The story of the Palace of Versailles goes a long way back and it sure didn’t become the crown jewel of all French castles from the get-go. The foundation of the building started off as a relatively humble hunting lodge for King Louis XIII until it took a sharp turn under the reign of Louis XIV to become one of France’s most prominent heritage sites and, as a consequence, one of the most visited.
I had been one of these visitors twice so far since spending a day in Versailles seemed like a compulsory stop for every French person. Versailles was the kind of places you’d have to go once in your life. There were so many brilliant castles in France beyond this one, I knew it, but Versailles had this glow, this aura that couldn’t be escaped.
That’s why, when my Mexican friend came over and I offered her to visit some obscure yet beautiful castles in the middle of Normandy or to visit Versailles, her answer was quite expected. Of course, with only a few days to spend in France, she wanted to discover the very best of the country, the most remarkable and to some extent, the flashiest. So did every tourist and so did I when I visited foreign countries.
When we arrived at the shiny gates of the castle, the whole world seemed to have congregated indeed. We waited in line between Americans and Japanese and caught glimpses of conversations in Portuguese, Chinese and Spanish. Versailles, that was once the epicentre of the French monarchy, was now the poster child for global mass tourism. But it was no mistake as true beauty has a way to move people beyond borders and across cultures.
The closer we got to the entrance, the more we were able to peek and catch glimpses of the palace’s inner courtyard until we finally got in and were free to explore the premises at our own pace. Instead of going straight to the interior of the palace, we lingered for a while at the Marble courtyard to admire the perfect symmetry and contrasted colours of the black and white courtyard and red bricked buildings, which was a legacy of Louis XIII’s hunting lodge.
We then headed for a temporary exhibition displaying original blueprints and designs of the palace. The exhibition was taking up an entire aisle of the palace and it was surprisingly devoid of any crowd. The same couldn’t be said of the palace’s newly refurbished theatre or of the very first rooms laying out the history of the building and all the different consecutive phases of its construction.
From there on, the crowds only got thicker. Yet, the show was all around us, so much so that the crowds soon disappeared from our sight. It was in the vivid, real-life like paintings above our heads, so rich and intricate that our necks hurt for keeping our heads up for too long. It was in the embroidered, glittery fabric of the curtains and the perfectly symmetrical gardens we could see behind the windows. It was in the insane amount of marbles, golden statues and chandeliers, huge tapestries taking up all the walls.
Every room we walked in was more riveting than the last and less riveting than the next, as if the architects and artists that had embellished the palace had placed a bet among themselves to always top their work as they went through with it. In that regard, the King’s apartments were especially compelling. At the time of the Sun King’s reign, they were meant to showcase the King’s wealth and power to his courtesans. Now, they were taking back in time a flock of visitors from all around the world but their purpose hadn’t faltered in all these years.
Arguably, the real crux of the visit was the Hall of Mirrors though. If perfection was a place, the “Galerie des Glaces” of Versailles would be one strong contender. Standing at the entrance of this 73m long room of pure flamboyance was just blissful, no matter how many tourists were swarming in. The level of details of the ceiling paintings by Le Brun would alone have been eye-catching but on top of that were the 357 mirrors, dozens of glass chandeliers and extravagant pilasters topped with gilded bronze. Minimalist design sure was a foreign concept back in the 17th century.
The Hall of Mirrors was Louis XIV’s creation but all subsequent Kings and Emperors hadn’t had their final say in the history of the palace, as shown by the next Gallery of Great Battles, ordered by Louis Philippe to enhance all the greatest French victories in history, from Clovis’ victory in Tolbiac to Napoleon’s most glorious triumphs. Someone was definitely trying hard to establish himself as a King following a lineage of monarchs going back hundreds of years. Yet ironically, Louis Philippe was the last French King.
Either way, Versailles was an open history book but our visit was far from over once we stepped out the palace itself for the gardens were now entirely ours to explore. Indeed, the gardens of Versailles were equally as interesting as the building we had just left. Plus, Versailles wasn’t only about one compound but about many and we only had seen the main building so far.
The gardens had been designed by André Le Nôtre, who Louis XIV had entrusted to create gardens as compelling as the palace itself. The gardens were indeed intended as an extension of the palace, a feeling conveyed by the Great Perspective starting from the central window of the Hall of Mirrors and stretching far into the horizon from the Water parterre to the Grand Canal.
Our goal was to reach the Grand Trianon, a lesser-known palace at the heart of the park, so we walked towards the Grand Canal, crossing through the many coves that stood like a maze, hiding a fountain or a statue in their midst. The further we walked, the more we realized that the park was absolutely enormous. The crowds were getting thinner too, which was only incidental. It seemed many a tourist had been discouraged to explore the area at length.
We had almost given up ourselves and had considered renting a buggy or a bike to keep visiting the area. Fortunately, our legs didn’t give up on us and we finally got to the Estate of Trianon. The construction of the estate had begun under the reign of Louis XIV as a haven away from the etiquette and the hardships of the court. The Petit Trianon and the Grand Trianon palaces had been built for that purpose and their design was considerably less pompous than the main palace’s, giving room to more intimacy and comfort.
They had been built on a much smaller scale, which wasn’t to say that they weren’t appealing anyway. The Grand Trianon was particularly alluring with its pink marble panels but the Petit Trianon had its own charm too. The latter was even considered to be the pinnacle of Neo-classic architecture. In between both buildings were geometric gardens planted with tens of thousands of flowers that bumblebees and butterflies had made their homes.
Years after the construction of the estate, Queen Marie Antoinette had made the place her home too and expanded on it by adding the so-called Queen’s hamlet, as an attempt to emulate the charms of rural life or rather, what the queen thought rural life was about. The architecture of the hamlet was inspired by the traditional rustic architecture of Normandy and it wasn’t hard to understand why this make-believe village had been a sanctuary for the queen. It still stood as it was, peaceful and quiet, away from the hustle and bustle of the main palace.
We had arrived in Versailles in the early morning and were leaving the palace in the mid-afternoon and we hadn't even visited every inch of the estate. Now more than ever, I knew why Versailles was such a tourist magnet and why it would remain so for a very long time. Millions of tourists were enjoying its beauty each year but it hadn’t lost its magic yet, even in the height of summer, and it still kept enough secrets for every visit to feel like the first time.