Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Si Versailles m'était conté (Royal affairs in Versailles)

Gold. So much gold. And carp. Voracious carp, intent on sharing your picnic lunch as you sit by the Grand Canal.

These are my memories of Versailles, the magical place I visited as a child with my family and Parisian relatives.

As I recall, I was not that fascinated with the grandiose castle, the Hall of Mirrors, the King and Queen's apartments; but I adored roaming the grounds, playing hide-and-seek with my brother and cousins. After a while, we collapsed, ravenous, and enjoyed a picnic on the grass by the canal; tossing chips and breadcrumbs at the gigantic carp; laughing as the fish fought for scraps in the dark water, their menacing mouths gaping.

This summer, while in Paris, I decided to return to the Sun King's estate, the castle of all castles. Things have not changed at all. The lines are still among the longest in Europe during peak tourist season. They meander through the giant courtyard, past the golden gates, all the way into the main building, formidable, inescapable, a European rite of passage.

My friend Rick Steves stopped by with his crew a few days after my visit. Rick is a lucky man: He was allowed to tape his new show in an empty château...

The Hall of Mirrors: Make room for Rick and the boys! 

But as many who visit Versailles during peak tourist season know, discovering the Sun King's prized possession can be a grueling experience.


Moi? I stayed away from the palace. I skipped the long lines in the courtyard; aimed for the side entrance, leading to the gardens; and emerged on the other side of the main building, on the terrace overlooking the majestic grounds. I did not stop to take photos, but headed for Marie-Antoinette's domain, at the back of the estate, a thirty-minute brisk walk, while many visitors stayed behind, congregating around the castle and the famous fountains. 

And what a walk that was! Classical music was coming out of the elegant groves (part of Versailles' summer "Musical Garden" show,) and I could picture Louis XIV and his court, strolling the grounds and listening to Jean-Baptiste Lully, the King's favorite composer.

I was one of the first to enter the queen's private domain. I had not seen it since it re-opened in 2006, and I was immediately charmed by its many facets and bucolic appeal. The newly-renovated Petit Trianon. The French garden. The English garden. The temple of Love. And the masterpiece, the Hamlet, a small village - once a working farm - where the Queen played shepherdess. One could spend a whole day (or two,) discovering Marie-Antoinette secret refuge. 

Le Hameau (The Hamlet)
Built 1783-1788, Richard Mique, architect
La maison du jardinier (the gardener's house) 

Le Moulin (the windmill)
Le Petit Trianon
Le Pavillon Français (the French pavillon)
Built 1749-1750 - Ange-Jacques Gabriel, architect

It was hard to pull away, but after a couple of hours, I started walking back, taking a short detour to admire the pink marble splendor of le Grand Trianon. Then I found a spot in the shade where I enjoyed my picnic lunch, reminiscing... My brother and cousins were not there with me that day, but young Parisian children were having fun. "Imagine that," I smiled, "summer camp where kings and queens used to play!

I still had to discover my favorite section of the expansive Versailles grounds. As I approached the castle, I almost bumped into the famous Orangerie. Did my family skip it, years ago? I did not remember it. How grateful I was when I peeked through the gates...

L'Orangerie. Jules-Hardouin Mansart's masterpiece. Imagine hundreds of fragrant orange blossoms; lemon trees; palm trees; elegantly displayed throughout the grounds and kept in giant containers, so they can be winterized in the Orangerie's main building. 

All plants and topiaries are still pruned by hand, by a small crew of young gardeners who were hard at work when I stopped by...

Notice the cardboard shapes used to prune the trees...

The Orangerie building, like the rest of Versailles, is magnificent. The sheer size of the doors; the height of the ceilings; it's almost overwhelming. That's exactly how the Sun King wanted it.

While the plants are outside for the summer,
the building becomes an impressive exhibition hall.

"Yes," I decided, "Versailles still has a lot to offer, and like Montmartre, the Eiffel Tower, or a Seine river cruise at sunset, it would be a shame to miss it."

Versailles attracts over six million visitors a year. With a bit of planning (tickets can be purchased online,) you can skip the big crowds and find your happy place, as I did, at the Sun King's estate. The city of Versailles is lovely. Try and spend time there if you can, after you visit the castle.

