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A tour of Versailles makes a Paris Trip Complete
More Photos of VersaillesClick thumbnail to view full-size
Video Tour of Versailles
Versailles Palace and Gardens Video
Versailles is a must see when in Paris
When my wife had the opportunity to attend a business conference in London the whole family jumped at the chance to tag along and do some sight seeing. From London we took the lovely "chunnel" train over to Paris for a few days.
With a 10 year old boy in tow, London was all about the mostly free museums (reminds me of visiting DC with the free Smithsonian museums), Paris on the other hand was all about food, the Eiffel Tower, cathedrals, Arc of Triumph, the Louvre (boring alert!) and a boat trip on the Seine. But I think the highlight and most lasting impression of the trip was our visit to Versailles.
Versailles is an easy train ride out to what is now a suburb of Paris. We got up early knowing it would be a full day and arrived at opening. In a nutshell the tour begins at the Palace which is a guided tour. This is the most crowded part since bus loads of tourists stop here for the tour of the palace and then get back on the bus to be whisked away to the next attraction. Once you get through the palace tour you are on your own to explore the unbelievably huge grounds of the palace that stretch as far as the eye can see.
A Bit of History
If you are going to visit a place you might as well know why the place exists in the first place. Versailles was built as a palace or château complete with its own supporting village. The area was first developed as a hunting lodge back in the 1500s. In 1661, under the direction of Louis XIV the plans for the expansive chateau and landscaped grounds. Versailles was designed to show the world the power of France and its gardens were a testament to France's capabilities. If the French could tame nature to this degree what could stop them?
Eventually Versailles became so important that Louis XIV moved his court from Paris to Versailles. Being more isolated, Versailles allowed Louis XIV to keep a tighter grip on his his advisers and provincial rulers.
All went well until Louis XIV death in 1715 and a five year old became king -Louis XV. Under Louis XV reign, Frances former good fortune dwindled (Sort of like President Obama inheriting the recession from Bush) and the palace became not only a drain on the national treasury but a symbol for the excesses of the royalty at the expense of the French people. This is about the time the comment "Let them eat cake" was attributed to Queen Marie Antoinette although it has never been confirmed that she said it although it does capture the feeling of the French peasants who were starving while the royal court partied on at Versailles.
The Palace Tour
A visit to Versailles starts with a tour of the grand, gold leaf filled palaces rooms including the famous hall of mirrors and the grand salons and apartments for the royalty. The tour is crowded and moves along quickly. The layering upon layering of lavish woodwork, statues, fabric etc is amazing of course but if you've been doing the grand tour of Europe sometimes this stuff gets a bit repetitive. But at the time it certainly must have made quite the impression on visiting dignitaries from around the world.
If its a beautiful fall day like when we visited, its almost a relief when you can get back outside and away from the bus loads of tourists.
In my book its the gardens that make Versailles a must see destination even if you only have a few days in Paris. To do the gardens properly you need to devote most of an entire day. The gardens are so vast that they rent bikes, stroller and even golf carts at certain parts of the complex. The only way I can convey the size of the gardens is to tell you that get a map of the gardens at the palace walk around for hours and then you reach another section where you pick up another map of the next area of the gardens!
The garden complex is so large that it once contained a small village of house the gondoliers who were on call to paddle members of the court around the canals. Queen Marie had an area way back in the gardens called The Queen's Hamlet which contained a model rustic farm village where she could escape the exhausting court life. Today if you visit this part of the gardens, which I highly recommend, you'll see rustic idealized buildings, ponds with ducks and carp, gardens and farm animals. Plus hardly anyone is around because most tourist either don't take the time or can't physically make it to this part of the estate.
The king also had his retreat on the grounds called The Grand Trianon. You can tour this "mini palace" also. Another area to explore is Marie-Antoinette little getaway place Petit Trianon. And to think all we peasants have in the backyard is perhaps a garden shed or tree house.
These destinations or points of interest are just areas to head for as you start your hike or tour of the gardens but all the way you'll discover all kinds of really amazing courtyards and garden areas - fountains with operatic music and god's emerging from the ground, horses flying out of the water, hidden cafe's made from rustic logs, pocket themed gardens, statuary and more. There are garden's viable from great expansive distances as well as garden areas hidden behind tall neatly trimmed hedgerows.
The enormity of it all is just astounding. With modern machinery it must take hundreds of grounds keepers to maintain it all, in the past you can just imagine and entire village employed just to keep up with the weeding.
If you go here are some tips:Wear comfortable shoes - its a lot of hiking
- Bring water - there are cafes sprinkled around the property but it helps to have your own water bottle handy
- If you have small children bring a collapsible stroller.
- Don't forget your camera
- Consider spending the night in town if you really enjoy gardens and want to see every inch. It just can't all be seen in one day.
- Don't miss the Hamlet - its delightful. Reminds one of something Walt Disney would have imagined if he lived at Versailles.
- Find the cafes on the map. We got through the palace tour so early we were ready for coffee and breakfast in the gardens and found a nice little cafe hidden among the gardens. Later we found another nice cafe near the canals for afternoon "wine time".
- Rent a golf cart if you must or better yet get in shape before your trip by taking some long hikes
Note about the Photos
The photos were taken on with a point and shoot FujiFilm Z5. I wish I had my new Panasonic Lumix DMC-G2! Next time (maybe after we pay off college) its just me and the wife, my Lumix and a tripod.