Over the last term of school, in history, we’ve been studying the French Revolution. This was perfect timing, as I’d always said to myself that I would thoroughly research the history of Versailles before I visited. As it turned out, I had to sit an exam on it. So all in all, I was very excited to go visit.
We took the train from Paris relatively early in the morning, arriving at around ten o clock. It took around 45 minutes to travel there.
When we arrived we walked from the train station, passing a group of people demonstrating on the way. Ruth told me that they were protesting low wages. I’m always interested to see how political protests etc are dealt with in other countries, but in the distance we could see a faint gold glimmer, and so we hurried past.
Already there were extremely long queues in Versailles- we already had tickets so we joined one that snaked several times up and down inside the courtyard. I have to say, the security guards were very organized about the queues, lots of moving us all to accommodate the slowly growing line, lots of ‘straight line, come closer, move forward please!’. There were also numerous hawkers, waving all the usual touristy gimmicks and souvenirs. But once we were inside the [restored] gilded gates, there were only tourists. The security check in the little hut we passed through was minimal- actually, all throughout our trip I’d noticed that even though there were usually guards who checked the bags, they were never very thorough. Even at the Eiffel Tower, only a quick glance inside.
Anyway, before I start sounding too much like my brother, let’s move onto some shiny things.
Versailles started out as a hunting lodge, of which the earliest mention is in 1038. It was only when Louis XIV became King that Versailles became, well, Versailles.
More than anything, I’m fascinated by what Versailles was used for by the kings. This century was one of political upheaval, so much that it ended with Louis XVI’s neck under the guillotine. But in the beginning, it was ‘renovated’ to be a symbol of the wealth and power of the monarchy. It became famous not only for it’s extravagance and luxury, but for the inequality and corruption that backed that wealth and splendor.
Louis XVI had a problem. He was facing resistance on various fronts- there were always various foreign wars going on and the aftermath of the Fronde civil war [mostly between the aristocrats and the parlements [governmental types] wasn’t helping matters. In order to stifle the mutters of the nobles, he made a radical move. He shifted the center of political power from Paris to the outlying court of Versailles, which was being done up a little, as it were. The extravagance of life at Versailles was vast- the parties and the entertainments and the banquets. It was also the most important place politically. But in order to live, or even just to spend time at Versailles, one had to loosen the purse strings a little- in order to be accepted at Versailles, nobles had to be dressed beautifully and extravagantly, they had to be able to keep up with the lifestyle, and whatsmore, they had to be right there in Versailles, under the King’s nose, following him around and pandering to him, if they wanted even the slightest bit of insight or influence into the current political situation. And so, they had no spare cash, and no time, to raise any sort of uprising against him. They were not at home, on their estates or out of the king’s reach on their lands, and so they were drawn tightly together under the king’s thumb. That’s why when the revolution happened, and King Louis the 16th was executed, they were not the ones marching on the palace. In fact, many were executed themselves. I’m struck by how effective Louis 14th was in swaying the balance of power in his direction- and then by the fact that his son was a rather ineffective king, and his grandson was executed. In fact, Versailles played a part in the monarchies downfall- of course, when people are starving in Paris, they aren’t going to love the idea of nobility stuffing their faces at banquets in a golden palace at the same time. That way, Versailles became a symbol of everything was wrong with the current system of power.
There’s been a lot of restoration work done on Versailles over the years, and one of the most effective pieces was the restoring of the gilded pieces on the main palace. In the morning it was cloudy so we didn’t see the full effect, but the sun broke out from behind the smog and clouds during the day, and when we left the sun was setting, and it really was striking.
We wandered through the stunning rooms of the main palace, clutching our audio guides among throngs of tour groups and other tourists. I only had my rubbishy 4th gen iPod camera, which in the indoor, subdued lighting didn’t take very great pictures, I can’t resist putting up a few of my absolute favorite parts.
We walked through the State Apartments, the Hall of Mirrors, the dining room, the rooms where the king met with his ministers and discussed politics. We heard how the courtiers were present at almost every part of the king’s day, from when he woke up to when he ate breakfast [the special stools around the dining table for the people he was favoring that day- not that they got to eat, just to watch!], when people watched him get dressed. I liked [possibly not the right word] how he’d turned something so mundane into something coveted. Ooooh, I’m allowed to watch the king eat his morning fry up, I’m definitely getting more politically influential!
And by then it was lunchtime, so we went outside to eat our picnic right at the start of the gardens. By then it was hot and sunny, and we couldn’t wait to get stuck into the gardens. After that we went up the the very top, right in front of the palace, and looked down at the sprawling rows and patterns and little hidden pathways and the two canals, in the shape of a cross.
After that we walked to the Petite Trianon, the relaxed and intimate little house that Louis 16th gave to his 19 year old Queen Marie Antoinette. Well, I say relaxed and intimate…compared to Versailles, maybe! We toured around, and it was really interesting. The slightly more relaxed [but still very luxurious!] furnishings and the reclusive little rooms made it easy to imagine Marie Antoinette hiding away from the restrictive court life.
After that we walked to the little ‘English hamlet’ that Marie Antoinette had had constructed. Parts of the main gardens around this area were in the ‘English’ style, popular in France at that time. They were a little more relaxed, almost shambled, with lots of herbs and flowers, compared to the more formal French styles of the time, as seen in the symmetrical and stiff hedges and border gardens. Even the little secret corners were very neat and elegant.
Anyway, Marie Antoinette commissioned a pretend English farming village to be built. She became quite tired and wary of the formal, frightening, court life, and so used to go to this ‘Queen’s Hamlet’ as a sort of retreat. Apparently she used to dress up as a milkmaid and act out the chores of one! The detail put into this little part of the gardens was incredible. There were eleven little houses, in the true Norman style, clustered around a little lake. The houses were aged and made to look like old cottages, and the gardens and the farm attached were functional, providing the kitchens of the palace with food. We saw a rather large muskrat sunning itself on the shores of the lake, and later I was in raptures at the bunnies who were in residence at the farm. [Also: goats, cows, sheep, ducks and geese and a dog and some other kinds of birds].
And then we split up briefly [Ruth hurried to get her bag from the Petite Trianon before it closed, I went to look at a little grotto] and didn’t quite meet up as planned. I waited at the front of the Petite Trianon, she waited at the back. But thanks to some helpful guards we were united again, and because it had been a little nerve wracking for the both of us [“I was having wild imaginings about kidnappers” “What on earth would I have told your mum?] we decided quite rightfully to go get some ice cream. After that we wandered right around the whole edge of the canal, up and down the lengths and widths of the cross it formed. It took us about an hour and twenty minutes in all, and the sun was setting over Versailles when we arrived back at the palace and left.
I think that Versailles is a fantastic way to get to grips with a very interesting part of French history- it was certainly good having known a little bit before I went!
And then it was back to Paris…
Ruth’s son Richard was due to join us that night- he lives in France, and popped up for two nights to see Ruth. He was arriving at around ten or so, so we went to a pizza place close to our hotel while we waited for him. And then, because that particular pizza place wasn’t very nice, when he arrived him and Ruth went off to find another place so he could have dinner.
My yawns were by this point cracking my jaw half off, so I politely excused myself, walked back to the hotel, and collapsed into bed. I like to think I’m a sophisticated half adult who can stay up all night drinking wine in Paris restaurants, but in reality I am a sophisticated half adult who can stay up until half past ten drinking wine in Paris restaurants. Hey, I’ll get there one day!