Almost three hundred years after the Sun King's death, Versailles keeps us dreaming.

It inspires movie directors, old and new...

Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette (2006) 

The estate is the ideal showcase for French luxury goods...

Charlize does Versailles for Dior

Chanel's 2012 Cruise Collection
(Karl Lagerfeld fits right in and does not even need to wear a wig!) 

... or for iconic French artists...

Gorgeous Vanessa Paradis
(Photographed by Karl Lagerfeld) 

Vanessa Paradis, for her one-night acoustic concert at Versailles' Royal Opera house,
"One Night in Versailles," 2010

And even if sections of the castle can be rented for private parties, (imagine hosting 600 of your very best friends for a birthday bash inside the Orangerie or the Galerie des Batailles,) I sincerely hope that bling-bling* couple Kanye West and Kim Kardashian choose another venue for their upcoming wedding...

Nice necklace, Kanye. The Sun King would approve!

Apparently, the French public agrees. Here are some comments I found online when the rumor emerged that K. W. and K. K. had their eyes on Versailles...

- "N'importe quoi!"

- "Et le couronnement, c'est pour quand?"
(When is the coronation scheduled?)

- "Sur Mars, c'est plus classe, et avec un peu de chance, ils ne reviendront pas!"
(Send them to Mars. It's classier, and with a bit of luck, they won't come back!)

A bientôt.

All photos (unless otherwise noted,) by French Girl in Seattle
Do not use, re-print or Pin without permission.

* Bling-bling. Tacky. Gaudy. Lover of expensive things. Was famously used to refer to former French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

Additional materials: 

Dior's commercial with Charlize Theron. 
Can you spot Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, or Marlene Dietrich? :-) 


  1. Good move, Veronique. I avoid the castle too. :-) I visited once and that was enough for me. I do however go the King's Kitchen Garden often. It's beautiful and it helps me figure out to train my espalier fruit trees at home.

    And thank you so much for pointing out that the city is worth visiting. It's a real pity that people don't get away from the castle and visit the city more. I've called Versailles home for the past 6 years or so and there is so much to see beyond that gaudy monstrosity at the end of the avenue de Paris. It's a walkable city, the market in the center of town is great, it has good restaurants, lots of history everywhere you go and things to see like the domaine de Madame Elisabeth, the equestrian show at the old stables, great concerts at some of the magnificent churches here, and so much more. Am I in love with my city? Absolutely. :-)

    1. Merci for the feedback on the charming city of Versailles, Victoria. I am so happy I left the château mid-afternoon. I had plenty of time to walk around and explore before I hopped back on the train. The King's kitchen garden is lovely, you're right. Espalier fruit trees... I am impressed! I am happy to water a handful of containers here at home in the summer :-)

  2. Je crois que la dernière fois que j'y suis allée, c'etait il y a 15 ans! Pas d'internet pour les billets alors, mais le choix entre le chateau et le parc, et j'ai moi aussi choisi le parc , pour fuir la foule.J'en garde un merveilleux souvenir .Sérénité, beauté, volupté!
    Par contre devant l'entrée, il y avait un nombre incroyable de marchands ambulants vendant toutes sortes de cochonneries, ça m'avait choquée, J'espère qu'ils sont partis.
    C'est bien de pouvoir louer, mais il ne faudrait pas que les lieux y perdent leur âme, oui, que certains aillent sur Mars avec un aller simple.. :o)
    Bonne semaine et gros bisous !

    1. Ah, tu vois bien que les grands esprits se rencontrent! :-)

      L'intérieur est un peu trop "doré" à mon goût, et le style de la déco, pas vraiment minimaliste, n'est-ce-pas? Moi, si j'avais vécu à la cour, j'aurais passé beaucoup de temps dans le parc. J'imagine qu'en plus, on devait mieux y respirer qu'à l'intérieur... Ca cocotait sérieux dans le château, dit-on... :-)

  3. Marie Antoinette's Domain is almost my backyard right now! I love it there so much and always try and persuade our guests to visit that part of the estate.Your photos bring back happy summer memories for me too. And that Dior commercial is just gorgeous. It's on TV here all the time at the moment. J'adore Dior - wish I could afford Dior ;)

    1. Lucky you, Nicola. Your guests should be grateful to be led through the gardens by a local expert :-)

  4. Our first trip to Paris - in March, now many years ago - we found ourselves experiencing snow and cold. Our trip to Versailles will always be memorable because we found it too cold to visit the grounds, but loved the cross-country skiers looping through the grounds.

