These Versailles secrets will make you want to go now!

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.

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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?

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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??

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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.

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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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Why this Munich palace is a unique treasure trove?

Touring the Residenz in Bavaria’s capital…

Standing at the site of the infamous fatal gun battle site of historic Odeonsplatz in Munich, you would never imagine that 71 allied bombings had razed this whole city to the ground. There are no traces of the tragedy left. German history lives on through its impeccably restored monuments. And that is one of the many good reasons to not skip Munich or treat it as a pitstop for the castles tour down the Romantic Road. Another good reason is the Residenz. Germany’s largest inner city castle and one of the most important castle museums in Europe, gives you the chance to gawk at some of the most mind-boggling treasures of the Bavarian empire. Recommended for fans of extravagance and history buffs alike.

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First, get the royal juices flowing with the Hofgarten. The elaborate and expansive court gardens, once reserved for the sovereigns, are a green sanctuary for the residents of the city. Today you can arrive on foot or on a modest two-wheel drive, instead of a horse-drawn carriage, and still be privy to the luxury of the renaissance-styled pavilions, sculptures, flower beds and borders of tall trees in this city oasis. Times…they change!

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Facing the Hofgarten, stands the magnificent (reconstructed) palace complex of Residenz, consisting of ten large inner courtyards, theatres, concert halls, chapels, treasury and the residential quarters. This was the seat of Bavarian rulers and the Wittelsbach dynasty who made Munich their capital from 1100s and 1900s. Apparently, Hitler was so enraptured by Munich’s legacy, that he continued the tradition and retained it as his capital after being elected as chancellor. Each royal occupant added rooms and object’d art. In effect, the rooms and the vast art collection span a period covering renaissance, baroque, rococo and neo-classicial eras. Even King Ludwig II, the’ fairy tale king’, spent some time in the Residenz as a crown prince and added his own touches similar to the castles of Neuschwanstein and Linderhof. Art enthusiasts…have a ball!

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The first wide-eyed wonder stop is the Antiquarium, a huge tunnel-like hall with a decorative vaulted ceiling that was once used for banquets and receiving guests. This oldest hall in the entire palace has a large ornate fireplace at one end and antique busts and sculptures lined all along its arched windows. Standing in the middle under the curved ceiling, with your arms outstretched, your head tilted back to survey the paintings above, you realise how tiny you are in the over-sized space. Ah, to turn back the clock and be a honoured guest of the Bavarian imperials…

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Take your time to survey as many of the 130 palace rooms. Each of them is a living fairytale of the life of the kings and queens of Bavaria. Imagine the time of grand balls and parties, as you walk through apartments laden with lavish furniture, oversized paintings, rich tapestries, glittering chandeliers and exquisite sculptures. Doors covered in gold leaf trimmings. Rooms covered with silk damask walls in powder blue, gold, cream, yellow, green, gold, rich red. Opulence overload.

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Lavishness has a whole new meaning in the Rich Chapel…aptly named for its magnificent decor of royal blue and gold inlay work. The domed ceiling inset with dainty stained glass openings is like a piece of jewellery, the workmanship is so detailed and minute. The fine floral ornamentation is designed to raise even the most cynical of eyebrows. Go on, stare all you can.

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Gape over thousands of royal family jewels in the Schatzkammer (Treasury). Gorgeous crowns, medieval jewels, swords, gem-studded tiaras, altar pieces, treasure chests, gold and silver tableware are displayed under muted lighting and carefully focused spotlights. 1,250 items arranged across 10 rooms. Find your favorites. A ruby-diamond statuette (50 cm high) of St. George slaying an emerald-encrusted dragon. A traveling set belonging to Napoleon’s second wife adorned with more precious stones. And the oldest English Imperial crown dated 1370-80. This 7-inch high ‘Bohemian’ crown is made of pure gold, is enamelled and studded with rubies, sapphires, emeralds, diamonds and pearls. When you leave the palace museum a few hours later, you may be too dazzled for anything else.

