Versailles designated for the queen. This included the surrounding gardens which even included a faux village. The king had his own retreat called the Grand Trianon. So vast are the Versailles grounds that the royal couple could get away from court life without ever leaving the actual premises.
While royal life was touching the heights of indulgence, hunger, squalor and pestilence raged in the rest of the country. Safely ensconced in the gilded lap of Versailles, the royals were completely cut off from the reality faced by their subjects. The consequence is history.
Versailles After the Revolution
Years after the revolution, Versailles was declared a Museum of French History by subsequent rulers but it was never really used as a royal residence. Many important treaties have been signed here, most memorably the Treaty of Versailles which ended the First World War. This treaty was signed in the Hall of Mirrors.
It is only fitting that today Versailles is the property of the French Republic and open to thousands who come to marvel at its wonders.