We almost missed visiting Versailles. Our already full vacation itinerary had so many places cut from the first draft that we’d still be there had we stuck with the original plan. Versailles wasn’t part of it and it was only tacked on to the end of our stay as an afterthought. In talking with other travelers however, we found that visiting Paris without visiting Versailles is like skipping Big Ben in London because you’re already wearing a watch. The Palace of Versailles, the Gardens of Versailles, the Hall of Mirrors and the Grand Trianon, are all magnificently French and very Parisian things to see while in the City of Lights.
Returning from Spain a day early because of the continued uncertainty of the train strike, we wanted closer access to Charles de Gaulle Airport for the final morning of our return flight home. I wasn’t initially sold on the hype of the guidebooks but this single change of plans gave us a bonus day to fall in love with Versailles. I didn’t know any better.
Early dawn and a day prior to our expected visit, we took the slow Portugal-to-France train, boarding in the Castile-Leon region of Northern Spain. It plodded along all morning across Northern Spain and through the Pyrenees Mountains, ending at the border town of Hendaye on the France side of the Spanish-French border. A high speed train from there took us the rest of the way into Paris, our schedule however still uncertain due to the continued labor strikes. The train was in fact running, albeit late, and we spent the day speeding comfortably toward the French capital. We were delivered into the exact station that would make our local transfer to Versailles the smoothest reality.
A modest hunting lodge was built in 1624 in the countryside south of Paris, back then about the distance of a long carriage ride. Just outside the burgeoning village of Versailles, the building and property were expanded and developed in 1669 into the Royal Palace and Gardens of Versailles. Now an easy train ride from Gare Montparnasse, one of the eight major Paris train stations, Versailles has become synonymous with gilded, royal excess. Completed in 1682, the Palace of Versailles brought prosperity to the nearby village. Versailles is simply overwhelming – over the top, overarching, all encompassing. It’s a Chateau, a Palace, a Cathedral, and it features acres of gardens, fountains and an army of sculptures. Even the town sitting right outside the golden spiked gates is named Versailles and is both bustling and charming at the same time.
Inspiration for Washington D.C.
The town of Versailles itself served as inspiration for the layout and design of Washington D.C. Versailles native Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a French born architect who was educated at the Louvre and later enlisted in the American Army during the American Revolution, used his hometown as a model for Washington D.C., appealing directly to George Washington with his plans for the new capital of the upstart country in the New World. L’Enfant is now buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C.
Thinking back, you will understand that by the late 1700’s when our nation’s capital was just a dream in a swamp, Versailles was then a modern, world class city. What started as a country village, Versailles became a template for the grand avenues (a French word) of our own nation’s capital as it was once the capital of France itself. All the boulevards (also a French word) and promenades (another French word) flow into, or flow out of, depending on how you look at it, the front of the Chateau. All roads lead to Versailles, in Versailles, or at least lead to the massive bus parking lot in front of the Palace. Washington has a similar symmetry to it with the National Mall, and Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues, also lined with tour buses.
Centuries later, Versailles is now a suburb of Paris and worth a visit. One of Paris’ main tourist attractions, the Palace is visited by 7 ½ million visitors each year, many of which were standing in the same Disneyland-long admission line that very same morning as our June visit. More people pass through the impressive golden gates of the Palace of Versailles annually than walk the steps of Washington’s Lincoln Memorial or study with bent neck the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.
The buildings on the property are an impressive grouping of palatial residences and stately purpose, featuring 700 rooms, over 1,200 fireplaces, more than 60 staircases, over 2,000 windows and gallons of gold leaf glistening from all the pointy parts. The gardens include approximately 400 sculptures and 50 fountains covering almost 2,000 acres of meticulously manicured landscaping. The Palace itself boasts 720,000 square feet of floorspace. Picture seven Home Depot stores positioned side by side and filled with opulent extravagance from top to bottom.
To put the grandeur into perspective, let me explain that in the French industrial city of Toulouse, in the southwestern part of the country, sits the Airbus factory. The Airbus A380 aircraft is the largest, most massive commercial airliner produced in the world. This Airbus A380 reaches 239 feet nose to tail and would fit, at least lengthwise, in the great Hall of Mirrors of Versailles. Of course it would bulge out through the ceiling and you can forget about the wingspan, but the length of the fuselage would fit snugly in this grand hall, one of the featured highlights of the Versailles tour. The final assembly hangars in which these massive planes are manufactured are built on 123 acres, a mere fraction of the grounds of Versailles.
