Blame it on my art studies at school, my background in fashion design, or a past life. I’ve had a fascination with the life and times of the French Court as far back as I can remember and Versailles is my equivalent of visiting Mecca. There was no way we were visiting Paris without making this pilgrimage.
The Palace of Versailles and its gardens form one of the most famous world heritage monuments in the world and stand out as the finest and most complete achievement of French art in the 17th and 18th centuries.The old and brick stone chateau of Louis XIII was transformed and greatly enlarged by his son Louis XIV, who installed the Seat of Government here in 1682. The splendors of Versailles is not just limited to the Palace. The magnificent gardens of Versailles, with their parterres, groves, statues, fountains, pools and canals, form the model par excellence of the formal “French Garden”. Within the monarchial compound of Versailles also sit the Grand Trianon, the recreational residence for Louis XIV and his family, and the Petit Trianon and Hamlet, given to Marie Antoinette as a haven for tranquility. Perfectly preserved, Versailles stands as the pinnacle of refinement and beauty of this period in France on an unprecedented scale, and a symbol of the system of absolute monarchy of the Ancien Regime.
Getting to Versailles from Paris is easy: a 40 minute train ride from the Saint Michel-Notre Dame Metro in Paris to the Versailles Rive Gauche station, and a 10 minute walk to the Chateau de Versailles itself is all that it took. The crowds when we got there, however, were a different matter entirely. With Peter’s infamous aversion to crowds and lining up, I wasn’t sure how he was going to handle this one. I was taken aback when he said, “Vic, you’ve always wanted to see Versailles so I’m prepared to do this with you.” I was touched beyond belief; I was only too aware of the herculean effort it would take on Peter’s part to line up for an hour just to purchase the tickets alone, let alone getting into the Palace. But Peter’s patience aside, this was going to be an exercise in endurance.
Based on our experience, here is the best way to see Versailles:
* Read up on the history beforehand: One can’t fully appreciate Versailles without some general background on its history. Googling a short version of it the day before your visit will help you view it in context.
* Never on a Monday: The Palaces of Versailles, Trianon and Marie Antoinette’s Estate are open everyday except Monday and some French public holidays. If in doubt, always check the website beforehand on www.chateauversailles-spectacles.fr.
* Visit during the week: If at all possible, try visiting Versailles during the week, where the crowds are slightly more manageable.
* Bring your patience & stamina with you: Crowds at Versailles are a given, so bring your patience and stamina with you. Make sure that you are well rested for the tour and are wearing comfortable walking shoes. This is no place to visit after a heavy night, or to make a fashion statement with your clothes or footwear for that matter.
* Go the “Passport”: There are 2 types of entrance tickets that you can purchase for Versailles. One gives you access to the Palace only, while the other ticket, called the “Passport”, gives you access to the Palace, Gardens, the Trianon Palaces and Marie Antoinette’s Estate. What’s there to decide? For only 50 Euros per person, get the “Passport” and see the whole of Versailles instead of only half of it. You will regret it if you don’t.
* Work backwards: While everyone else started with the Palace first, Peter and I went straight for the Gardens, Trianon Palaces and Marie Antoinette’s Estate first, after which we visited the Palace. Going against the flow worked well for us.
* Take regular breaks: Don’t worry: cafes, restaurants and toilets dot the Versailles estate at regular intervals so you won’t have a shortage of places to go to. Take the time to keep your liquid levels up and grab a healthy bite to eat for lunch, like a baguette, salad and yoghurt instead of crisps and a chocolate bar. The estate of Versailles is huge and you’ll need all your energy levels to cover it.
* Make use of available transport: The distances in the Versailles estate are formidable. Just to give you the scale, the distance between the Palace to the Grand Canal (Louis XIV’s idea of a fishpond) is 1 kilometer (15 minutes walk). The distance between the Palace to the Trianon estate is 1.5 kilometers (25 minutes minimum on foot from the gardens). Don’t try to be a hero and walk them all, like I did. There are mini trains and electric cars that can take you from the Grand Canal to the Trianon Palaces and Marie Antoinette Estates; may I suggest that you take advantage of them.