Finally. Something I have been working on (or, really, not working so much on) for weeks now: the long-awaited post on Versailles. I’ve been “talking” this one up for so long now that I am at risk for letting you all down; after all my hype and your reading it, I’m worried that you will think, “That’s not such a great post! What was her problem in getting it done?”
Well, in my own defense of imaginary and (likely) unfounded criticisms (my Internal Critic must be set on “High” today), it has been the sheer massiveness of all that is the Château and grounds at Versailles, and trying to capture an essence of it, just a portion of my experience there, that has kept me in a perfectionistic bind of feeling I am not going to write about it adequately or to share accurately what it was I found there. This has become my bête noire of posts.
But, I have forged on. Herewith I present to you: My Visit to Versailles.
Marie-Antoinette and her three children by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1788
Photo source: ParisKarin (moi); information source: Mary Ann Sullivan, Bluffton University
In fact, with all the hooplah around writing this up, I have decided to write this piece in three parts. You are reading Part One. This post includes an introduction about the Château, information about who should and who should not visit, and preparations and recommendations about planning a trip there (including how to get there).
Part Two, What To See While You Are There is here.
Part Three I have yet to begin, but will also be coming soon, and will be about some of the things I learned and discovered from my experience. UPDATE: It is now COMPLETED (finally). There are also sources for additional reading at the end of the post.
On December 12, 2009, my friend Tess drove us to Versailles to visit the palace and estate of three of the former kings of France, Louis XIV (Louis Quatorze, Le Roi Soleil, The Sun King), Louis XV (Louis Quinze), and Louis XVI (Louis Seize), the king deposed by the French Revolution of 1789. One of the largest palaces in the world (source), the château existed before it became the residence of Louis XIV (it was a hunting lodge built by Louis XIII in 1623). Before it was developed into the massive and opulent palace at it was to become, however,
[I]t had been a simple brick and stone structure of three wings built around a courtyard. See the original building. This building was left standing, perhaps for sentimental or political reasons, and the new palace enveloped the old château so that the original court fronts are still intact. (Source)
From simplicity, to grandeur, to a modern-day museum that is still grand, even as a shadow of it former glory, the château and estate grounds at Versailles is one of the top tourist destinations in (and near) Paris. This is not without reason. I have one thing to say about the estate at Versailles above all: I found it to be amazingly and incredibly overwhelming, and my visit there impressed upon me the weight of history in all that is France. From my visit I have come to understand that a lot of my struggle in coming to terms with my life in Paris is in part because the momentum of her historical roots still very much influences culture and the way of life in what is now modern France.
This may be a bit Woo-Woo for some, but in my astrological profile, my moon is governed by Pisces. If one is (such as I) am inclined to think that there is a possibility that the cosmos might have a bit of influence on our personality and character, at least in its bent, if not in its overall makeup as our day-to-day experiences and environment has an impact on us, then a having a moon in Pisces means that I have a propensity to be creative, sensitive, empathic, affectionate, intuitive, caring, and imaginative. The flip-side of having a moon in Pisces is that I can be overwhelmed, self-indulgent, melancholic, evasive, and dependent. This is an accurate description of me, I feel. In addition, Pisces moonchildren,
…have an oceanic emotional life whose waves shape their perceptions about life. They’re constantly picking up the feelings of others, along with the mood of the atmosphere around them. Their exquisite emotionality may lead them into the Arts, and this helps them find a focus for all the images, thoughts and feelings passing through their sensitive souls. (Source)
What does this have to do with Versailles? It means that when thinking about writing a post on Versailles, I have been confounded by where to begin, by where to start to explain and show what it is I found there. Emotionally, visiting Versailles was overwhelming to me as I felt on an intuitive level with my Pisces moon sensitivity the hundreds (if not thousands) of people who were a part of its creation and sustenance over time, not to mention the extremely powerful and charismatic leaders who lived and visited there. I found it to be a very compelling, magnetic place.
The inner, central courtyard of the palace, and the original building. Photo by me.
Who Should Visit and Who Should Not
Now, before I get too carried away with my glowing descriptions, I must write that seeing the palace and grounds at Versailles is not everyone’s tasse de thé.
(Aside: Hey! A quick Google Search to make sure I was using the correct words in French yields a comprehensive website on lesbianism in French. Huh. It never ceases to amaze me what all is on the Interwebz.)
