I first visited the Palace of Versailles as a teenager and was enchanted by its grandeur. Our private guide regaled us with interesting tales of Court life and I left not a little obsessed with France. I read books about French royalty and the Revolution, attended the Broadway production of Les Miserables, and studied French in college. So when I visited Paris for a week last year, a return to Versailles was an obvious choice for a day trip. But would it live up to my exalted memories?
Marie Antoinette’s Estate was as charming as ever and remains my favorite part of Versailles. In 1774, Marie moved into Le Petite Trianon, a “modest” mansion surrounded by gardens and somewhat secluded from the rest of Versailles. Here she was able to enjoy some privacy; Louis XVI’s unfortunate queen felt stifled by the pomp and circumstance of the Palace.
A decade later, longing for the simple pleasures of country life, Marie had a veritable village constructed on the grounds near her small palace. The so-called Queen’s Hamlet consisted of 11 houses spread around a lake, along with orchards, vineyards, and a livestock enclosure. Peasants were brought in and soon turned the place into a working farm whose produce fed the royal Court. Marie liked to visit the farm with her ladies-in-waiting and play the milkmaid in her replica dairy, further contributing to her reputation as a spoiled rich girl completely out of touch with reality. We all know how that turned out.
Marie Antoinette wasn’t the only French noble who wanted to escape the prying eyes of Versailles. Louis XIV needed someplace secluded to enjoy clandestine assignations with his mistress, so naturally he built her a palace. Le Grand Trianon is a vision of pink marble stretching languidly across the far corner of the grounds. King Louis moved in along with several members of his immediate family, presumably to keep up appearances. After the Revolution, Napoleon had le Grand Trianon restored and lived here with Empress Marie-Louise.
Even in March, without the famed fountains running or blooms on the trees, Versailles’ Gardens are still impressive. Pools of water reflect the ever-shifting sky, while bronze and marble sculptures embellish the immaculately tended walkways and parterres. Hidden groves bring to mind the covert meetings of lovers and revolutionaries alike.
That leaves us with the Palace. In the 1670s, Louis XIV built Versailles on the site of his father’s hunting lodge. He was fed up with the scheming nobility and relocated the entire French Court from Paris to a remote location where he could monitor them more closely. Versailles was designed to show off Louis’s absolute power as the Sun King and the wealth of the French monarchy. Nowhere is this more evident than the Hall of Mirrors. 357 mirrors reflect the light from the wall of windows opposite, as well as the abundance of crystal chandeliers and gold paint, to dazzling effect.
The mirrors will also reflect the hordes of other tourists crammed in next to you. Because here’s the thing about Versailles: It receives over 7.5 MILLION visitors each year and is one of the most popular attractions in the world. I went on a weekday morning in March and some rooms were so crowded I could barely move.
Should you still visit Versailles? Absolutely. But it’s important to go in with realistic expectations. Paris Museum Pass holders will not get to skip the line, which will be lengthy. Rooms inside the main Palace building are minimally furnished as most items of value were auctioned off during the French Revolution. The included audio guide wouldn’t play as there was too much interference from the sheer number of headsets in each room. This wouldn’t have been a problem except there weren’t any written descriptions to read instead. Thankfully, I had the tidbits gleaned from the tour guide on my previous visit to keep me engaged. If you want to make the most of your time at Versailles, I recommend signing up for a guided tour. This is one of the few places where I think it’s worth it.
For a more intimate look at Palace life, head to the Mesdames’ Apartments. Located in a private wing with a separate entrance, these are the rooms that Louis XV gave to his six darling daughters, two of whom stayed in residence until the Revolution. This lovely corner of the Palace is furnished as though the ladies will return home at any moment and boasts full English descriptions in every room. Even better, hardly anyone else was inside!
Don’t leave Versailles without dining at Angelina. Although technically a tea house, I was delighted to find foie gras salad and truffle ravioli on the lunch menu. (If there was ever a place to eat like a queen…) The highlight, of course, was dessert. Angelina is renowned for its outrageously delicious “African hot chocolate” made from cocoa sourced in Niger, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. This decadent drink pairs well with the irresistibly light Millefeuille à la vanille Bourbon, though all the pastries look heavenly.
Have you been to Versailles? What were your impressions?