    1. Bonjour Jackie. Back from your travels, eh? You must have stories to tell...

      I would have loved seeing cross country skiers loop by the Grand Canal. How cool. Did you take any photos?

  5. Versailles is stunning - if only you can avoid the awful crowds. It would be a sin to let Kim and Kanye get married there but it wouldn't surprise me if they did - they think they are modern day royalty!

    Have a lovely day, Veronique! xoxo

    1. Kim and Kanye will get what they want as long as they write a *big* check. I am hoping they will move on to a better idea soon :-) Thank you for stopping by...

  6. I think you had the right idea, Veronique. What a crowd in the hall of mirrors! Did you know that it is the 400th anniversary of Le Notre? What would the world be like with out him? There is a special exhibit at Versailles right now that I plan to visit in January - but I think I might prefer your warm sunny day to wander the grounds! XO

    1. Bonjour Jeanne. Oui, I heard about Le Notre and read several articles about him online and in Paris over the summer. That is why I did not mention him here. I thought the carp was equally important :-) I envy you your upcoming trip. You will have a fabulous time!

  7. v- as ALWAYS you make the dream of paris and it's surrounding attractions so real-as if I am experiencing it at that moment-you would make an EXCELLENT travel writer-as always again, the pictures are BEAUTIFUL-my memory of my one trip there is hazey.... fuzzy at best-I remember the august sun -thanks for bringing the desire to get there as an adult to the surface-officially on the to do list-have a nice rest of the week- cold with snow here-

    1. Merci, dear g. It sounds as if you are long overdue for a "comeback" in Versailles, if "fuzzy" is all you can remember :-)

      It's been cold here too, and sunny, how nice, but the dreadful rain is returning this week. I have not missed it in the least. A bientôt. Hugs to you!

  8. I actually prefer the architecture of la maison du jardinier et le moulin to that of the palace, I don't know what that says about me, mais, voilà...It must have been so wonderful to be there & to reminisce about your good times in childhood...and to see the children there now. I have a friend who loved the gardens so much that he never got to the palace. I've not yet been to Versailles since it is not my style, but after reading your post I think I will go on my next trip & enjoy the gardens & a picnic. You seem like you'd be a good match to work for/with Rick Steeves...Merci, Rita

    1. Merci beaucoup Rita. I would not mind collaborating with Rick Steves in one capacity or another, to tell you the truth :-) We share the same clients (He organizes their trips to Europe; I teach them basic French survival skills before they head to my homeland :-)

      I did have an excellent day in Versailles this summer. It was certainly worth taking the long train ride both ways. Souvenirs are priceless, as you know. A bientôt.

  9. So much fun. Great photos. And isn't Rick Steves just great? How fun that you know him. Love the cardboard guides for the topiaries. I'm going to try that on my bushes at home.

    1. Bonjour Connie. Well... I would not say Rick and I are close friends, but I have met him on several occasions, and am familiar with his work. I often use his guidebooks while I travel in Europe, including in my homeland. It's always fun for me to discover "the American perspective" on things :-) A bientôt.

  10. Dearest Véronique,
    Merci beaucoup for taking me back to Versaille. I've been there three times... but would love to walk there again!!!

    1. You're welcome, Mariette. If you ever return to Paris, remember Versailles. It's still one of the best "day trips" outside of the French capital! Hugs to you.

  11. Versailles is one of those places that I can visit time and time again and yet I always find something new to admire. The interior certainly makes your jaw drop with the extravagance and of course all that gold!! I agree that the gardens are breathtakingly beautiful too and yet so many people spend so little time exploring them. Unfortunately the last time I arrived at Versailles, there was a small note on the gates to announce that it was closed due to a strike!! At least it wasn't my first visit or I would have been even more disappointed.
    PS By the way, I do hope that the comment I wrote in French on your last post was OK!