Paul (PJ) has been to Versailles probably four times in the nearly 20 years he has lived here and he has said that the place bores him to tears. I can understand why. I think that Versailles (which is the name of the city about 20 miles to the southwest of Paris, but has become synonymous with the palace and estate) would appeal most to people who are interested in the following things:
- the historical roots of modern France and the modern Western world
- serious Francophilia (sounds like something catching, or something creepy, but I mean the Love of All Things French)
- art and art history in Western Civilization
- gardening and landscaping
- high culture
- monarchy, royalty, and politics of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries
If one is not really into this kind of stuff, then Versailles is not really going to be very fun. It’s enormous (GINORMOUS, in fact), involves a ton of walking, and in its size and scope rivals the Louvre in all there is to see. It is very overwhelming and I cannot imagine bringing small children, teenage boys, very elderly people (or others who are not very mobile), or anyone who is not impressed by at least one of the bullet points above. If you are someone who is not very mobile or who has special needs in regards to transportation and so on, I would seriously recommend signing up with a tour service or guide (for example, I found this on the web: Versailles Tours) who could assist you with those needs. I, personally, cannot imagine trying to visit a place like Paris or Versailles wheelchair-bound, but I also know where there is a will, there is a way, and there are people who do just that. I wish you luck!
Versailles does lean (of course) to a Royalist and frou-frou side of life. I think it is a little more friendly to those whose interests lie in architecture, art, and interiors — dare I say a more feminine side of life? So, for teen boys and men who may be into history, but not so much into art, furniture, and interior design, send them to the Musée de l’Armée at Invalides in Paris while you go to Versailles. Seriously. That museum is a dude’s wet dream of weaponry dating from pre-history on through the Second World War. My RPG-loving, D&D-playing almost 13-year-old son (at the time) thought he had died and gone to heaven in that museum, and, while I found it interesting and all, I was a bit like, “OMG, another sword!” while he was in conniptions about a two-handed Damascus steel rapier from the 17th century**.
(**I made that last part up, all you weaponry people “out there,” to be hyperbolic. I have no idea if there is such a thing. I was just trying to make a point.)
I also have to say that I am not hardcore about any of the above bullet points, either. What I do love that attracted me so to Versailles, however, are the human stories I felt so palpably about the place, most of all the story of Marie Antoinette.
Preparations and Recommendations
At Least Watch the Movie
Photo Source: IMDB
The extent of my background knowledge about Versailles before visiting was limited to two things:
- the happenings in the movie “Marie Antoinette” directed by Sofia Coppola
- reading a little about Versailles on Wikipedia in connection with wanting to know more about Marie Antoinette after watching the movie directed by Sofia Coppola.
I did not know very much about it, obviously. I was vaguely aware that kings before Louis XVI had lived there, I knew there was a king called “The Sun King” but could not have told you which king it was, and all other conceptions I had of the time and place of the peak of the courts at Versailles had come from reading Regency historical romance novels between the ages of 11 and 17 in which the French influenced fashion, mores, and culture.
If your level of information is about where mine is at, do yourself a favor and at the least watch the movie by Sofia Coppola and starring Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzman. It is appropriate for young people, probably especially girls from the age of 12 or so (it’s PG-13. If I had a very intellectually mature 10 or 11 year old daughter, I would let her watch it. I swing to the more liberal and open side of things, though, so watch it for yourself and see what you think before showing it to your own kids). Based on the book by Antonia Fraser, it shows a sympathetic yet well-rounded picture of the Austrian princess turned Queen of France. It gives possible explanations and psychological basis for what many French still resent about Marie-Antoinette: her excess in spending and creating a world for herself, her friends and her children that rivals any luxury of the billionaires alive today. Filmed in part at Versailles itself, production was given “unprecedented access” to the palace and grounds (Source).
This film will give you a bit of context to all that you will see at Versailles.
Also of note for background information (in addition to the official site):
- Blogger Peter of Peter’s Paris has written about the film and the book on which it was based at a post on his former blog, Marie Antoinette.
- I also discovered a blog dedicated to All Things Marie-Antoinette and Versailles here: Madame Guillotine. It’s not a blog exclusively about M-A and Versailles, but the bulk of the blog is dedicated to information and images about the life and times of the Versailles of M-A. Here is the link to one of blogger Melanie’s posts about Versailles.
- Here at Travelpod.com is a cute account of a young couple’s winter visit to the palace and grounds: Chris and Katie’s Visit to Versailles.
Budget a Lot of Time
Plan to spend an entire day at Versailles. Get there really early.
First of all, it is about 20 km southwest of Paris (source: Wiki Travel Guide – Versailles), and you are going to need time to get there as well as time to see a lot of what is there. In order to see the Château/Palace and parts of the grounds as well as the Grand Trianon, Petit Trianon, and Marie-Antoinette’s Hamlet (other homes on the estate, and all of which I highly recommend), you are going to want a minimum of three hours (and really, you probably can only see the Palace with that amount of time). An adequate visit of all of the listed items, in my opinion, is going to be more like 5-6 hours, minimum, from the time you arrive. Yup. THAT big, THAT large in scope.
