Me, in the cold, 12 December 2009
I started writing this series of blogs almost one month ago, on January 5, but only just posted within the past few days. It is almost two months since I visited the Château de Versailles, on a very chilly December Saturday, the 12th, of 2009.
Part One is here. In that post is 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 is here. This post is about what to see while you are there, with photos.
Here in Part Three, I want to write about what happened to me as a result of my visit — how the visit changed me and my perceptions about Paris and France.
Why on earth has it taken me so long for me to write these posts?
Part of it is that the experience of Versailles was not only physically demanding in terms of walking and sensory/visual overload; it is intellectually demanding as well. It is an effort to process all that one is seeing and put it all into some kind of context. As I have been researching for these posts, I have been discovering more about all that I saw while I was there, and there substantial information about it (as you can imagine. I mean, we’re talking Doctoral Dissertation levels of information “out there,” ha! I feel almost like I have been trying to write a Master’s Thesis these past weeks…). It has taken a lot of words, both through reading and writing, for me to try to process the whole visit and make sense of it for myself. The results of my trying to work it all out are what is appearing here in these blogs. This last bit has to do with the things that I thought and felt while seeing everything that I did.
Paris Is Often Not My Kind of Girl
Here’s the dilemma I have with Paris:
What Paris typically represents for a lot of people has to do with Paris’ being an (the?) art, fashion, and culinary capital of the world. Paris is the kind of city where these cultural things matter a great deal to many people.
Historically, food, fashion, and art have been defined in Western culture by Parisian standards and creations. Take, for example, the words also used in English: haute cuisine and haute couture, high cooking and high fashion. We in English use the French vocabulary, even, to describe the pinnacles of food preparation and clothing manufacture. These words represent the best of the best, the highest of aspirations in cooking and fashion.
Food/cuisine is right up there at the top of the cultural ladder that is Paris (see one of the pre-eminent bloggers about Paris is a blogger who emphasizes cuisine to understand the impact of food on people who experience Paris) — it is also a vital aspect of French culture.
Food: Le Cordon Bleu
Photo Source: Le Cordon Bleu
To read about someone who has attended Le Cordon Bleu, blogger Ms. Glaze at her blog Pommes d’Amour has written about her Le Cordon Bleu culinary experiences here.
Living in and writing about Paris more often than not means to write about her cuisine. After all, there are some 8,000 restaurants within about 60 km sq (about 23 mi sq). Not only Le Cordon Bleu, but several other world-class culinary schools are headquartered in Paris as well.
This one shows better than it tells. She is one of the most famous of all designers to have been birthed in the fashion world, and is synonymous with all that is Parisian, in my opinion:
Photo Source: Everyday Minimalist
From the article, “How the French Keep it Simple and Obtain That Fabulous ‘je ne sais quoi,'” here.
Photo Source: Brazen Hussies dot com.
Brazen Hussies’ Coco Chanel page has some fun quotes from Madame Chanel, like this one:
“A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous.”
More on Coco at Timeline Fashion dot De: Coco.
Karl Lagerfeld, current head designer and creative director for Chanel, with one of the Chanel Cruise 2010 designs.
Photo Source, My It Things dot com.
This site pretty much says it all about Paris fashion: Paris Digest dot com – French Fashion in Paris.
That’s a little on food and fashion. As for Art, well, this List of Museums should demonstrate the Parisian inclination to the beaux arts. I don’t think I need to belabor the “art” portion. It’s pretty much a given, right? I mean, c’mon: the LOUVRE. ‘Nuff said. 😉
So, Paris is eponymous with the cultural Ideals of food, fashion, and art. Parisian food, fashion, and art are ballasts and pinnacles of world culture, in the sense of haute-ness.
These things, these interests, however, do not really completely fit me – fit who I think I am – and I often feel Paris is trying to be highly superior with its haute cuisine, haute couture, and beaux arts/haut art: snobbery at its most. There is a haughty air about Paris that matches its haute-ness. There is a current of pretention powering parts of Paris. It’s palpable to me with my Piscean Moon. (Did I overpower you with alliteration there, eh?)
It’s not *everywhere.* After all, it is why I started some of the “Ghetto Paris” posts here on the blog (see the Archives). There is a cultural diversity here with immigration into France of many Asians and Africans; there are people of all socioeconomic classes in the city. There are a lot of homeless. Itinerants. Romani. There are “regular folks” who get up, go to work at middling sorts of jobs, prepare fast and easy meals for dinner, wear clothing from the Parisian equivalents of Target, watch some television before finally going to bed, and then get up and do it all the next day. Not everything is haute, haute, haute.
