Is there a traveler alive who has not heard of Versailles? The word alone conjures up images of opulent feasts and parties, a gathering place for French nobility since its became the seat of the French monarchy in 1682. Originally the hunting lodge of King Louis XVII, the chateau is now a museum of French history and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
It was not the art collections which lured Dan and I to Versailles on a rainy spring day, however. Like so many visitors before us, we came to get a taste of life at court in 17th-19th century France. What was it like to walk and even live in such a grand and beautiful building, with handmaidens to cater to your every need?
I’m sorry to say, I still don’t really know the answer to that question. With dinner reservations in Paris that evening, we had set aside about six hours to visit the estate during the day. Thanks to a frustrating experience at the RER C station that morning in Paris, involving multiple cancelled trains and very little communication, we wound up trying to condense the massive chateau and grounds into a four hour visit. And here we made mistake number one: we did not pick up an audio guide. With so little time and so much to see, an audio guide seemed like it would just slow us down. We worried that we would spend too much time in each room, trying to absorb as much information as possible, and wind up running to catch the train without ever stepping foot in the gardens. It didn’t mesh well with our goal of taking it easy and enjoying the moments as they came.
Of course, Versailles was not the relaxing and informative getaway we expected. As one of the top day trip destinations from Paris, the chateau was packed with people, some trailing after tour guides, some holding audio guides up to their ears. Since we had foolishly opted to skip any form of guidance, we passed through the stunning rooms of the chateau without fully understanding what we were looking at. This combined with the overwhelming mass of tourists with cameras at the ready, and putting myself in the shoes of French nobility became near-impossible.
That’s not to say that we disliked Versailles, of course. I might not have known the significance of every single piece of art and architecture, but the chateau was stunning nonetheless. (I obtained most of my information after returning home, on the mind-blowingly detailed official website of Versailles.) We fell in love with the style and incredible detailing of the rooms, and especially loved our brief time exploring the grounds. Just look at this courtyard!
Called the Marble Courtyard, this is the original courtyard of the palace, and one of the first places we visited after gaining access to the chateau. I absolutely love this black and white tiled floor, its surface glassy in the early afternoon rain. Clearly, we spent more time than was necessary here, indulging my need to photograph every little detail.
Of course, we couldn’t linger too long. This courtyard, while beautiful, was a speck on the map when compared with the chateau and grounds, and we had plenty of ground still to cover.
If you’d like to follow along, head on over to the official Versailles website and click through their highly interactive map.
Before we got too deep inside the chateau, Dan and I decided to grab a light lunch at Angelina. I’d heard about the luxury tearoom and patisserie long before setting foot in France. With no time to visit the flagship boutique in Paris, finding a location here at Versailles was a lucky twist of fate. As much as we would have loved to linger over coffee and pastries in the main tearoom, time was of the essence, and we stuck to the quick service cafe across the hall. After so many long, luxurious meals while abroad, it felt almost sacrilegious to enjoy this one in a span of twenty minutes.
With so many gorgeous pastries on display, it was hard to choose just one! We settled on the signature Mont Blanc pastry, made with meringue, whipped cream, and chestnut cream vermicelli, as well as two cups of the famed Angelina hot chocolate, which tasted like rich liquid mousse. It was so rich, we probably could have shared one and been satisfied.
Bellies full, we returned downstairs and paid a visit to the Royal Chapel.
The French king was thought to be chosen by God, and would serve as his right hand on earth. We were not allowed inside the chapel itself, but the ceiling frescoes and overall ornamentation blew me away.
And this is where things start to get murky. I have so many beautiful photos to share, and no real idea of what those photos contain. Pretty doors, marbled walls, insanely beautiful paintings…but where? What room? Which artist? We shuffled along with the crowd, stopping frequently to admire the art, the chandeliers, the gilded doors and ceilings…wondering the whole time if we were missing something major. To add insult to injury, I learned after we arrived home in the States that the audio guides are completely free. Even with our limited time frame, it couldn’t have hurt to pick one up and use it from time to time.
