Versailles: Seeing the Entire Estate as a (F)ree (I)ndependent (T)raveler
Versailles is one of the largest and most spectacular tourist destinations that I’ve ever been to. Most people take a tour bus out of Paris, see the chateau, walk around the gardens immediately outside, and then head back to Paris. However, those people see only a fraction of what Versailles has to offer. Let me show you not only highlights of the most incredible and lesser known parts of Versailles but also how to avoid the crowds, when to go, how long to stay, how to get there on your own, and how to make the most of your visit. Those are essential parts of (f)ree and (i)ndependent (t)ravel and make you F.I.T. to Embark!
Planning: What to Know Before You Go
Versailles is, perhaps, the most crowded tourist destination that I’ve ever been to, so you’re going to need a few tips to avoid as much of the crowds and as many of the lines as possible. First and foremost, buy a ticket before you go to Versailles. A Paris Museum Pass covers the cost of admission, except for the gardens on spectacle days. Otherwise, go the Chateau de Versailles website and buy a “passport with timed entry” ticket, which gives you access to the entire estate and entry to the chateau within a half an hour of the time selected. Choose a time that’s as early in the morning as possible, as the chateau is least crowded then. If you can’t see the chateau in the early morning, choose later afternoon instead. Be aware that all visitors must pass through a security check that often has a long line. The only way to not go through security is to book a guided tour on the website. Whatever ticket you choose, be sure to print it out before leaving for Versailles. Second, know which day of the week to go. Sundays, Tuesdays, and Saturdays are the most crowded, so avoid those days if possible. Thursdays and Fridays are best. Third, plan to spend the entire day at Versailles since there’s a lot to see. Don’t be one of those people who only sees the chateau and leaves; you’ll be missing so much! I recommend seeing the chateau in the morning, enjoying lunch at one of the restaurants or cafes along the Grand Canal, and then spending the afternoon touring the gardens, the Grand and Petit Trianons, and the Queen’s Hamlet. Don’t miss the Queen’s (Marie Antoinette’s) Hamlet, which was my favorite part! Fourth, if you don’t bring a guidebook with you that describes the various parts of the estate, I recommend purchasing one, with descriptions, in one of Versailles’ many gift shops. Knowing what you’re seeing makes the experience so much more enjoyable. Speaking of that, let me tell you a little bit about why Versailles exists.
Historical Background of Versailles
You might be surprised to learn that, much like today, any member of the public could visit the Palace of Versailles and even see the King as he moved through the state apartments or went to chapel; the public could even walk into his bedchamber, as long as he wasn’t there. The entire purpose of Versailles was to prove that all people in France, from the lowliest peasant to the highest-ranking noble, owed everything to the king and that the monarch lived in utter magnificence and grandeur due to his absolute power. King Louis XIV, who built Versailles, needed a hold over the nobles and a way to keep them at court, instead of on their own estates or in Paris where they could intrigue and plot against him. So, in 1682, he moved the royal court and the government to Versailles, which was still under construction at the time. In addition, he made his own private life into a series of ceremonies and rituals to not only keep the nobles busy but also to force them into competition for higher rank and status, assigned by the king himself, of course. Even the French government was based at the Palace of Versailles, with an entire wing built to house the king’s ministers. The king met, daily, with a different council of the government in the Council Chamber, and he held official audiences, while sitting on an eight foot high silver throne, in the Apollo Drawing Room. Like the sun shining as the center of the universe, the Palace of Versailles served, from 1682 to 1722, as the center of French social, courtly, and governmental life, with the sun king, Louis XIV, at its epicenter, radiating his power and prestige to all those who visited.
Now that you know a little bit about Versailles in general, let me show the highlights of the most incredible and lesser known parts of the chateau and estate.