Still, the undercurrent by and large feels to me like Paris is comprised in it foundations of its haute-ness. Haute-ness is still to what people aspire, even in its simplest of forms.
I may not be able to completely harmonize with the fundamentals upon which Parisian culture is built, but as I have written before, I at least want to try to get along with this woman (Paris is always a woman) who, to me, often feels superior, mercurial, elitist, pretentious, and, yeah, sometimes pretty much bitchy. I would dearly like to find those sides of her that are harmonious with my own sensibilities, but I recognize that I may not. Still, I am not going to live with the regret of not trying. I keep thinking, as I do with most people, that since Paris and I have been thrown into the arena together, we might as well align with one another and make the best of it. However, since she is who she is, it is pretty much up to me to do the aligning, I recognize.
Who knows, though? Maybe there is a secret side to Paris that I have yet to meet, have yet to interact with. Maybe she and I will become the best of friends. I’m still here, so I feel like I need to give it a Girl Scout try while I can.
What I Came to Understand
Traveling to Versailles taught me where the foundations of the idea of haute comes from: it comes from the kings and queens of the Ancien Régime. The first step in attempting to harmonize is to understand the roots of that with which you are trying to harmonize. I got a good start at a first step while at the Château.
It started when I saw this before entering the Palace.
TO ALL THE GLORIES OF FRANCE
Every nation experiences ethnocentrism.
David Sedaris humorously points this out in the chapter of Me Talk Pretty One Day called “See You Again Yesterday.”
I’d planned to join him [his boyfriend, Hugh, who has a house in Normandy], but that first year, when the time came to buy my ticket, I chickened out, realizing that I was afraid of France. My fear had nothing to do with the actual French people. I didn’t know any actual French people. What scared me was the idea of French people I’d gotten from movies and situation comedies…. My understanding was that, no matter how hard we tried, the French would never like us, and that’s confusing to an American raised to believe that the citizens of Europe should be grateful for all the wonderful things we’ve done…. Every day we’re told that we live in the greatest country on earth. And it’s always stated as an undeniable fact: Leos are born between July 23 and August 22, fitted queen-size sheets measure sixty by eighty inches, and America is the greatest country on earth. Having grown up with this in our ears, it’s startling to realize that other countries have nationalistic slogans of their own, none of which are, “We’re number two!”
(pp. 156-157, Abacus UK paperback edition, 2002)
France definitely does not think “We are number two!”
And they have a pretty good case with what is to be found at Versailles to claim “We are number one!” — at least they did during the 14th to 18th centuries, and especially during the reigns of the Louis: XIV, XV, and XVI. These were the years when the French Colonial Empire was established, when French art, culture, food, and fashion became de rigueur with the upper social classes in Europe.
The Palace and Estate embody so much of that which is haute.
The Mars Drawing Room
At the Virtourist dot com link about the Mars Drawing Room, it states:
One of King Louis XIV’s most famous sentences is : ‘L’Etat, c’est moi’ (=”I am the State”). And he really meant it. All the state affairs were controlled by the king himself. Powerful nobles were ignored, and only the ones who obeyed him were given the privilege to be part of the court.
(Another example of hubris-in-action: check out this statue of Louis XIV.)
This is a kind of crappy photo of the painting in the corner of the Mars Drawing Room above. I was trying to angle the camera to reduce as much glare as possible (it is directly across from windows), but with marginal success. It is a copy of an original painting found at the Louvre: Veronese’s “Supper at Emmaus.”
From the Web Gallery of Art:
Veronese used the stories from the Gospels as an excuse to stage sumptuous feasts in sixteenth-century dress inside grandiose and theatrical architectural perspectives, producing realistic representations of social life at the highest level.
I stopped to look at this photo for a long time as I thought it really represented the kind of hubris found in the idea that kings had divine rights. This and other works of art in the Palace aligned Jesus Christ as practical equal with the kings themselves. It seemed to me, a 21st Century adult accustomed to life in a post-revolutionary democratic republic, to be the ultimate in arrogance.
Another depiction of the Sun King (Louis XIV)
While there is much grandeur to be found, the Palace is comparatively empty of furnishings. I am sure at its peak, it was full of furniture, clothing, linens, draperies, dishes — things much more magnificent than the fairly grand reproductions that stand in place of originals. There was some original furniture present, I’m certain. Not certain of precisely which pieces were original (all of them?), but I have read that some furnishing were recovered post-revolution and placed back in the palace (see the official site here for some of the pieces that have recently been acquired).