It took a little bit of digging around the Versailles website to identify the rooms featured here, which gave us our first real taste of the splendor of Versailles. It turns out that the next place we visited was the King’s Grand Apartment. This series of salons was where the King conducted all official acts. Styled to mimic lavish Italian palaces, all but one salon was named after a Roman god, and featured artwork and more depicting said god.
The Hercules Salon
The Abundance Salon
The Venus Salon
The Diana Salon
The Apollo Salon
The Mars Salon
The Mercury Salon
Still with me? Maybe you got a hint of what it was like to walk around the salons. So many beautiful things to see, and yet it’s all rather exhausting. But wait, I left out the best part!
Yep, it’s all in the camera angles. Versailles was packed, and it wasn’t even peak season yet! Still, it was worth it to see all these beautiful and even iconic rooms.
With very little time left at Versailles, I was all too eager to finally exit the chateau (having seen less than half of it) and set out to explore the grounds. Being out in the chilly spring air, away from the sea of tourists and able to breathe once more, I felt my mood begin to lift. It’s good to know that no matter where I am in the world, nature will always be a respite from the rest of the world.
The grounds and gardens are mind-blowingly huge, especially compared against the chateau we had just spent so much time exploring.
Did I mention the gardens cover 1,976 acres?
For those with little time, or just little will to walk, there are several methods of transportation available. You can rent a single or tandem bike, rent a golf cart, or pay to hop on a mini train. With just a couple of hours to go before we had to catch our train back into Paris, Dan and decided to take advantage of the bike rentals. I was thrilled to rent a tandem bike, thinking only of how romantic it would be to ride “a bicycle built for two” in France with my future husband.
WRONG. So very wrong. Being on the back of that bike was terrifying, for reasons I can’t fully explain. I couldn’t pedal without slamming my knees into the handlebars, but if I let my feet dangle freely, I ran the risk of getting scraped up by the pedals, moving of Dan’s volition. For the first time in years, I was 100% not in control. And instead of feeling free and happy, I was completely paralyzed by fear. I kept screaming at Dan to stop, wanting only to return the infernal thing and walk to the Petit Trianon, and he thought I was joking! Probably because this full-on panic attack came complete with hysterical laughter (trying to convince myself it wasn’t so bad) pierced with sobs. I knew I was being ridiculous, and that made the whole ordeal even more embarrassing. I don’t know what my problem was, but finally Dan realized I wasn’t kidding around, and I jumped right off the bike. I wasted a good twenty minutes refusing to get back on, and in the end, I walked while Dan went ahead to park the bike all by himself. Poor guy.
As a result of my humiliating and totally inexplicable episode, we only had half an hour to spend at the Petit Trianon. Way to go, Beth.
After the grandeur of the chateau, the Petit Trianon was surprisingly modest. There were a couple of well-appointed rooms, with lavish curtains, comfortable sitting chairs, and plenty of art on the walls.
For the most part, however, the rooms were small and bare, almost cave-like in their relative simplicity. It was interesting to learn that the downstairs kitchen was not actually used to prepare and cook food. The food was made at the chateau and delivered to the tiny home, where it was rewarmed for the Queen.
After the Petit Trianon, it was back to the dreaded bike. Dan convinced me to get back on, close my eyes, and let him pedal us back to the rental station. And wouldn’t you know, it turned out just fine.
Visiting Versailles was incredibly draining, at some times wonderful, and at others frustrating beyond belief. That being said, we would go back in a heartbeat! I’m curious to see the rest of the chateau, with a guide this time, and especially to spend hours wandering the rest of the gardens.
We snapped a few more photos on our way out, then we hopped a train to Paris, where we had a special dinner waiting for us. I’ll write more about that in an upcoming post, but if you want a peek at our dinner plans, check out my post on Paris: Day Three.
In the meantime, please feel free to comment below! I think we could have “done” Versailles much better, and I’m curious to know what others thought of their experience. Was it too commercialized? Too crowded? The best experience of your life? Tell me all about it!