Friday was Versailles, the Trianons, and Marie Antoinette’s Hamlet and farm. It was incredible, though a number of things did surprise me. Unfortunately, the parts I looked forward to most (the Queen’s chambers and cottage), were closed for renovations, but that just means I’ll have to go back. Quel dommage!
The journey to Versailles is quite easy from Paris, though for such a tourist attraction, I suppose it has to be. I had breakfast at a little cafe on Place de la Republique, pleasantly surprised to find that the plate I was served my eggs on was exactly the same plate my parents used to give me breakfast on growing up. Once Jeremy and Shani joined up with me, we took the train straight to Versailles. I enjoyed looking out the window at the suburbs of Paris passing by. Paris is so busy and big and exciting, and I admit I was curious as to what it’d be like to live in the many suburbs of that urban center.
Once off the train, we followed the crowds to the main boulevard that let to the chateau of Versailles. Turning a corner, the chateau becomes visible in the distance. It’s someone simultaneously large and looming as well as distant and otherworldly. It was slightly cloudy, as almost every day had been, but I can only imagine what it would look like with the sun glinting off the gilded rooftops. The avenue widens as you approach – impossibly vast compared to the narrow alleys of Paris we left behind. I felt slightly similar to how I felt in the courtyard of the Louvre. Small, insignificant. But because Versailles is somewhat isolated, you feel like you are immersed in an ocean of grandeur. We sailed through the first security checkpoint and approached the golden gates. The opulence was already staggering and this was still just the outside! We got through the ticket line just as easily, which is a nice side effect of getting places early, and began our tour with the help of Rick Steves and his audio guides.
The apartments were grand, and so much was thrown to our visual senses it was difficult to take it all in. High painted ceilings with intricate moldings, ornate tapestries hanging on the walls and as part of chairs and couches, throne rooms, canopied beds… what surprised us most was the lack of hallways. Each room opened directly into the next one, and rooms of completely different functions were very close together. I supposed with all the doors closed it made more sense and would be less like a museum tour. And perhaps to make up for the lack of hallways, there was of course the Hall of Mirrors. It was pretty much what I expected. Towering mirrors opposite matching windows that looked out across the Royal Avenue’s endless gardens. Statues both marble and golden adorned both sides, and large, crystal chandeliers dotted in two rows down the length of the ceiling. It was haunting to know that hundreds of years before, in the very place I was standing, elegantly dressed lords and ladies danced and gossiped. One of them, the doomed Queen herself.
We headed through the remaining rooms, our sense now almost dulled in reaction to the staggering opulence pummeled at us. How did it affect those who lived in these rooms? I can see how one’s reality can become distorted if all these surroundings became normal.
After a brief snack of croissants and cheese in the front courtyard, we went around the gardens and headed towards the Trianons. The gardens were almost a city in and of themselves. Avenues and lanes made of trimmed grand trees show of symmetrically from the Grand Avenue. Behind each twist and turn there would be statues carved in the fashion of Ancient Rome and Greece, neatly trimmed bushes and small trees in impossible shapes, or an “ancient ruin” that Louis XIV had built during his reign. His philosophy had been if there were no ancient ruins to look at, why not build them? Similarly, he brought Venice to Versailles, in the shape of the Grand Canal, a mile long water feature on the estate. He even had rivers rerouted to power his fountains. Remarkable.
We stopped to have lunch at a little cafe about halfway between the chateau and the Trianons, right at the foot of the Grand Canal. The Trianons are basically smaller versions of Versailles, the Grand Trianons holding much Napoleonic history, the Petit Trianons that of Marie Antoinette. In the Grand Trianons we saw Napoleon’s study – stark and dark compared to the brightness of rooms in Versailles, and one of the actual beds Marie Antoinette slept in. Her bedsheets matched the curtains, the wallpaper, the furniture, all of it being mostly little flowers. I remember thinking that all the beds were so small. Were people really that short? But evidently, people in those times didn’t think it was safe to sleep completely laying down, so no need to create full length beds. How uncomfortable.
The perfectly manicured gardens continued between the Trianons, but also gave way to winding paths and a more “natural” forest. These so called wilder parts were still perfectly planned, but a little more spread out. Throughout the estate additional buildings could be found, including a theater and an incredibly fancy gazebo. It was so fancy it seemed like one of the opulent ballrooms was just plucked from the chateau and strategically placed in the gardens for outdoors affairs. Just the chandelier was over the top, dripping with crystal in the form of a large birdcage, and on each of it’s bars, winding vines of flowers and leaves so brightly colored, like spring in full bloom.
Finally we reached the hamlet of Marie Antoinette, one of the areas I had most been looking forward to. This was the little farms she had commissioned so she could live a “simple life”, though it was far from peasant like. It was a picturesque little village, with perfect little farmhouses and dairies with thatched roof houses and little vegetable gardens enclosed in wooden fences. I wonder what exactly her motivation was. To escape stifling opulence? To empathize with her people? To simply live out a fairytale? And that’s what it was, a fairytale. While the people of France starved in the streets, her dairy cows had bows around their necks. But don’t think I’m quick to judge Marie Antoinette. I find her fascinating. I have a stark interest in doomed Queens, between her and Anne Boleyn among others.
We soon found ourselves in the midst of a working farm. Past a little vineyard, we were greeted by chickens and large, floppy-eared rabbits. The chickens made me chuckle as the walked about, since the feathers down their legs made it look as if they had too-large pants on. Around the next bend were numerous sheep and goats, some with
huge curling horns that looked like they were weighing the rams’ heads down. One particularly funny black sheep (in both sense of the phrase) seemed to be desperately scratching an itch on his bottom. He backed up to a food trough and wiggled his behind back and forth over it, bleating furiously and sticking his tongue out. Some farm workers came out and the animals, hoping for a meal, went bananas, racing towards the fence. Their cries were as varied as human voices, some so bizarrely low-pitched it catapulted Shani and I into fits of giggles. At one point, a herding dog was sent out to speed up the process of rounding up the animals, but the dog seemed more intent on playing in the pond. His handler walked around the pond, whistling instructions to the dog through the cigarette hanging out of his mouth. It was one of the most French scenes on my entire trip.
We all bravely decided to trek back to the front of the estate. The waterfall fountain in the Grand Canal was turned on when we passed by again, and we stopped for crepes as we watched it for a bit, debating over when it was built. I picked up a beautiful book on historical costuming for a steal at the gift shop, and we were back on the train, exhausted, heading back to Paris.
We all decided to find a place for dinner, and settled on Italian. After two attempts at other restaurants with no luck, we stumbled upon on a little hole-in-the-wall affair, L’Osteria Dell’Anima. The front of the restaurant was only as wide as the door itself, and to get inside to a table, you needed to squeeze past the pasta maker. I’ve never had pasta more delicious. The flavors and freshness of the pasta were unlike anything I’ve ever tasted. I cannot recommend that little restaurant more.
After saying goodbye to Jeremy and Shani, I went home to my little apartment and attempted a bath. It went very poorly, as I couldn’t figure out how to get the hot water to work or the bath to stop leaking. I got out colder and stiffer than when I had started, but thanks to the old radiators and a hit cup of sleepytime tea, no lasting harm was done. On to another day in the City of Lights.