Still, what I kept thinking about as I went from salon to salon, and bedroom to bedroom, including in the Petit Trianon (and in photos of the Grand Trianon), was, “Can you imagine what this must have been like when it was fully furnished, fully stocked, fully operational?” I felt overwhelmed with it all.
Photo collage of movie stills from the film Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola
What I appreciate about the Sofia Coppola film, “Marie Antoinette” is that Coppola tried to capture the extravagance of the royal life at Versailles. The luxuries with which Marie Antoinette surrounded herself, from her storybook escape at the Hamlet to the beautiful furnishings, clothing, and foods, were surely grandiose. I was reading on Wikipedia that it is impossible to know how much the creation of Versailles cost, but that
A recent estimate has placed the amount spent on Versailles during the Ancien Régime as US$2 billion (Littell, 2000). This figure in all probability is an under-evaluation of the monies spent on Versailles.
And that is just for the building and possibly furnishing, not upkeep and goods that were bought or created specially for the Palace and people in it for its day-to-day operation. I’m sure billions must have been spent. Knowing that the Palace and her royal inhabitants were living in the lap of luxury and on the backs of the French people who were suffering at this time really helped me see why there was a revolution against the monarchy and why Marie Antoinette was accused of so very much and then beheaded. I think that if the leadership of my country spent that much and lived in such grandiosity while I had nothing, I would feel like revolting, too. The words that continue to echo though my mind when thinking on this are obscenely ostentatious. Gorgeous. Precious. Priceless. But obscene at the root of it all. I felt this keenly at Versailles.
As an aside, I ran into this sympathetic article here at Marie-Antoinette.org by E.M. Vidal** called “A Reputation in Shreds.” In the article there is a call to support for understanding that M-A was actually a very moral, kind, and giving individual. It’s a good article to counterbalance popular notions that she was a selfish, grandiose individual. It is entirely possible that Marie-Antoinette is a very upstanding historical figure and has been unfairly maligned. However, I know that viewing what riches remained at Versailles made me understand that it was a very grandiose place, and very full of itself in general. All who lived there participated in its grandiosity. This includes not only M-A, but also all the kings, queens, and members of the court who inhabited the palace. The ostentatious displays of wealth and power are palpable and unmistakable, even centuries after their peak.
(** Elena Maria Vidal has a blog dedicated to her thoughts, writings, and research called “Tea at Trianon” here.)
I kept wondering what Louis XIV and his successors, all of the royalty who used to inhabit the palace, and Marie Antoinette would have thought about so many thousands of tourists flocking to see the riches that remain in the palace, plodding through bedrooms and sitting rooms, and through some of the personal quarters (like the Petit Trianon, where Marie Antoinette insisted that even the King needed her personal invitation to visit, according to Wikipedia). I wondered what they would have thought at so many commoners overtaking the grounds. Would they resent this? Accept it? Understand it? Revel in it? Be shocked by it? If the dead could speak, I really would like to know the kings’, queens’ and courtiers’ opinions on what happened in the years following the fall of the monarchy and how they would perceive the Palace and the grounds in their present state.
All in all, I’m now fascinated with the Château and the Estate. I have avidly read up on the subject since visiting, and have enjoyed every moment reflecting on my journey there. I can understand why one would not only want to dedicate a few posts to this topic, but entire blogs and books about it, too. It showed me that Paris comes by her roots honestly: that the haute-ness was carefully crafted by her kings and queens of times past. Opulence and extravagance, being and having the best of the best, is part of what makes Paris Parisian. I’m still ambivalent about Paris, just as I am about Versailles and all the grandiosity there. But I understand and appreciate it more, too.
In addition, while researching this post, I decided I really liked this look by Chanel:
I guess not even I am completely immune to haute-ness. Heh.
(Photo Source: My It Things dot com.)
Château de Versailles
- Official Site, in English
- Melanie’s Versailles site and blog, Madame Guillotine.
- Mary Ann Sullivan’s page on the Château de Versailles
- From UK Student Life, this is a very nice basic overview of what can be seen and some basic historical perspective of Versailles.
- Îl-de-France Tourist information on Versailles. There is information about the Château at Fontainebleu and the city of Paris on the site as well.
- LinkParis dot com historical information on Versailles.
- Essential-Architecture dot com’s overview of Versailles.
