My favourite man-made creation…
I have postponed writing about Versailles for some time now, for one simple reason: I must admit I don’t know how to put into words my feelings about it. Not only is it my favourite man-made creation of all times, but it is a place that genuinely speaks to me through symbols and motifs that I truly love.
You all know how much I love baroque 😉 , and Versailles is quintessentially a baroque masterpiece, but we wouldn’t do it justice to reduce it only to the artistic and architectural current that shaped it. Versailles was designed to be a world inside the World, creating a gilded daily miniature universe for all of France’s nobility, their entourages and their households. We tend to see palaces as grandiose housings for history’s rich and famous, and indeed some of them are just that. Versailles housed over 7000 people, many of whom very rarely left its grounds. It only takes to think that in order to escape the bustling life of Versailles’s main palace, on the same domain, Louis XIV and Louis XV built other palaces (Le Grand Trianon and Le Petit Trianon) – summer retreats, of sorts. When even vacations are passed on the same grounds :), Versailles’s microcosmic image starts to become quite vivid.
A world within a world …
It is probably this massive symbolic expansion – from a huge palace to a living and breathing world – that has always fascinated me about Versailles, beyond its undeniable beauty and tremendous artistic value. That, and the obvious WOW factor that follows your every step, inside the actual palace and out in its renowned gardens.
In all fairness, this “World within a World” concept was born out of pragmatic political manifestations just as much as enlightened architectural dream, as the Sun King wanted to bring the whole nobility of the realm under one roof … HIS roof. Why leave powerful nobles to their own (sometimes treacherous) devices, living in their own country palaces, when you could provide for them state-of-the art, lavish apartments, clear pompous courtly routines and more entertainment than they could ever dream of AND have them all packed nicely under your watchful eye 😉
It is very true that for the modern mind all of this sounds terribly absolutist. Just as much as there have always been voices highlighting the huge social differences and livelihoods existing between the nobility and the less fortunate categories, about the tremendous costs of raising Versailles at the expense of poor people, and so on. All very valid points of view, but very often when talking about it, I find myself defending Versailles and similar palaces. And that is for one major reason: I dislike to analyse history through Third Millennium lenses. Four hundred years have passed since then and the society has evolved, corrected some of its mistakes and set some of its records straight. Still, it would be unfair in my opinion to chip away any bit of splendour out of Versailles or not to recognise what a marvellous place it truly is.
Exploring the palace
All of that being said, Versailles is visited by 5 million people every year, so, you can imagine that exploring the place is no private or intimate experience … unfortunately 🙁
Especially during summer months the palace is packed full. And by packed full I mean dozens of people squeezed in the same place, leaving almost no room to move. Should that deter you from visiting? … by no means NO. However crowded, you should treat yourself to the experience of feasting your eyes on unimaginable splendours and incomparable beauty. Just know what to expect and mentally prepare yourself for that. I find it very disappointing when I imagine visiting a place based on the internet photos that depict wonderful empty rooms, only to find myself living a totally different experience, as the same rooms look terribly different with so many souls packed inside them. So, knowing what to expect can help you set the right mental mood to really enjoy those stunning interiors of Versailles, no matter how many other people might be around you.
The visit of the actual palace does not include a very large number of rooms, so it is not at all a long and tiring exploration and you do get to see (among others) the most important rooms – The King’s Apartments, the Queen’s Apartments, the royal chapel and the fan-favourite Hall of Mirrors. Although I usually don’t go for guided tours, at Versailles, I highly recommend it. It is very easy to get lost in all the details of this dazzling place and having with you someone that can keep you focused and give you all the right details can be a blessing. Not to mentions that the guided tours grant access to some additional rooms that you cannot otherwise access.
I dare you not to marvel …
Whether you are madly in love with baroque decorative arts (like I am :D) or you totally hate its gilded, over-the-top ornaments, I dare you to keep an unimpressed face when walking inside the royal apartments at Versailles. The level of details is absolutely stunning and the amount of time and the craftsmanship it required to create such decorations was incredible. Not to mention the effort it must have claimed (and still does) to maintain it all looking spectacular.
Under the pressure of moving forward (sometimes even wanting to leave the crowds behind) you might be tempted to hasten your pace. I personally think that would be a great loss. Versailles is one of those places where beauty lies in the details just as much as in the whole. Take your time to admire the tapestries, the furniture, the artwork and even the tiling and the minute things like handles and door-knobs. It is all part of that story of grandeur and spectacle the Sun King envisioned.
