June 15, 2021
Despite living near the rail line to Versailles for six months, Natasha and I delayed our visit to its famous palace and gardens until my brother Tom came to visit. His enthusiasm for seeing the palace was infectious, though seeing even a small part of the site consumed all our energy for that day.
Coming to Versailles by train was easy. We hopped onto the RER C rail line that follows the left bank of the Seine in our area, double-checking that the train was the one that terminated in Versailles (the RER C has multiple routes). The tickets cost 3.65€ each way for each of the three of us, so the travel costs for each direction were only about twice the price of a subway ticket within Paris. One of the aspects of the rail route that I found striking is that the RER C passes through a long tunnel under the Forest of Meudon. The total travel time was just a hair over twenty minutes.
Emerging from the train station at Versailles, we were happy to find a well-marked route for tourists on foot. We followed the D10 toward the north and then turned left to follow the D186 to the west. Once we made that turn, it was obvious we were heading toward a massive palace complex, with gold light reflected from the outer fence and the roof line. We arrived almost exactly at 11:00, the start time on our tickets (in order to space tourists throughout the day, Paris museums are currently allocating only so many arrivals at a give time). Because we had not “hot-footed” it from the train station to admissions, we had many tourists in line before us, but the time passed quickly.
Natasha and I decided to download the official Versailles tour app on our phones, while Tom used a free audioguide device. I soon felt very frustrated by the app’s guidance because it couldn’t seem to discern where I was in the complex despite my having enabled Android location services, and whole sections of the palace were missing from mine that were present on Natasha’s install. Tom’s dedicated audio guide seemed to work much better.
A visit to the Château is likely to take in a mix of State Apartments, Private Apartments, and Historic Galleries. We found ourselves in a large herd of tourists as we passed the royal chapel on the ground floor, but once we had climbed the stairs, the press of people diminished somewhat. I had thought we had visited most areas of the Château, but looking back at the website I see we entirely missed the Royal Opera and the Congress Chamber, plus many formerly private spaces for the royal family. Natasha noted that many areas were closed to public view during our visit.
I cannot be the only person who sees room after room filled with fanciful images of god-king Louis XIV with a sense of revulsion. I would like to think that Louis XIV himself felt a sense of scorn about the cult of personality that the art of the Château of Versailles represents, even if he personally cultivated it.
Tom surprised me by echoing a refrain that I frequently say to myself on my travels: “I feel so frustrated when I imagine a substantial fraction of a nation’s resources being consumed to make a fabulous palace for the king.” Natasha was frustrated that the historical events that took place at the Château of Versailles were largely omitted by the information presented for each room. The 1871 Proclamation of the German Empire and the 1919 signing of the Treaty of Versailles both took place in the Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors), but the room was exhibited with no signboards to highlight these aspects of its history.
Having passed a couple of hours inside the Château, we were ready to see the gardens, grounds, and other buildings of the Versailles Estate. We started with the South Parterre, which was in bloom on our late spring day. We continued down to the Bosquet du Dauphin, which seemed more like a carefully partitioned area of small woods and undergrowth than a garden per se. The fountain in the Enceladus Grove was pretty interesting, but a barrier kept us from a better view. Natasha adored the gold lizards and turtles of Latona’s Fountain, and I loved the drama of Apollo’s Fountain.
That said, we were all pretty hungry after our late-morning wander, so we stopped for lunch at La Flottille, a restaurant first opened in the late 19th century, located next door to the Grandes Eaux de Versailles (a long canal crossed at right angles by slightly shorter canal). We were grateful that the restaurant took reasonable precautions for folks with celiac disease. I ordered pizza and was very rapidly faced with a medium ham, mushroom and cheese I could have easily split with someone else, but Natasha and my brother both had plenty of food in front of them, too!
With full bellies, we decided to visit the Grand Trianon and Marie Antoinette’s Estate. We had a bit of a walk before us, though; the estate operates a little train of wagons to ship tourists from one site to another, but we were put off by its price (a bit less than five Euros per passenger).
We found Trianon without a lot of effort. Natasha and Tom agreed that the little palace seemed like a far more comfortable place to live than the Château proper. I was delighted that the substantial crowd we had encountered in the Château had not come to Trianon en masse; we encountered very few tourists at Trianon at all.
We continued past the Petit Trianon, enjoying the shaded walks and small canals with large-scale public art. I was feeling rather worn out from the high temperatures and bright sun of the day, so I asked that we limit to just one more site. Natasha placed a high priority on visiting the Queen’s Hamlet, so we continued to the northeast.
I didn’t know what to expect of the Queen’s Hamlet, but it surely wasn’t what we found. In 1783 Marie Antoinette (queen to Louis XVI, the grandson of Louis XIV) ordered the creation of a small village around a lake so that she would have a place to retreat from the pressures of court. The hamlet is perfectly charming, and we all enjoyed its peace and quiet.
When we walked up to the Queen’s Hamlet, we had thought we could exit the Versailles estates by the Saint-Antoine Porte, but a substantial ditch separates the Queen’s Hamlet from the exit road (the Grand Trianon seems to be the only port of entry allowing one to reach the Hamlet). We had a split vote on whether we were sufficiently tired and dehydrated to pay the cost of the little train back to the palace. Natasha has previously observed that once I start heading back home, it is an uphill battle to convince me to take an interest in anything other than plodding in that direction. For the next forty minutes or so, the three of us trudged and panted our way back to the main Château. Sadly the kiosk next to the Grandes Eaux where we planned to acquire more water was closed, so we just marched forward in the sun.
We were very happy to discover a cafe with refrigerated water bottles just before we reached the train station. Is it possible that too much sunlight would make us hesitate to revisit one of the greatest palaces on earth?