Versailles: The Palace of Palaces

The chateau and gardens of Versailles outside Paris

The extravagant 17th-century palace and gardens of Versailles make for the best and easiest day trip from Paris.

I was once taking the "Everyday Life of Louis XIV" tour of the king's apartments at Versailles with a first-time visitor. As the guide took us through room after lavish room, my friend silently perused the gold-leafed cornices, the heavy rich fabrics sewn with gold and silver, the abundance of oil paintings, and finally pronounced: "It's a bit busy."

Tips for Visiting Versailles
Versailles takes up at least a whole morning, and in summer is packed by 10am. Either come seriously early (the grounds open at 9am), or come late—after 3pm you pay a reduced fare, and the tour buses have cleared out. In summer especially, this strategy gives you plenty of time to tour the emptying palace and, since the grounds are open until sunset, the extensive gardens as well. If you want to take a guided tour—and I highly recommend you do—call to reserve one in advance at tel. +33-(0)1-30-83-77-89.

This remains the best description I've heard of Europe's grandest palace, a sprawling, rambling, exhaustive display of the French monarchs' wealth and foppery in those last generations before the Revolution.

Visiting Versailles

What started in 1624 as a hunting lodge for Louis XIII was turned into a palace of truly monumental proportions and appointments uring the 72-year reign (1643–1715) of Louis XIV, the Sun King (and the man for whom Louisiana was named).

The Sun King made himself into an absolute monarch, the likes of which hadn't been seen since the Caesars, and he created a palace befitting his stature.

You can wander the State Apartments, Hall of Mirrors (where the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I was signed), and Royal Chapel on your own (or with an audio tour), but it's much more informative to take one of the guided tours, which get you into many parts of the palace not open to the casual visitor.

These tours are popular and fill up fast, so your first order of business should be to head to the tour reservations office and sign up for one. There's a good chance that you'll have to wait an hour or more, so book an even later tour and use the intervening time to explore the magnificent gardens.

Life at Versailles with Louis

Louis XIV kept a court here of more than 3,000—with a support staff more than double that. Whatever his faults, he was a shrewd politician and realized that by keeping his entire court around him continually—allies and potential enemies alike—he could keep an eye on them all.

One of his best techniques was turning daily tasks (such as eating breakfast or getting out of bed) into courtly events. Invitations to attend various parts of the king's day were handed out and revoked with seemingly capricious frequency.

All the nobles and notables were then kept busy worrying about whether they were on the in or out list and devising ways to get in His Majesty's good graces. This way they were more likely to look straight to the king for alliances rather than to each other, and they were too busy to plot against him.

The Sun King

Louis XIV was not just smart when it came to courtiers, but also in placating the common folk. Anyone could visit the palace and gardens of Versailles, so long as they dressed neatly and in proper attire (for men, this meant a hat and sword—they'd equip you at the gate if you arrived without, sort of the opposite of visiting government buildings today).

The king himself wrote a guidebook to his gardens for public use. One of the commoners' favorite day trips was to head out to Versailles at mealtime, when they would be allowed to file past the royal dining table and watch the king and all those nobles eat lunch.

Of course, having every instant of your life open to public scrutiny on a daily basis—and having the "private" moments subject to noble inspection by invitation—would wear on anybody, which is why there are two sets of apartments for the king and the queen—the public ones and the private ones behind them, reached through little doors concealed in the fabric-covered walls.

One of the more interesting tours you can take is of these private chambers, where the royals had liaisons with lovers, met with their most trusted confidants, put their feet up, and let their powdered wigs down.

Unhappily ever after

The retreat into a fabricated reality—not just the Hameau (in the gardens, below), but the carousel of court life at Versailles itself—left the royals seriously out of touch with their real subjects.

Louis XVI was an intelligent man, but he did not inherit his grandfather's keen political acumen. Despite all his book smarts, he didn't have the administrative savvy to maintain the absolute monarchy he inherited in 1774. He also inherited a growing popular resentment at the excesses of his two predecessors and the nobility in general.

In 1789, the people rose in Revolution and quickly dispatched the upper class.

Although the king had made weak attempts to ease taxation and force the nobility to carry their weight (this was, after all, the man who had helped finance the American Revolution with supplies, troops, and ships), he, too, was arrested.

After three years in prison, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette lost their heads to the guillotine on place de la Concorde in Paris, and the fairy-tale life of Versailles ended forever.

The Gardens of Versailles

Le Nôtre (who designed London's Greenwich Park and the Vatican Gardens in Rome) laid out the hundreds of acres of palace grounds in the most exacting 17th-century standards of decorative gardening. The highlights:

For the most part, the Gardens are free year-round. On Sundays in May through October, however, there is admission charged during the weekly Grandes Eaux Musicales, a fountain water show accompanied by classical music.

Also in summer, there are special nighttime displays (usually Saturdays) of fireworks and illuminated fountains, also for a fee. Call 01-39-50-36-22 for more information on both summertime spectacles.

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in February 2012.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.