I recommend starting at the opening time of the Château (depending on the time of year), beginning at the Palace itself, and then branching out to other areas from there. The official website, in English, is here. The hours, which are listed at this page, range depending on the time of year you are visiting.
The official site has a wealth of information about how to visit Versailles, as does the Wiki Travel link on the city of Versailles above. I did not read any information before arriving, and I wished I had at least made myself a little bit familiar with what I was seeing beforehand.
There is a ticket called the Passport, which gives you access to admission to all the tours of the Palace, the grounds (which are accessible for free year-round – check for times at this link), the Trianon Palaces and Marie-Antoinette’s Estate as well as an audio tour. As of the writing of this post, the website says it is 18 € for the Passport (however, I purchased my ticket at an automated ticketing kiosk with a French Carte Bleue Visa “smart card” for only 16 €. I don’t know if this is because I purchased it at the kiosk or if it was because it was Low Season when we went). More information is at the official website here: Tickets and Rates.
The Wiki Travel Guide says that it is also possible to order tickets online at the Château de Versailles ticketing website.
I am lucky in that my friend Tess has a car, so we hopped on the A13 from the Périphérique towards Rouen/Versailles, and then Exit 5 to the city center and to the parking lot off of the Avenue de Paris. Or at least I think that is what we did as I was the passenger who was chatting with her and not really paying much attention to precisely where we were headed. I read on the Wiki Travel Guide that you can take the
RER C line, direction Versailles Rive Gauche, get off at Versailles Rive Gauche station. Be careful not to get off at Viroflay Rive Gauche! The name looks somewhat the same, but this is not the same station! Another branch of the RER C, direction Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, stops at Versailles Chantiers.
(Source) The line number at the RATP site is labelled Line C5. Remember: this stop is outside of the zone where regular Métro tickets will get you, so you have to purchase the RER ticket specifically to Versailles Rive Gauche at a ticket window. Get a return ticket while you are at it.
Screen shot from the RATP site showing the Versailles Rive Gauche stop as well as the Versailles Chantiers stop on line C8. Make sure to get the right train going to Versailles Rive Gauche!
Here is the Google Maps screen shot of the parking area off of the Avenue de Paris as well as the RER C stop at Versailles Rive Gauche. The RER stop is also very close to the entrance of the Château.
There are also instructions on how to get to the Château de Versailles at the official website on this page: How to Get to the Palace.
A Site Worth Looking At – info about where to eat, shop, and pee
I have explored the official website for the Château de Versailles carefully since visiting. It is a very helpful and informative site. One of the most helpful pages in the very comprehensive and therefore a little overwhelming site is the facilities and services page here. It explains where there are bathrooms, shops, places to eat, and what kinds of things are available at the shops and places to eat.
A note here about gluten-free or allergen-free travel:
Honestly, I did not eat while I was there. Here’s why. After over seven months of drinking hardly a drop of alcohol (except for thimblefulls here and wee drams there), I had three glasses of white wine (okay, maybe even four or five — I lost count) the night before while out with my French girlfriends, Karine, Priscilla, and Elena. I got schnockered and was pretty well hungover as a result. It was a night to remind me about why I basically do not drink any alcohol anymore, heh! I figured it was my punishment to walk it all off at Versailles. Another added benefit of visiting the Château and grounds — its a great hangover treatment! 😉 So, I was not in a mood to eat or drink. I basically went for several hours without doing either. I was also concerned that there was not going to be food or drink that I could have, so I did not even explore the possibility. Stupid, perhaps, and yeah, I got really worn out by doing this and probably stressed my system a little, but after I got home, I got rehydrated, ate a good dinner and was set to rights with a good night’s sleep.
I noted at the museum entrance that small bottles of water were allowed in the Palace museum and on the grounds, but no food could be brought in. However, there is a coat check, for free, at the Palace entrance. If you wanted to pack a small bag with snacks, you could check the bag, spend the beginning of the day at the Palace, and then go to have a picnic on the grounds outside before heading to the Trianon in the afternoon. If I return, especially in warmer weather, I may try to do this. Also, a person may very well be able to have some gluten-free fare at the places listed to eat on the facilities and services pages.
For more information about eating and ordering gluten and/or allergen-free in Paris, see David Lebovitz’s post here about it: Gluten-Free Eating and Dining in Paris.
To help you make your travel preparations, you may also want to check this site out: Virtual Tourist Versailles Travel Guide.
Continued in Part Two.