Of course, when in Paris, it is a shame to miss Versailles.
Unfortunately, the crowds at the palace threaten the whole experience; lining in front of the gilded entry gates, pushing and shoving through the narrow doorways and to the front so that they, too can have their picture taken in front of Marie Antoinette’s boudoir. Our tour guide told us that each year, nearly 1 million more tourists visit Paris (and Versailles) than the previous year. It is getting out of hand and the tourism industry is struggling to keep up with the influx of people while also preserving the dignity of the sites.
But, as I mentioned, we had hired a tour guide. I highly recommend this option. He met us at our apartment and took the RER train out to Versailles with us, while giving us some information about the small townships we were passing, the political situations in France, as well as the upcoming tour. We walked together to the palace where he gave us information about the architecture, the development of the estate and the political history surrounding it. We then got to wait in a line (though more of a crowd) of tour guides -much smaller than the main line- waiting to be let in based upon their reservation time.
Our tour was to start at 11am, but any guide with a time earlier than that gets to proceed ahead. Most groups are large, with people filing like ducks in a line, each one plugged into a radio picking up the guide’s voice. However, we were just us four, so we were able to slide in just after our reserved time.
Versailles should be experienced as a full day trip out of Paris, so do yourself the favor and enjoy your time exploring the gardens rather than waiting in line. Aside from being a wealth of information, the guides also know the best way to process through and the best places to pause in each room. Otherwise, the palace would still be gorgeous- but it would be a bunch of gorgeous old stuff that doesn’t really mean anything to you. This was my second time on a guided tour of the palace, and I feel as though I learned completely different things on this round. There is so much information and so much history, you can never know enough!
After our tour, our guide walked us through some side gardens to show us his favorite fountains and bid us adieu to head back to Paris. We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the real wonder of Versailles- the gardens.
It hard to understand that the gardens stretch, literally, as far as the eye can see. In every direction. I suggest doing as we did-rent bikes and ride through the endless pathways, forests and gardens. You should ride out to the Petit Trianon- Marie Antoinette’s own villa- and explore her private estate by foot. Be sure not to miss the small hamlet she had built to remind her of her childhood in Austria. No other word can describe it besides “quaint.”
Continue to the Grand Trianon, a separate estate from the main palace, and then around the massive canal that gives Versailles the title “little Venice.” King Louis XIV even had gondoliers brought from Italy to paddle him around. Today, you can have lunch in the old gondola storage building. Or, you can rent a small boat and have a row, yourself!
The fountains of Versailles are another incredible feature of the estate. Two massive, gilded fountains stretch in front of the palace, leading down to the canal. One, the sun god Apollo rising form the water (though in the west instead of the east, perhaps the first real faux-pas) yet another reminder that Louis XIV saw himself as the Sun God. The other main fountain, the story of Leto, Zeus’s mistress calling for refuge from angry villagers. He, in turn, transforms the mob into toads. Look closely at the figures clambering up the fountain and see their features subtly and progressively resembling those of a toad. This sculpture was a reminder to the people that, having been driven from his home by angry French commoners as a young boy, the King had no tolerance for uprisings.
In the immaculately groomed gardens, small grottos and water features are tucked into maze-like hedges. A stickler for symmetry, Old Louis XIV ensured that each fountain had its opposite on the other side of the gardens. Each one is its own water show. Unfortunately, as in the time of the Louis’, the fountains cannot all run continuously; there is no nearby river and no highland. They would have teams of people working valves to let the little water to whichever fountains were in his view as he took his daily stroll through the gardens.
Today, they run a few at a time on the weekends, and all of them together for only a few hours at the end of the day. Be sure to check the schedules before you visit and make a point of seeing them while they are on.
At the end of the day, take the RER back to the city. (purchase your return ticket at the same time as you purchase your arrival ticket as there is always a very long line at the ticket machines). The trip takes approximately 20 minutes either way.
My parents later took a trip to Giverny, home to the gardens made infamous by Monet’s impressionistic paintings. Another day trip is out to Normandy, if war history is more up your alley than gardens. I am told that this takes perhaps an overnight trip, as it take much longer to get there.