T r a v e l

Viva Versailles!

The Palace of the Sun King continues to dazzle, reports Sheila Kumar

The stunning Hall of Mirrors at the palace
Most tourists visit Versailles with a view to upload some drama-filled history into their brains, aided by a montage of truly stunning visuals of the chateau, the palaces and the park. But we were there for a different reason. Being aficionados of historical romances, many-a-time, we had devoured details about Versailles, the Glass Gallery, the palace intrigues and of course, the peccadilloes of the Sun King Louis IV, his successor, Louis XV with the notorious Madame de Pompadour.
We took a train from Paris to Versailles and sat on the plush upper deck watching the Seine meander this way and that for almost three-quarters of our short journey. The Château is a five-minute walk from the station; the real walk begins when you are actually in the cobbled courtyard of the palace. As one strides briskly towards the sprawling edifice, one comes to the statue of Louis XVI on horseback facing a town which basically existed to create houses for 20,000 noblemen, their servants and other members of the court who could find no room at the chateau (which contained only 3,000 beds!).
The Versailles palace was the official residence of the Kings of France from 1682 until 1790. Originally a hunting lodge (the Bourbons were big on hunting), the proportions give you a clear idea of the wealth possessed by the French royals and you kind of understand what brought on the eventual Revolution! Louis XIV expanded the place, lived and trysted in it. In 1682, Versailles became the official residence of the Court of France, supplanting the Parisian palaces of the Louvre and Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Eventually though, the French royalty was dragged on to tumbrels from this very palace and sent to become victims of Madame la Guillotine.
The chambers are appointed in lush elegance, a profusion of silks, velvets, sculpture, porcelain ware, gilt-covered furniture, and portraits galore, 17th Century French art and architecture at its best. The magnificent Hall of Mirrors, the Galleries de Glace, which symbolised the absolute power of the monarch, is a rectangular room done up in chandeliers that have an immediate jaw-dropping effect. It is here from which the king ruled, where the destiny of pretty much all of Europe was decided over a century, and where the Treaty of Versailles was signed to end World War I.
If the interiors of the Château bring on a sense of awe, the gardens, 250 acres of landscaped earth, are pure pleasure. There are over 600 fountains in the gardens; the Seine, several miles away, was diverted to keep water flowing in the fountains.
The grounds are a perfect example of classic French formal gardens, adorned with 400 marble, bronze and lead statues, fountains, and geometric flowerbeds. Beyond the formal gardens are the Petit Parc and the Grand Parc providing an area for strolling or walking.


The grounds are laid out geometrically around a main axis, secondary axes, radiating pathways, and circular (or semi-circular) pools known as basins. Everything is symmetrical, trees were rigorously pruned to grow tall and imposing, and closer to the chateau, the flowerbeds are a magnificent riot of colour. The two ornamental pools are ringed with reclining statues representing the rivers of France.
Out in the vast grounds stand the Grand Trianon and the Petite Trianon, both colonnaded spectacles. Trianon is the name of a village which Louis XIV purchased and then demolished in order to build a house ‘for the partaking of light meals.’ Seeking to flee the oppressive protocol of Versailles, the king could remain closer to his family at the Grand Trianon. Since the days of President Charles de Gaulle, one wing has been reserved for the French head of state. Its two floors feature an ensemble of finely executed woodwork. The Petite Trianon was the infamous Queen Marie Antoinette’s favoured refuge from the hoi polloi and houses some exquisite art and furniture in its gilded rooms.
The Museum of the National Assembly housed in the main Château has a permanent exhibit, ‘The Big Hours of Parliament,’ presenting the history of the French Parliament, a must-see for those who are interested in the way of all governments.
Versailles is all about a show of power, of opulence, of luxury fine-tuned to almost unimaginable levels. Those days may be over but is definitely worth checking out. It’s sure to take your breath away, in a way far more pleasurable and less harmful than the guillotine.

Versailles is a mere 40-minute’s drive from Paris. The RER C train will drop you at the Versailles station. The bus to Versailles from Paris is No171.

The palace and grounds being so vast, you can opt either for a landau or mini-train guided trip through it all. Don’t attempt to do the palace without an audio guide, either… it’s chock-full of very interestingly related history, not something for you to just gawp at and leave.  

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