Historians will tell you the significance that Chateau Versailles played during the French Revolution. The end of the American Revolution became official at the signing of The Treaty of Paris, actually signed in Versailles. The Treaty of Versailles was also signed here, effectively proclaiming the end of the First World War. Architecturally and culturally significant, the complex is now labeled a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We got into town late that Friday evening after our long day on the train and enjoyed a wonderful meal of crepes (hey, it was either that or escargot and the sweet tooth won out) at a sidewalk café near our hotel. Saturday morning we walked through the village and over to the Palace to stand in line with everyone else from all around the world. Once inside the Chateau, we fought the crowds and tried not to get lost or separated. For a short time we followed an amazing English language tour guide who was sharing enthralling stories to a bored group of high school students as he wove his way deftly through the dense throng of people.
For the first time on our vacation we took a well earned, late afternoon nap back at the hotel. Our whole vacation was go, go, go, but I think we each needed the rest. Revitalized, we walked back down the promenades leading to the Palace and Gardens. Our Saturday evening tickets – our final night on vacation - were reserved for the gardens, fountains and fireworks. This day marked the start of the “Night Fountains” summer season and turned out to be the crowning jewel of our holiday. By Sunday we were on the short bus to the airport and on our way back home.
Hotel du Cheval Rouge Versailles
We stayed at the Hotel du Cheval Rouge Versailles, a modest structure that was built some 340 years ago, (1676, no kidding) initially designed as stables and a provisions storehouse and once used as a carriage house to support the new town and king’s chateau growing up around it.
Nothing fancy by any stretch of the imagination, we knew we were onto something special though with the assistance we received in changing our reservations on the run. The attentive staff helped rearrange our days and added a room night on one of the busiest weekends of the year. A room key and directions to our room were left for us should we have arrived after closing since we were stuck on the train on all day. They even mailed out our postcards the day after our Sunday morning departure. Mail from France took only a week to get to California. We were impressed. We sent postcards to Mexico and they took three months, no kidding!
Thirty eight simple rooms spread over two floors, our room was on the first floor (the floor above the ground floor when you are counting floors in Europe). We kept the large windows, no screens, wide open and enjoyed the light and the freshest air you could breathe.
Features included free Wi-Fi, creaky hallway floors and two wonderful mornings of breakfast buffet. We especially enjoyed the soft poached eggs and the boys went back for seconds. The lone vending machine we found inside featured the coldest, wettest, purest water we drank on our whole trip. We loved our affordable and convenient hotel.
Our room overlooked the car park, not generally a big selling point when looking for lodging, but we looked down on the gated parking lot from our room. Buildings all around, it was in fact a courtyard ringed with old wooden garage doors and a couple trees and flowers in the small center garden. We had walked over from the train station but had we driven, off street parking awaited. An otherwise nondescript selection of about a dozen European cars were all lined up below but one car in particular commanded our attention.
Parked in the courtyard below was an old Bentley, a car that would have been new some 250 years after our hotel building had been built but was in fact only approaching about 90 years in age. This was a car that should itself now be housed in a museum and yet roams freely through the roads and byways of the European countryside. The throaty sound of the engine as it roared to life the next morning filled the room and rattled our windows. It was great.
Bentley is a decidedly British marquee and this particular model was a 1929 4.5 Litre Bentley, license number VR-1523. The 24 Hours of Le Mans motor race was running further up the road that same (American) Father’s Day weekend in June. The car drove off before I got to meet the owner (Englishman Bob Ashworth, so says the Internet) but the 1928 Le Mans race winning car was an almost identical make and model. The extent of my knowledge and research ended there.
It warmed my heart though that this daily driver, or at least a weekend warrior of an automotive specimen, sat briefly under my window flower box for me to admire but then was used for what it was made to do - to be driven. This is a car that still fires up and eats Renaults and Citroens for breakfast nearly a century after production, not neutered and yoked to a museum showroom floor. One of the highlights of my trip, can you tell?