This is a good link on precautions to take — tips, warnings — from Virtual Tourist. While we were there, pickpockets were working the inside rooms of the Château. Tess’ wallet was taken out of her bag, which she’d unintentionally left open, and then was dropped on the floor. Her ID and credit cards were not taken, but she did lose *all* of her cash. Later that afternoon, we heard an announcement on the public address system that pickpockets were in the Palace and on the grounds, and to watch possessions carefully. Please do take care and WATCH YOUR STUFF, just as you would in any populated tourist area.
If you are very ambitious, Project Gutenberg has a page which links to copyright-free downloadable texts of Francis Loring Payne’s work entitled The Story of Versailles. Published in 1919, it gives in-depth historical background up until the year 1878. I skimmed parts of it. You’d have to be pretty pumped on a historical bent to get into it, but I thought I would include it here.
More on the Palace and others’ journeys there
- A Ghostly Tale. In the first year of the 20th Century, two schoolteachers visiting the Petit Trianon had what they claimed was a paranormal time-shifting experience. They wrote about their time travel incident in a 1911 book entitled An Adventure. Did they really have a ghostly encounter? To read more about the Moberly-Jourdain Incident, see these links: Wikipedia, and “Time Traveling English Schoolteachers” at Trivia Library dot com.
- Nana’s blog recounts the 4.5 hours she spent with her dad in the gardens almost three years ago. I totally cracked up at her unique perspective of her visit. The photos she took of her dad are hilarious and CUTE. You have to check them out in her post. Here’s one as a taste:
- Bubbly Lisa writes about her visit here. She embedded slide shows of her visit (smart girl!) as well as a couple of good YouTube videos introducing Versailles. The videos are very good background information.
- Gary Lee Kraut’s site “France Revisited” has a great series of articles on visiting Versailles. He was actually one who was converted from Versailles Dread to Versailles Curiosity! Read about his transformation in Parts One, Two and Three (see? He did three parts, too!). There is a lot of excellent historical and travel information in the articles, too. His words here really sum up the Versailles experience for me, too:
I’d kept trying to wrap my brain around a single Versailles whereas there is no single Versailles to wrap it around. Versailles is a massive backdrop for serious and less serious games of power, luxury, lust, and top-down entertainment. But one can connect with it only through those who inhabited it, their pleasures and policies, their triumphs and failures, and the echo of their history and cautionary tales in France and around the world. (From Part Two)
- Also linked in Part One: Chris and Katie’s Visit to Versailles.
- Also linked in Part Two: Heather Harwood’s 2007 visit to Versailles.
- Kitkatgo’s TravelPod dot com story of her trip to Versailles: Hall of Mirrors and Horse Meat. I love her photos posted with her tale.
- Virtual Tourist is chock full of reviews about and travel experiences of Versailles. It’s really worth reading up on some of these people’s experiences to get a sense of what one is “in for” when going to Versailles, especially if you are going to experience a once-in-a-lifetime trip there. I’m planning on going back to Versailles to see stuff I missed the first time! But if this is not going to be possible for you, it is wise to do some planning beforehand. I also had fun just reading about people’s experiences. It’s the next-best thing to being there!
More Reading on Marie-Antoinette
A Couple of Links which I enjoyed reading about the film “Marie Antoinette” by Sofia Coppola
- The Back Row Manifesto review of “Marie Antoinette” by Tom Hall (IndieWire Blog Network).
- “Sofia Coppola’s Paris” :The New York Times follows Sofia Coppola around “privileged Paris.” (Interview and article by Lynn Hirschberg, photos included).
Half of the reason it took me so long to write these posts is because I kept running into gorgeous photos people had taken of Versailles. I thought I took some pretty good shots, especially as they were with my measly Nikon Coolpix S200, but some of these are truly stunning. If you have the time and inclination, please check these links out:
- Heather Harwood’s set on Versailles (Flickr)
- Diana Lundin’s photos of Paris and Versailles
- Kimber’s Daily Photos & Budget Travel Tips: posts on Versailles
- Kelly Cheng’s Flickr Set on Paris and Versailles (June 2009)
- Wallyg’s excellent Flickr Set on Versailles (from 2007 – 200 photos)
- Richard A. Higgins Photography – of Paris and Versailles, by category (e.g. Versailles Building Statues, and Versailles Staterooms). STUNNING work. Check this one out.
- Jason Coyne’s 639 photos of Versailles (from 2005 – has a lot of remarkable shots)