The Hall of Mirrors
The Hall of Mirrors is the most famous room in the Palace of Versailles. At the time that it was built, mirrors were an expensive luxury, and the best glasswork came from Venice. By constructing a room with 357 mirrors, King Louis XIV was showing off his enormous wealth and also that French manufacturing could rival that of the Venetian state. Originally, the hall was filled with pieces made of solid silver, including tables, candelabras, and huge vases that held orange trees, which were another luxury of the time. Imagine how the Hall of Mirrors would have appeared in the evening with the silver furnishings and mirrors reflecting the light of hundreds of candles. It must have been truly amazing! Unfortunately, the solid silver fixtures were melted down in 1689 to meet the costs of war, but they were replaced by gold gilt ones in 1770. Although the hall was used daily as a passageway to and from the king’s apartments and as a place where courtiers could gather to watch the king process to chapel, Louis XIV also used the Hall of Mirrors for his most important and lavish entertainments, such as masked balls, royal weddings, and diplomatic receptions. Even the paintings on the ceiling were meant to show off France’s might. The artwork portrays Louis XIV’s military campaigns against Holland and its allies and against the Spanish-controlled Netherlands in the War of Devolution. In the center of the ceiling, we see the Sun King turning away from games and pleasures and towards a crown of immortality offered to him by the goddess Glory and the god Mars. The painting is called “The King Governing Alone”. The title is another not so subtle hint that Louis XIV rules as the absolute monarch of France. Today, the Hall of Mirrors doesn’t just celebrate the former military might of the kings of France, but the room also is a testament to peace. On June 28, 1919, the peace treaty that ended World War I was signed in the Hall of Mirrors. The Treaty of Versailles is still commemorated in Veterans Days and Armistice Days all around the world. In addition, the Hall of Mirrors continues to be used by the French government to welcome important guests from all around the world, including, most famously, John and Jackie Kennedy in 1961 and Queen Elizabeth II in 1957.
The King’s State Bedchamber
The magnificent bed of the Kings of France is located in the King’s State Bedchamber at Versailles, but, believe it or not, many of the kings never actually slept in it! They had smaller, more private bedrooms. Instead, the King’s State Bedchamber was used for public (yes, I said pubic!) rituals of getting out of bed and going to bed, called the Lever and the Coucher. Depending on how high one’s status was or how much one paid to obtain that status, a noble would be allowed into one of many parts, or entry points, into the Lever ceremony. The Grande Entrée allowed nobles to be present when the king arose from bed and changed into his morning clothes. Those in attendance could arrange, ahead of time, to make a quick, but rehearsed, request to the king as he arose. After the king said his morning prayers, the Première Entrée began. During this part of the ceremony, the king got dressed and shaved. Again, depending on one’s status, there were five different times during the ceremony that nobles were admitted. After this, the king went into his cabinet where he informed others what he wanted to do that day and where people of privilege could have discussions with and make requests of the monarch. When the king left his cabinet and proceeded into the Grande Galerie, the Grand Lever began. While the king walked to chapel, he would talk briefly to people along the way and even accept some petitions. During one of the Grand Lever ceremonies, a particular noble approached King Louis XIV to ask for a favor. The king ignored him and loudly remarked “we never see him”. In other words, the king refused to even speak with the gentleman because he had not spent enough time at Versailles. Remember that all of these ceremonies were designed to keep the nobles preoccupied with their status and to force them to remain at Versailles, rather than at their own estates where they could plot for political power. To us, these ritual seem strange, but King Louis XIV must have been doing something right because look at the power and wealth that he possessed! That kind of life must have been nice. However, I don’t know about you, but I prefer to get up and go to bed in private.
The Fountains and Water Parterres
Designed by landscape architect André Le Nôtre and covering almost 2,000 acres, the magnificent gardens are reason enough to visit the Palace of Versailles! The extensive gardens begin on the terraces behind the chateau, where the water parterres, or two large pools, reflect the opulent facade of the Hall of Mirrors. If the reflection wasn’t beautiful enough, the water parterres are surrounded by marvelous sculptures, made of marble, lead, stone and bronze, including four nymphs and four children from mythology and allegories. The largest statues represent the rivers of France, including the Loire and Loiret (pictured in this photo), Rhône and Saône, Seine and Marne, and Garonne and Dordogne, as symbols of the kingdom. The water parterres lead to formal symmetrical gardens, known as the north and south parterres, and to the incredible Fountain of Latona.
