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
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