Versailles, France is a 40 minute train ride from the heart of Paris, and our group of travelers embarked on the ride to visit one of the most opulent locations in all of the country: the Palace of Versailles. This massive complex began construction under Louis XIV as a home for the French government and royalty. The royals and their court continued living here until after the French Revolution in 1789, but the gold and glamour at Versailles lives on.
Since the palace rests on over 87 million square feet of grounds and the rooms themselves can house over 20,000 people,
everywhere in Versailles offers a different look at the immense grandeur of the French nobility and how they lived. Our group spilt up into many different directions, some choosing to view the royal rooms, others wandering into the gardens, or just letting an audio guide move them through highlights of the palace.
Four of the women on our trip, Charlotte, Rosaline, Carol, and Kathy, walked around Versailles together, and we discussed the glamour and grit of the visit. Both Charlotte and Kathy have been to many other well-known palaces, like Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. They compared Versailles to some of these places; Charlotte mentioned how she has seen other palaces’ replications of Versailles’ famous Hall of Mirrors and how they have been much more elaborate, an effort to outdo the French. However, it is still easy to picture the palace life in the past, especially when in rooms such as the Hall of Mirrors.
The Hall of Mirrors is a colossal room and was used as a waiting and meeting place where courtiers could come and watch the royalty go about their business, or to ask requests. It’s most remarkable features are the seventeen arched mirrors facing the windows to the gardens below. The effect is dazzling, an array of glowing gold, dangling chandeliers, elegant statues, and the green gardens all dance across the surface of the huge mirrors.
“Standing in the Hall of Mirrors and looking in those mirrors,” Charlotte said, “I could imagine Louis having all his masked balls and dances in there. You know, Louie the Fourteenth was known as the Sun King, and he thought of himself as a god. He had complete control over all of the lords and they lived in his palace. That’s the reason for all those rooms.”
Carol adds in that she thinks that the control was, in many ways, the other way around.
“They were always watching him,” Carol said. “Everything he did.”
Indeed, with thousands of people residing in the Palace of Versailles, the monarchy was always being watched. During dinners, meetings, and even more private moments. In the morning, the “levée” (from the French for “lever”) became an everyday ceremony when members of the court would gather in the kings bedchambers to watch him wake up and get dressed for the day. It became so popular that eventually the levée became an invitation-only event. A reverse event occurred in the evening: the coucher would see the king get ready for bed at night.
The rooms here at Versailles truly are sumptuous, both for the court and royals. The palace can also be a bit intimidating. Picture walking through an IKEA, an endless maze filled with furniture and pictures and doors. Now cover all of that in layers of gold, encrust it with jewels, and place a few thousand pictures of royal families on the walls, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what walking through the Palace of Versailles feels like.
“It’s not like we have today,” Carol said. “You have a kind of linear movement here in Versailles. You’d have to walk forever around to get to a certain place. It’s not how I would have laid it out. But it is interesting to see the different hands of different builders here. They each kind of brought a little bit of history from each of those kings to the palace.”
The Palace of Versailles certainly has a deep and twisting history, all the way from its being the peak of political power in the late 1600s to the end of its royal inhabitants after the demise of Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette. However, even their presence is still quite clear here in the rooms today.
“You know, they didn’t have a good marriage,” Charlotte said on Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. “But there was equal opportunity in there. They each had a huge sitting room, and bedroom, and the same furnishings. They lived very grand, both of them. And I really felt a part of history when I saw the door Marie Antoinette escaped through. I was thinking what she must have thought, like ‘They’re coming and they’re going to kill me, where am I going to go?'”
But even before Marie’s escape in 1789, she was already seeking refugee from the court and its hustle and bustle, she had her very own hamlet built among the gardens. These buildings are less imposing than the main palace, and the Queens Hamlet became a working farm which provided supplies for the palace. Two fellow travelers, Joe and Barbara, chose to visit the hamlet at Versailles.
“They’re much more homey than the rest of it,” Joe commented. “There are farms and a lake, and it’s more peaceful.”
The rest of the gardens were not quite at their peak, and Kathy thinks later in the year would be a more fulfilling time to visit.
“There wasn’t one flower,” Kathy said. “Would we do it again? Yes. Maybe in warmer weather; you’re not getting the full effect right now.”
In late March, the gardens of Versailles can still be seen, but they don’t look like the fully blossomed postcards inside the gift shop. The hedges, mazes, paths, and fountains are still here, just not the flora and fauna.
“It was all brown and green,” Carol said. “The garden seemed very simple, and the layout was not what I expected.”
Even with less than desirable garden conditions, I think Versailles was quite the experience. It offers a thorough look into the royal history of France, and in an exquisite way. I would recommend a visit here to anyone with a few hours in France. The luster of the halls is sure to cause a few breathless moments as viewers imagine what it might have been like to live here. The palace draws more than 3 million visitors each year, and is a tipping point for many who are deciding where to travel next.
“Paris was never number one on my place to visit,” Carol comments. “But I really wanted to go to Versailles.”