Choosing Apollo as an emblem to represent himself throughout Versailles, King Louis XIV wanted a fountain that would tell the story of the sun god’s childhood. The resulting fountain features Latona (also known as Leto in Greek), who was the mother of the god Apollo and the goddess Diana. According to the myth, Latona wandered the earth after giving birth to her divine twins. She came across a pond in Lycia, which is located in modern day Turkey, and needed to quench her thirst. The local peasants in the area refused to allow the goddess to drink, and therefore, they stirred up the mud in the bottom of the pool. Latona became enraged, and for their inhospitality and her revenge, turned them all into frogs, forcing them to swim forever in the muddy waters of ponds. Modeled on this myth, the Latona Fountain is built in tiers, with peasants in the midst of their transformation from human to amphibian on the first tier, golden frogs spouting water on the second tier, and a marble sculpture, cast in gilded lead, of Latona and her children on the very top. Unfortunately, the day we visited Versailles, the fountains were not turned on. However, even without the streams of water, the Latona Fountain is a glorious piece of art.
The most obvious of those symbols linking King Louis XIV and the sun god is the magnificent Fountain of Apollo. Cast in lead and gilded in gold, the god emerges from the waves, in his horse-drawn golden chariot, thereby causing the sun to rise with him. Apollo is surrounded by tritons (fish-tailed sea gods), sea monsters, and, usually, huge jets of war, which were, unfortunately, not turned on the day we visited. Nevertheless, the Fountain of Apollo is still an incredible site and an element of symbolism that links the hope of a prosperous new reign to the rising of the sun.
The Grand Trianon
The Grand Trianon is a palace, set within the gardens of Versailles, that was designed so that King Louis XIV and his family could escape the formalities of court life at the Chateau. Imagine building a smaller house in your background to escape the business of everyday life in your house. Now you understand! The Grand Trianon is best known for its gorgeous gardens, which in the time of Louis XIV, were planted in pots that were buried in the ground so that the flowers could be changed daily. I don’t know about you, but I’d love to come out of my house to a new garden every day! The interiors of the Grand Trianon were redecorated by Napoleon, and thanks to restoration authorized by Charles de Gaulle in 1965, the palace remains much the same as the French emperor would have experienced it.
The French Pavilion and Petit Trianon
Queen Marie Antoinette loved fun and frivolity, and she hosted summertime balls and concerts in the beautiful French Pavilion. The structure might appear small in the photo, but the building contains a salon, antechamber, boudoir, lavatory, a small room used to prepare coffee (which was all the rage at the time), and a stove room. Much bigger than what we would think of as a pavilion! And if there wasn’t enough space, the Queen had tents and wooden cabins erected around it in the French gardens. At the time, the surrounding gardens were considered the most beautiful and widely-stocked in all of Europe. They contained not only ornate, geometrically-shaped flower beds and orchards of fruit trees but also greenhouses to raise exotic products such as pineapples, coffee, and oranges. The French gardens even contained a menagerie and a birdhouse. Imagine having a zoo in your own backyard! The gardens surround a “small” palace, known as the Petit Trianon, which was built by King Louis XV as a place where he and his mistress could escape from the court life of the other two (yes, two!) palaces at Versailles. Unfortunately, he died just after moving in, and King Louis XVI gave the Petit Trianon as a wedding gift to his bride Marie Antoinette, who lived in a small suite of rooms at the palace. The Queen loved privacy, and her bedroom featured two mirrors that could be pulled down through the ceiling, from the floor above, to completely cover the windows. That’s what I call royal black-out drapes! However, if you think that’s extravagant, wait to see what I have next for you.
The Queen’s Hamlet
No, what you’re seeing is not a fairy tale village from the French countryside. The lakeside retreat is entirely contained within the gardens at Versailles and was used by Queen Marie Antoinette as a place to hold small gathering and to relax, away from the ceremonies and intrigues of the palace. Modeled on the style of cottages in Normandy and built between 1783 and 1785, the little village is known as the Queen’s Hamlet. Arranged in a crescent around a man-made lake, the hamlet contains twelve structures including a windmill, boudoir, billiard room, barn, working dairy, model dairy, fisherman’s cottage, guard tower (that looks like a lighthouse), working farm, stove room, pigeon loft, and Queen’s house. While the chateau and gardens are crowded, we had the Queen’s Hamlet almost all to ourselves because most tourists don’t venture this far. If you go to Versailles, don’t miss our favorite part of the estate: the Queen’s Hamlet.
