Getting under the skin of Versailles Palace…
Just 16 kms southwest from Paris, lies possibly one of the most popular, most visited and grandest of all sites in France. Versailles. You’re shaking your head at the prospect of someplace over-crowded and touristy. Well, so is the Vatican. Is that your best reason to skip it altogether? You may say a palace is a palace is a palace. That’s BEFORE you get under its skin. BEFORE you dive deep into its soul. BEFORE you know all the fascinating secrets that make Versailles, Versailles!
Leaving the crazy morning traffic behind, the forested expanse that starts from the outskirts of the French capital will hold you in its embrace all the way till you disembark at the main gates of the Palace at Versailles. The gleaming 24-karat trimmed facade blinds you and the over-the-top extravagant facade dwarfs you into non-existence. Can you believe that this was a simple hunting lodge that Louis XIV, the Sun King had fallen in love with as a young boy. A love intense enough for him to invest 25 years in expanding, embellishing and transforming it into this monumental creation that spreads over 15 acres.
Your worst nightmares may surface as you move from one crowded room to the other, overflowing with heavy ornamentation, oversized paintings, frescoed ceilings and delicate sculptures. You’re struggling in queues to take pictures. Straining to hear your guide over the noise. But refocus and you’ll be fine. You’re privy to some of the 2,300 rooms where 3,000 to 10,000 courtiers used to be housed and entertained daily. Think rigid etiquette, power play, high intrigue, conspiracies and murder plots. Think sky-high coiffures, priceless jewels, lavish gowns. Think endless card-parties, banquets, and masquerades. Crowd-jostling? Pales in comparison, doesn’t it?
Unthinkable that a palace as resplendent as Versailles, once used to stink! Blame it on the myth of waterborne diseases. Hundreds of silk-clothed courtiers packed into Versailles doused perfume instead of bathing regularly. All over the palace, several bowls were placed filled with flower petals to sweeten the air; and perfume was sprayed onto furniture. Even the fountain’s water was scented with perfume. The French court was known as the Perfumed Court. If Nina Ricci, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, or Coco Chanel had been supplying perfume bottles to the court, what kind of inventories they would have had?
The most celebrated section of the palace is the Hall of Mirrors where seventeen mirror arches face seventeen huge windows overlooking the park. What a wondrous space it would have been during the balls…20,000 candles and glittering chandeliers transforming it into a 240 feet-long corridor of light. Marvel at the brilliant workmanship of the Venetian glassmakers and think of the scandal shrouding them. Apparently, the French convinced some Venetian artisans to defect and make the mirrors for the great hall. Later, the Venetian government ordered the assassination of the treacherous artisans. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the ugliest of them all??
Brace yourself for the best part that awaits outside the Palace. The massive Versailles gardens actually need weeks to explore, but stuff in what you can, while you can. Thousands of men, even whole regiments got together to bring the dream of Louis XIV to reality over 40 years. 200,000 trees, 50 fountains, over 200,00 flowers are still planted annually to keep it magnificence intact. The sheer scale of the gardens is jaw-dropping, let alone the beauty of its perfection. Enormous manicured lawns, structured forests, sculptured hedges and topiary cones fill the vision. There are miles of labyrinthine complexity everywhere, punctuated by statues and fountains. Stand facing the grand vista of the sweeping slope down to the mile-long Grand Canal. The stunning Fountain of Apollo glistens in all its gilded splendour.
On a bright sunny day like today, in the 16th-17th centuries, courtiers would have spilled out on the grounds, mingling and conducting their business dressed in their silk tights, velvet gowns, powdered wigs and high heels. (Men of status sported high heels to look taller). Louis XIV himself was a shoe collector and trend setter and wore his trademark red heels to look taller than his five feet, four inches. In the Grand Canal, Venetian gondoliers would have glided by in gondolas and nobles would have rowed along in boats. Naval demonstrations perhaps? If the King was strolling in the gardens, the fountains would be turned on for his enjoyment as he approached, and switched off when he passed (since there was not enough water for all fountains to work at the same time). Times of royal extravaganza!
Stroll down the long shady avenue to the Grand Trianon, a smaller palace that Louis XIV had built for his mistress Madame de Montespan to escape the pomp and rigid formality of court life. The pink marble facade of the elegantly proportioned, single-storey palace is inviting. Its Italian influenced architecture blends in naturally with the geometrical French-style gardens. Apparently, Napoleon Bonaparte had the palace restored and lived here too, on many occasions with his second wife, the Austria-born Empress Marie-Louise. Can you feel their presence?
A short walk away, is the Petit Trianon and its park, the personal sanctuary of Queen Marie-Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI. Between its artificially created landscapes like the Rock, Snail Mountain and the Grotto, pines, larches, fir trees and junipers, she escaped the rigours of court etiquette. What a life she had, the 14 year-old child empress, once the beloved style icon of France, surrounded by myths and scandals all her life, which ended brutally at a public guillotine. Stare out of her bedroom window at the Temple of the Love with its Corinthian capitals and Cupid statue. No life is ever perfect, is it?
Move on to the nearby Hamlet, where she re-created charms of country life. Amble along the farm houses, the mill and the big lake, where she enjoyed languorous boat rides and fishing trips with her companions. Peek into the rustic farm houses where she lived with her guests. Vegetable gardens, banisters, wooden staircases, balconies adorned with earthenware flower pots, curved benches and cherry trees…it is still as idyllic as she enjoyed it, then.
After the French Revolution, when the palace was deserted, many of its furnishings were sold to help pay for the subsequent Revolutionary Wars. Napoleon restored Versailles’ glory when he decided to make it his residence. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, Versailles curators converted many of the museum areas back into palace space, trying to show how they looked before the French Revolution. But today, even with millions of visitors annually, the revenue is not enough to cover maintenance costs. They say that Louis XIV built Versailles, Louis XV enjoyed it and Louis XVI paid for it dearly. Beyond the glamour and grandeur, is a palace with a legacy few palaces have. Enamoured enough?
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