On a cool, drizzly morning, cowering under an umbrella, we arrived at the Palace of Versailles. The crowds that visit this symbol of avarice and lasciviousness are copious – around 7.5million people each year. So we arrived early, hoping to get ahead of the crowds. The disappointment was quick and ruthless: there was already a long queue.
For half an hour we snaked around the palace courtyard, interrupted by bouts of chaos as staff belatedly tried to herd visitors into a metal rat run. Eventually, we made it in, collected an audio-guide and followed the throng to the palace. The tour begins at ground level with an exhibition about the history of the building. Videos and models explain how Versailles grew from a grand hunting lodge into a decadent palace.
The main apartments, including the famous Hall of Mirrors, are all on the first floor. You can read reams about the opulence and ostentation of Versailles, but only when you see it, does the sheer scale of it assault you. Imagine a Christmas tree over-laden with jewels, gilded ornaments, sparkling baubles and a million twinkling lights.
The rooms are refurbished impressions of their glory days. During the French Revolution (1789) the palace was stripped bare; artworks were sent to the Louvre while furnishings were auctioned off. Initially, there was talk of selling or destroying the buildings, but in the end they were saved for the people. Over subsequent decades the palace’s fortunes waxed and waned. Finally, in 1833 King Louis-Phillipe took responsibility for the building promising to create a museum for “all the glories of France”.
Today, walking through the palace these glories are certainly evident. One of the most impressive rooms is Marie Antoinette’s bedroom, decorated in specially woven fabric based on a design from historical records. The result is an ostentatious and sumptuous room.
The Hall of Mirrors lives up to its reputation and is stunning. Gold cherubs hold up candle sticks, crystal chandeliers fill the ceiling, while mirrors reflect the light streaming through the glass doors opposite.
Between the opulence of the rooms and the sheer volume of visitors, it is an exhausting assault on the senses. At times, different tour groups concertina into each other. The hapless independent visitor is trapped, like a gazelle facing a lion, with nowhere to run. The only relief is that every so often the building seems to sigh as a gap opens up between herds of googly-eyed tourists. In that moment you capture a photo or a view that will disappear in just a moment.
Even with the pressure of visitors pushing you along, the tour takes a couple of hours. The palace is gaudy, beautiful and overwhelming. It was a relief to reach the end.
The exit leads to the formal gardens which were landscaped into a series of groves and grottos, each with a water feature. They form only a small part of the palace’s 800 hectare grounds and are the only ticketed part of the grounds. The vast majority is free to visit.
The reason for the ticket is the cost of running the fifty water features that litter the grounds. They are absolutely spectacular, taking 35km of pipes and 3,600 cubic metres of water to operate. Unsurprisingly, they are only switched on for a few hours each morning and afternoon, from spring to autumn.
The dazzling waterfall terrace of the Ballroom Grove is astonishing. It is easy to imagine the riotous parties that must have taken place here. The Collonade Grove has to be seen to be believed: a circle of fountains. There is literally an Avenue of Fountains, that sits alongside the Three Fountain Grove, a cascade of fountain terraces. The gardens are as opulent as the palace and it takes hours to walk around it all, but they are worth every aching step.
Versailles is a stunning palace, and the garden with its groves and grottoes is sensational. It is also a shocking place. The cost of building the palace was phenomenal, and the cost of running the household and court staggering. It is easy to understand the desire to demolish it, and all that it represented. The people of France paid dearly for the extravagance of their monarchy. But in the end, I’m glad it was saved. It really has to be seen to be believed.
Click on any image to launch the gallery and scroll through.