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Absorb the overwhelming experience with a leisurely stroll along Maximilianstrasse, Munich’s Bond Street. Expensive boutiques, upmarket art galleries and fabulous government buildings line this wide tree-shaded avenue. Women in fur enjoy wine in lavish restaurants and men in Armani suits step out of limousines. And you settle at a pavement table outside Starbucks with your crushed-ice frappuccino. Sounds of a Beethoven symphony flow into your ears from somewhere. You’re thinking…the charming capital of beautiful Bavaria with its low-key atmosphere is rightly dubbed ‘Millionendorf’ (village of a million people). Strangely though, like its heraldic animal, the Bavarian lion, it still has a certain regal air that stays with you even when you’ve left it behind.

 

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Touring the Residenz in Bavaria’s capital…

Three lost cities of Sri Lanka you need to find now!

Amazing ancient kingdoms of Sri Lanka…

Timelines like these. 200 million years ago, Sri Lanka, India, Madagascar, Australia and Antarctica were connected in one land mass, the Gondwana. Sri Lankan Tamils (Indians by origin) have occupied Ceylon since 3000 years. And the country has been a bastion of Buddhism since the 3rd-century, when Mahinda, son of the Indian Emperor Ashoka, introduced a new religion to the island. Flashbacking inspirations? Go, seek the spectacles of Sr Lanka’s Cultural Triangle.

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The most astounding wildlife adventure in Sri Lanka

Wild elephant adventures in Habarana, Sri Lanka

Deep in the north-central jungles of Sri Lanka, at the shores of an ancient reservoir built by King Mahasen more than 1,700 years ago, a centuries-old communal ‘Gathering’ tradition lives on. Each dry season (June to September), hundreds travel here from all across the region for the world’s biggest pool party. The place: Minneriya National Park. The species: herds of elephants. The spectacle: pure magic. Naturally, we are stoked at the prospect.

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More picturesque areas in Salzburg you need to see!

Walking treasures of Salzburg, Austria…

The historic town of Salzburg, Austria, bore the brunt of a massive plague epidemic and two world wars. Nearly half of its magnificent buildings were destroyed, but miraculously, much of the famous Baroque architecture remained unscathed. The town of today, as we see it, is its second avatar….almost rebuilt from scratch. More picturesque areas in Salzburg you need to see include the Dom Quartier and the Hohensalzburg fortress. (Read the first part of this story here). 

Continue reading “More picturesque areas in Salzburg you need to see!”

The most picturesque areas in Salzburg you need to see!

Walking treasures in Salzburg, Austria…

The 3-hour train ride from Vienna may prep you with enough eye-candy, but  that first view of Salzburg, Austria’s fourth-largest city…still a killer. Beyond a meditative river straddled by several bridges, lies a charming old town filled with splendid Baroque spires and domes, under the shadow of one of Europe’s largest medieval fortresses looming large on a gentle hill. Centuries ago, when the Salzach river was an important salt transportation route, butchers and other food processors would unceremoniously dump wastes into it flowing waters. And look now…the entire city is precious UNESCO heritage. River shaming to Love Lock Bridge…that’s some serious headway! Navigating the compact 65-square kilometre town could take you a few hours to a few days, depending on how deep your heart wills you to dig. So, here’s my choice of the most picturesque areas you need to see in this delightful destination synonymous with that evergreen musical from the yesteryears, ‘Sound of Music’. (Read my post on the ‘Sound of Music’ tour experience).

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This is one of the oldest towns on the Adriatic

Retreat to Budva in Montenegro…

Your brain is still woozy from absorbing the red-gold autumn flamboyance of the Lovcen National Park and the raw wilderness of the rocky Dinara Alps, as you drive down towards Budva. Thank the rocky limestone mountain screen that paints Montenegro’s highway. Its a breather from the final spectacle that awaits. Ready or not, here it comes. Right after the final bend.

Continue reading “This is one of the oldest towns on the Adriatic”