We have always wanted to visit Versailles, the palace of all palaces. And, we had a vision of what to expect.
It was pretty simple to figure out the trains (one metro and one train), and as with most mass transit in Europe, the round trip price for what was about 45 minutes of travel time was only 7 euros each.
Our initial impression of Versailles was a big disappointment. The front gates are just off the main road of a busy little town, with both car and bus parking right there, and it hardly felt like a country place. Add to that the biggest crowds of our trip, and some might be prepared to turn around.
We had done some homework in advance of the trip, purchased tickets online to “skip” the ticket lines. We arrived well before 10 a.m. as many websites suggest, but everyone else is obviously following the same advice. Even with a ticket in hand, the security lines were about 1,500 people long. And, although the palace is huge, crowds this size mean lots of pushing and shoving and even getting nicked by supposedly outlawed selfie sticks.
The Palace is palatial with the Hall of Mirrors the high point. That is a place that is still used for major political events, including activity related to the French constitution. The Treaty of Paris, granting independence to US, was signed there, and the Treaty of Versailles signifying the end of WWI was also signed there.
For 72 years, Louis XIV rules France (1643-1715), and the palace was built and operated in all its splendor during that time. In the late 1700’s, Marie Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI, had a much shorter reign as a queen. Her unpopularity for, among other things, lavish spending and being an outsider (Austrian) was part of the provocation for the French revolution, the end of the monarchy and her eventual beheading.
But Marie Antoinette’s lifestyle can be seen in Versailles, Petit Trianon and more importantly in Grand Trianon. The last two are smaller palaces on the same grounds.
First of all, by all means go to Versailles, but visit the main Palace in the afternoon NOT the morning. We noticed zero lines at about 2 p.m. It takes maybe up to two hours to do a complete visit of this one building. There was a special exhibit on royal deaths and funerals, and it’s quite an eyeful (hard to believe this stuff must otherwise be kept in storage).
The gardens were included in our Passport ticket, but we noticed they were open to the public Friday, possibly a seasonal thing. We didn’t see many flowers, especially at the main palace, but the gardens create one of the most beautiful and extensive parks anywhere. It is this back side of the palace that makes you feel like you are in the French countryside. The property’s 2,000 acres has a few hundred acres in gardens mostly perfectly maintained shrubbery, but there are lakes (with boat rentals) and paths (with golf cart rentals) and lots of walking unless you opt for a little train.
For us, the gardens are so large, they can accommodate huge numbers of people, and the two smaller palaces are “too far away” for the mass of tour groups. So, we enjoyed the smaller palaces more, and often had rooms all to ourselves. And, although not as grand as the main Palace, they are nonetheless opulent.
There are tiny details that kept us talking well after our visit, including some curtains and tapestries, still original since the 1600’s. There was a lot of multi-colored marble that was so unusual we aren’t sure where someone could find such beautiful stone. In some rooms, we noticed that some of the “marble” was actually wood painted in the matching marble color. The carpets, the furniture, and details, way too numerous to mention, made us almost forget even the pushy crowds.
The only other negative was that the magnificent view from palace to the lakes and gardens, maybe a mile long vista, was spoiled by what we thought was a major utility project right smack in the middle. It consisted of a hulking piece of metal attached to a 12 foot wide pipe. Upon further inspection, we noticed a sign criticizing recent vandalism to this piece of “art.” Very bizarre and made us feel some sympathy for the vandals. The gardens are lined with lots of scultpures; and the palaces, of course, are loaded with plenty of great art, to be sure, but this ugly mass of junk certainly took a little sizzle out of the experience.