    1. Bonjour miss b. Ha. Love your story about the strike at Versailles! I feel I have to apologize for my countrymen. But that is why they staged a revolution, after all. I don't suppose Louis XIV and all his descendants actually *authorized* strikes, do you? :-)

      I did notice your comment in [excellent] French on the last post. Félicitations, and feel free to switch to le français any time you visit.


    Oh là là, comme j'adore Versailles....ça fait 12 ans que j'y suis allée. Les jardins, quelles merveilles....la façon dont les jardiniers "sculptent" les formes! Je me demandais comment les formes sont si parfaites! Voilà....oh, les français, vous êtes tous artistes!

    Ma chère, merci d'être venue me lire...et oui, ces photos de la nature, surtout celles des oursons me plaîsent car cette année, je veux la paix dans mon jardin, mon coeur, dans le monde.


    1. Bonjour Anita. 12 ans... Tu dois y retourner bientôt. Le Hameau de Marie-Antoinette n'avait pas encore été rénové à l'époque. Je ne sais pas si tous les Français sont des artistes, mais les jeunes jardiniers de Versailles, eux, certainement :-)

      Encore bravo pour ton dernier billet. Un festival pour les yeux (et les oreilles!)


  13. Très beau reportage. Merci et à bientôt (sur votre blog)

    1. Merci beaucoup Olivier. Bienvenue chez French Girl in Seattle et à bientôt j'espère !

  14. Le pavillon de la Lanterne, relais de chasse situé au fond du parc de Versailles, résidence de loisir des présidents de la république...ne se visite pas.

    1. Merci Alain. Excellente information. Un horrible doute toutefois: Et si le couple "bling-bling" KW et KK écrivaient un *gros* chèque et louaient le-dit relais de chasse pour leurs noces ? L'horreur absolue. D'un autre côté, gros plus: Ils seraient bien cachés au fond du parc. :-) Merci de votre visite et à bientôt.

  15. I also returend to Versailles again this summer. During summer weeks, I would recommend to go there later in the evening, after the official closing time. You can then visit the castle in small groups, listen to music and watch dancing in the different galleries and rooms. Then you can visit the gardens, the water show, the fireworks... You can also attend fabulous concerts at the Royal Chapel or the Royal Opera... I actually wrote about it here: http://www.peter-pho2.com/search/label/Versailles

    1. I remember that wonderful post, Peter. I think you went just a few days after I did :-)

      Excellent advice, all of it. That would be a great way of avoiding the big day-time crowds since a lot of people travel from Paris for the day and tend to leave Versailles (as I did) late afternoon.

      A bientôt. Enjoy the Holiday season in Paris!

  16. No! It cannot happen! Kim and Kanye are the King and Queen of Tacky! Not fit for Versailles in the least!

    I would love to see it in person someday. Just magnificent. And i would enjoy the grounds too i think. I would want to see the inside, i think, but at my age it would be hard to wait in that long line. I'm patient enough, but i would have to use the facilities, as they say, at least once! LOL.

    I have seen the luxurious ad for Dior starring the lovely Ms. Theron. She is as exquisite as the setting, or at least almost. Gorgeous for sure!

    1. Thank you for stopping by Mary.

      You would have to see the castle at least once, I agree. guess you'd have to pick a day mid-week, either super early or très, très late, in the middle of February, to be able to see Versailles without the crowds, but it's manageable! :-)

      Bon weekend, Mary!


Bonjour! I love hearing from you, my readers. To quote a fellow blogger, my friend Owen, "Comments are the icing on blogcake... Comments are the UFO in the twilight sky bearing news from other planets... Comments are raspberry vinegar in salad dressing... Comments are the cool balm of after-sun moisturizing lotion... Comments are the moment the band comes back out onstage to play an encore... Comments are the gleam in the eye across the room in a smoky bar... Comments are the rainbow after the rainstorm..." Merci for your comments! French Girl in Seattle