Contrary to popular belief, Queen Marie Antoinette did not pretend to be a farmer nor dress her sheep up in bows at the Queen’s Hamlet. The farm was actually a functional one that was designed as a place were the royal children could receive an education about agriculture and animal husbandry. The Queen appointed a farmer, Valy Bussard, to manage the fields, vineyards, orchards, and vegetable gardens, which grew produce that was consumed by the royal family and their guests. She also charged the farmer to experiment with various agricultural techniques and to favor the raising of Swiss animals, which is why the farm was sometimes called the “Swiss Hamlet”. Spending a great deal of time at Versailles in insolation from the people caused a great deal of resentment among the populace. The lower classes were also angry that, during a time of economic hardship, the the royal family spent so much money on building the hamlet and on courtly life at the palace. Rumors spread that the Queen played as a farmer, which many saw as a mockery of agricultural life, and that she met with her lovers at the hamlet. While none of these rumors are true, they worsened the Queen’s image in the eyes of the people. We all know the unfortunate end of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, and like them, the hamlet also suffered. Age and bad weather damaged the buildings, most of which were eventually torn down. In the early 1800’s and again in the 1900’s, restoration attempts were made, but in 2006, the farm had to be completely restored to its original appearance and function. Today, it includes a farmhouse, barn, stables, pig stye, hen house, and a variety of animals, which are looked after by the Foundation for Animal Welfare. While at the farm, I had the chance to meet some of these furry friends.
Although this fairy tale-like building appears to be a lighthouse, it’s actually the Marlborough Tower. Named after a song that was famous and sung to the young dauphin (crown prince of France) by his nanny, the tower served no real purpose except for the storing of fishing equipment, causing it to be sometimes referred to as the “Fishing Tower”. It was attached to a cottage in which the fisherman lived and to a working dairy which supplied guests with milk, cheese, and cream, which were made in the working dairy from cows on the estate.
Although Queen Marie Antoinette used the buildings in the village to host parties and small gatherings, she also went to the hamlet to relax and get away from the politics and intrigues of the palace. Due to the importance of the hostess and her guests, a guard was necessary to provide security. Since the Queen insisted the royal architect design all buildings to appear as if from the countryside of Normandy, the guard house is this quaint cottage with a lovely front garden and arbor. I wouldn’t mind taking up residence, but I couldn’t provide much security!
The Temple of Love
The dreamy Temple of Love sits on a tiny island in a stream inside the English Gardens at Versailles. At the center, a copy of the sculpture called “Cupid Fashioning His Bow from Hercules’ Club” stands below a domed roof supported by twelve Corinthian columns. The structure is not actually a real temple but rather a garden folly, a building constructed for decoration in a garden. Some might say that love is itself a folly, but, whether you are a romantic or not, one can’t help but be charmed by this most enchanting part of the gardens at Versailles.
Getting to Versailles On Your Own
Many people take a tourist bus to Versailles, but the best way to get there is by train. Going on your own is extremely easy and allows you to spend as much time at the chateau and estate as you want.
Versailles is about a 35 minute train ride from Paris, but I would leave yourself an hour of travel time just to be on the safe side. Trains for Versailles leave from any of the following stations: Invalides, Musee de Orsay, Champ de Mars, Gare d’Austerlitz, St. Michel, and Pont de l’Alma. At the station of your choice, go to any ticket machine and buy a round trip ticket for the RER-C train to “Versailles Chateau”. The costs includes the trip from that particular station to the RER train station. Once you’re at the RER station, get on any train listed as “Versailles Chateau”. While aboard, you can relax without having to be aware of when to get off. All trains listed as “Versailles Chateau” have the palace as their final stop.
When you arrive, exit the station and follow the signs and the flow of traffic to the palace. It’s about a ten minute walk.
To head back to Paris, catch any train because all of them will stop at the RER station in Paris.
I sincerely hope you enjoy your visit to Versailles and that these tips and descriptions help you to see the palace, gardens, and estate all on your own. Bon voyage!