The Château de Versailles, as any visitor can tell you, is opulence incarnate: not a cent was spared on the polished, parquet floors, brocade furnishings and lavish, frescoed ceilings. Once home to the kings and queens of France – until the ancien régime was toppled by the peasants of the day and the guillotine did away with their heads – Versailles is a palace of wealth, a nod to the halcyon days of France’s nobility.
Our journey to Versailles began with a trip to a nearby boulangerie for a roulé au chocolat – think pain au raisin with chocolate instead of sultanas. We then purchased single tickets to Versailles Château Rive Gauche, and hopped aboard the metro, changing at Austerlitz to pick up the RER C. It wasn’t long before we were speeding out of central Paris towards the leafy suburb of Versailles. From the station, it was a short, idiot-proof walk to the palace gates. (Clue: follow the hundreds of other people heading to the same place.)
We knew the Château de Versailles was popular, but were more than a little gobsmacked at the size of the queue, which snaked up and down the courtyard: a maze of bodies, heads covered by hats, umbrellas or newspapers, none of which afforded much relief from the intense sun. Quite clearly, it was the earlier bird who caught the worm here – the 09:30 early bird simply wasn’t early enough for Versailles’ monster queues. We were easily amused by those modelling makeshift hats from their maps, and not at all amused by the couple who tried to jump the queue when we were almost at the front. (Luckily the woman behind us intervened and gave them a talking-to, and they skulked off, tails between their legs.)
After nigh on two hours of melting in the queue, we finally made it inside, past the security checks and through the Pearly Gates. (At that point, the prospect of spending an hour or so out of the heat was heavenly, though that sentiment was short-lived due to the immense crowds within the palace walls.) Standing in the Cour Royale, we drank in the windows edged with gold gilt and the pink marble colonnades before making our way into the palace proper.
Once inside, the throngs of visitors made it almost impossible for us to pause and take in our surroundings, as we were herded along by the crowd; the only way to resist the swarm of tourists making a beeline for the world-renowned Hall of Mirrors (Galerie des Glaces) was by edging along the walls. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceilings; light poured through the windows. Golden cherubs blew trumpets above marble carvings, watching visitors from above. Crests, busts and suits of armour – all gold – adorned the walls in numbers equivalent to my postcard collection. Although the masonry and craftsmanship which had gone into the construction of the palace was incredible, the crowds did detract from the experience; after a fairly perfunctory (self-guided) tour of the palace, we were only too happy to move on to the gardens.
Feeling a little drained from over-exposure to immense crowds, we paid for our tickets to the gardens (a necessity on this day, due to the Musical Fountains Show) and promptly collapsed in a heap in the shade to munch our lunch. Once suitably refreshed, we cracked on with the task at hand: exploring as much of the gardens as we possibly could.
After the extravagance of the palace, the gardens were more of a muted affair: manicured parterres (sans fleurs, even at the end of May), trim box hedges and topiary and small groves. It’s all – dare I say it? – rather samey. (Or maybe I’m the only one who thinks that once you’ve seen one grove you’ve seen them all.)
More often than not, Laurence and I are terrible at scheduling breaks in the day to relax, and operate a go-go-go policy, which is all very well until you encounter blisters and/ or a very hot day. The Musical Fountains Show provided us with a great excuse to rest up every now and again and enjoy some fountain displays set to classical music; not my favourite genre, but fitting for the location. Though we stuck to the shade as much as possible, we inevitably came to the conclusion that the hot weather necessitated an ice cream scoop – or three, as the case may be. (It was cheaper to share three scoops in a pot than it was to have a scoop each in a cone, so three scoops it was, waistline be damned.)
It was at this point that we decided to potter over to the Domaine de Trianon, which turned out to be the highlight of our visit to Versailles. At long last, we had done the impossible and escaped the crowds. The interiors of both the Grand Trianon and the Petit Trianon resembled English stately homes: tastefully furnished with an underlying less-is-more décor policy.
Outside, flowers added a splash of colour to the gardens and beavers foraged along the banks of the stream which wound its way through the estate. By late afternoon, we were feeling pretty weary, so didn’t venture over to Marie-Antoinette’s former residence, the Hamau de la Reine.
For many visitors to the French capital, the Château de Versailles is the crowning glory of the tourist attractions. That said, in spite of all the money they quite clearly threw at the place, I wasn’t sold on it. (Though I did enjoy wandering round the Estate of Trianon.) Perhaps it was the crowds. Perhaps it was simply a wee bit overhyped. Perhaps I’ll never be able to pin down exactly what it was that just didn’t do it for me.
- We purchased single tickets to Versailles as we had considered travelling back into Paris from an alternative station. In hindsight, this was a bad idea. Buy yourself a return ticket, and save yourself from spending ages in a queue at the ticket machine for the return leg of your journey. It’s also worth noting that some ticket machines only take card or coins, and not notes.
- If possible, visit the Château de Versailles on a weekday to avoid the worst of the crowds – though don’t forget that it’s closed on Mondays.
- We took advantage of the Château de Versailles ticket waiver for -26 EU citizens; it’s worth checking if you’re entitled to any concessions prior to visiting. Entry to the gardens is free for everyone, except during Musical Fountains Shows and Musical Gardens. See the official website for more details.