Walking through one incredible room after another, you will eventually reach the Superstar of Versailles: La Galerie des Glaces (The Hall of Mirrors). It is just as stunning, if not even more so than you would imagine. The sun invades the hall through its wonderful windows and all those gilded stucco, ornaments and crystal chandeliers reflect its light putting on a show of sparkles and living brilliance. Still, I go back to what I have said before. You might reach this place and find it incredibly packed with tourists and the experience will be totally different. Just set your expectations right so you don’t get disappointed. It would be a shame indeed, because the Hall is a real masterpiece.
I would have loved to post one of my pictures of the Hall of Mirrors but every time I visited, it was so crowded I could never get a decent one. Yet, I could not bring myself to write a post on Versailles without one single image from its beating heart. So here is an amazing shot by Myrabella, uploaded on Wikimedia Commons. I don’t know how she took this shot. I am truly jealous :).
The genius of Le Notre
So you made it out of the palace. Well, that was just the beginning of it :). The gardens are just as spectacular as the palace itself, but if you have spent probably around 2 hours inside, you can easily spend a full day on the domain.
While the palace itself can get quite packed, the gardens are a different thing altogether. The Versailles estate is huge. It boasts an amazing 70 hectares of gardens and over 400 hectares of parkland. So, however many tourists might be there the day you visit, you can always find places of absolute tranquillity. That is especially true if you are willing to move further away from the palace.
Once there you will see that many visitors crowd the green areas immediately adjacent to the Palace, such as the view towards the Orangery, The Water Terraces and the Latona Basin. They are indeed beautiful and worthwhile spending some time there, but if you really want to submerse yourselves in the magic of Versailles gardens and bosquets, move further away from the palace, towards the Great Perspective.
The first time I ever saw the Perspective and the layout of this domain I couldn’t help feeling amazed by the sheer perfection of its lines. In times where no aerial means were really properly in place and mapping was by far not so easy as today, Andre Le Notre’s genius still made it happen. The Versailles gardens perfectly evoke beauty through exquisite order, as everything is cleanly and neatly aligned and calculated and no detail was left for random placement.
I strongly advise you to use a map. It would save you a lot of time, if you know what alleys and pathways to take to reach different points of interest. Also, if you can’t walk too long distances or you’re visiting in very hot days, it might be useful to either rent a golf-cart or use the little train between different places. It would be a loss to give up exploring this amazing place or not to enjoy it because you are fatigued. There are several cafes, restaurants and rest-rooms spread across the domain so you can easily stop and enjoy lunch or a refreshment before continuing to other places across the estate.
A garden and a museum
One thing I have seen many turists do when visiting the gardens is moving from point to point taking in only the overall view of every garden or bosquet. Sure that is a wonderful experience and the general feel of the place should be absorbed as much as possible, but in the same time every statue or arrangement is a work of art in itself. The gardens are as much a museum boasting masterpieces just as much as a place of promenade. I strongly recommend you stop a little at every one you pass by, to admire their beauty and execution. Also, each of them has a story and a message to share. Such as the four basins (Flore, Ceres, Bacchus and Saturne) that form the seasons and are linked between the corners of the estate to symbolise the eternal passing of time. Similarly all the great statues that surround the upper Water Terraces are allegories of great rivers and and water nymphs, as if they are presenting and guarding the palace and its surroundings. All of these symbols used by Le Notre and various artists make-up the real beauty of Versailles’s theatrical gardens.
Further away towards other worlds
As you reach the fountain of Apollo’s Chariot the domain changes its design. The little alleys that criss-cross between gardens and bosquets make way to the grand canal and its vast park land. That doesn’t mean the exploration has finished. Not at all.
The estate continues to stretch onward with patches of trees that resemble small forests and long shaded alleys. Hidden among them lies the Domain of Trianon and Marie Antoinette’s hamlet. The further you explore the more you leave the crowds behind. Everything changes, becomes more tranquil and that feeling of world within a world gets even more real. Two other palaces (the Grand Trianon and the Petit Trianon) and an entire small Austrian village replicated on its ground will give you a whole new perspective on life at Versailles. They are all remarkable places that deserve their own post. You can read about Marie Antoinette’s Hamlet here and a post dedicated to the two Trianons will come soon.
I will close this post with the image of a work of art you can find in Versailles, that in my opinion represents in full the embodiment of baroque.
The bust of Louis XIV (the visionary monarch that took baroque to new heights) created by Bernini (the quintessential baroque artist).
The best place to find out detailed information about the palace, its gardens, tickets, tours and special events is the official website:
The Palace of Versailles on Google Maps
We really hope you have enjoyed this post on Versailles, this amazing site that holds such a great place in our hearts. Let us know what you think by dropping a comment below and as always we invite you to share your own impression of this place with us. We always love to hear from you.
Until next time, Happy Lives and Joyful Journeys everyone!