Outside the front door of our hotel an old stable market wrapped itself around the open square, our hotel sitting snugly in one corner of the square Place du Marche Notre Dame, one of the oldest and largest outdoor markets in this region of France. By day, dozens of food vendors sell their specialties in this French version of a food court - and have done so for centuries. By night the creperies, pizza restaurants, and outdoor bistros welcome the hungry. Contained in the center of it all, the open air market with tented street-vendors alternate days with grocery vendors. We were visiting the day of the hard goods.
Shopping wasn’t high on list of things to do that day but we couldn’t resist the markets when we we each had final handfuls of Euros burning holes in our pockets on our last day. They (the coins and bills) weren’t going to be doing much good sitting in a piggy bank at home waiting for our next transAtlantic flight. So we went shopping.
My wife found a beautiful new purse, not one made in China and not sold in Kohl’s. She picked up a couple pair of walking shoes, nothing glamorous but certainly comfortable and absolutely meaningful. We bought a hard-sided luggage for checking in some of our souvenirs, including the Spanish olive oil that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to carry on the following day. One of the twins found a great canvas bag to replace his weathered Costco backpack now that he’s heading off to college this fall. And I ran out of clean t-shirts so my splurge was a Paris / Eiffel Tower tourist t-shirt that got me home still smelling fresh.
A quick walk a couple blocks down the street to the Paroissa Notre Dame de Versailles, we looked inside the 1686 Versailles Notre Dame church. Continuing another block toward the Palace and trying not to stop at every charming storefront business along every step of the way, we crossed another monument square. A block later the street opened to a massive cobblestone parking lot and the gates of the Chateau, and welcomed us to a line of tour buses almost as long as the line of a thousand visitors outside the gates waiting to get in.
Flowing and Glowing
Every Saturday night from mid-June through mid-September, the Gardens are opened in the evenings and ticket holders are treated to dancing fountains, classic Handel music beaming from hidden speakers throughout the grounds, and even a fire show down the center park space.
The “Fountains Night Show” is truly spectacular. All the fountains are all turned on and fireworks that cap the night are launched from the end of the Grand Canal.
A visit to the Gardens, for those on a budget, are normally free admission but this extravagance requires a special ticket and was well worth it. The grounds were slightly sodden and muddy in places as there had been severe rains and some flooding in Paris over the previous weeks. (The Seine in Paris had breached its banks, had locals describing in wide-eyed wonder of the river’s surface reaching the underside of the some of the bridges, and had closed some of the riverside museums). Amusement park-style maps guided the way to the dozens of fountains (actually fifty fountains on the grounds and many still using the centuries old, original plumbing) and guided you through angled mazes of topiary and statuary. A leisurely, hours long walk through the gardens at dusk with family was the perfect end to a hectic, constantly moving, vacation.
Just before the fireworks were set to start, we found a space to sit on the crowded steps to the left of one of the most spectacular and central fountains, the recently restored Latona Basin and Fountain, now bathed in spotlights and glowing gilded gold. The European summer sun sets at 10:00 p.m., the sky colored with shades of purple and blue and slowly giving way to the star studded darkness of night. The fireworks show exploded in anticipation, a fantastic exclamation to our final night in France.
I did a little more online research once I returned home to look up more out about the Bentley but instead found more information about the recently reopened “Coach Gallery” in the “King’s Great Stables” of Versailles. I still can’t find it on a map but have decided it a must see for our next visit. Basically a carriage (car) museum on the Versailles property, featuring Cinderella-style wedding, coronation and funeral carriages. I had never really given these fictional cartoon carriages any thought but the ones of our fairy tales are in fact based on real machines. Imagine a garage full of these otherwise extinct “vehicles”, not like current model Renaults, Citroens, and of course, Bentley’s, and now we have another reason to visit again.
John P Merli
My family visited France and Spain this past June and fell in love with both countries. This story was from our final night in Versailles.
Four recommended books to get you to Versailles, both the town and the palace, on the outskirts of Paris. The Versailles Season One is a DVD set of the first season of the recent English language story of King Louis XIV. The team filmed this on property, in full costume, at Versailles on the Mondays and nights the Palace was closed. Highly recommended if you haven't seen it yet. It will inspire you to spend a whole lot more time at Versailles than we were able, ..this time.