Travel Diaries: A Day in Versailles
Over the 4+ years I was living in England, I did what any Kiwi living in the U.K. does and made the most of any and every long weekend to explore European cities. The first Monday in May is always a public holiday in the country and as it happened, this weekend last year was my final opportunity to do a weekend city escape before moving countries.
Knowing it was our last opportunity for a city break, Jesse and I thought long and hard about where to make it. Of the all the numerous cities we hadn't yet had the chance to see though, we weren't able to get past the idea of going to Paris one last time. Jesse hadn't been since he was a teenager, and even then only for a day. I had been lucky enough to visit twice while living in England, both times staying with a Kiwi girlfriend who was temporarily residing there. Even so, it's one of those places I feel like I could never visit enough. There's nowhere lovelier to simply stroll the beautiful streets and enjoy the cafes, shops and magic atmosphere. Additionally, Paris offers countless world-renowned attractions I haven't yet had visited, the top of the list being the main residence of the former French monarchy, Versailles.
The Palace of Versailles is about a half hour train ride outside the city, and the sheer scale of it means a full day is really needed in order to get a proper taste of it... and even then, it's not enough. Because of this, we only had the day on which we arrived and the day we left to spend in Paris proper. We mostly just walked around the streets, markets and parks, but we did manage to fit in a visit to the Musée de l'Orangerie which houses Monet's colossal and breathtaking water lily canvases, in undoubtedly one of the most beautiful gallery spaces I have ever seen.
But for the one full day we had, we decided to dedicate it entirely to exploring Versailles, and it was a choice I regret not one bit. From the moment we stepped into the gold-gilded front courtyard, I knew we were in for a glimpse of a life more opulent than any I had ever been able to imagine. It was an incredible experience, but suffice to say it did give me a new appreciation of the motives behind the French revolution which eventually brought an end to the monarchy. The scale and wealth of Versailles is mind-boggling, beyond anything I have seen or even been able to contemplate.
The interior confirmed my guess. Every room contained more gold that I would have thought would even fit; in the form of solid doors, around the windows and mirrors, lining the ceiling. Highlights were unsurprisingly the infamous Hall of Mirrors and Marie Antoinette's bedroom which is a truly overwhelming example of the ornate floral style typical of the 1700s.
Once you've done a tour of the interior and think your mind can't be any more blown that it already is, you're presented with the back side of the Palace form where you enter into the gardens, which stretch away from you as far as the eye can see. I was not armed with a wide angle lens that was capable of capturing the entire Palace - bear in mind the Palace building itself contains 67,002 square metres of floor space.
Heading into the garden is overwhelming to say the least. The pathways and options are endless, the grounds are sprawling, and the buildings scattered around to explore are countless. In the warmer months, the Palace puts on a musical water fountain show, whereby classical music is played at regular intervals alongside some off the garden's bigger fountains, and a water display takes place in time to the evocative tunes. It's quite the spectacle. Mazes also provide fun in the gardens, but if you forget the scale it's really not that hard to get lost from your companions, so I recommend sticking to the shorter ones you can pop your head up from if possible (see below). Up to a certain point you can look over your shoulder or above hedges and see the great Palace looming in the distance, but in the moments without it in sight it's easy to lose your bearings. One of my favourite of the numerous buildings throughout the grounds that I loved was the "small chateau" called Le Petit Trianon gifted to a 19-year-old Marie Antoinette by her husband King Louis XVI. French royals keeping it casual, as usual.
One particular delight I hadn't even know to expect was the Queen's Hamlet, essentially a quaint compound of farm houses, barns, a man-made lake and bridges. While largely English in style, the area was built to provide entertainment to the Queen. Today, the buildings are largely unable to be entered into, and one has even been completely taken over by farm animals. It very much feels like a fake farm, and contains about two of every type of farm animal, true to how it was set up for Marie Antoinette - pigs, goats, rabbits, chickens, sheep etc. It's wildly different from the rest of the Versailles experience, but completely delightful. When we can all travel again, if you find yourself planning a day a Versailles, I can't recommend springtime enough: the mix of fresh new green on the trees but flowers everywhere through the grounds makes it feel like even more of a fairy tale. And no matter what you do, don't try to do it quicker than one full day! We were there from opening until close, and I still felt rushed. Good shoes are a must, as you'll be on your feet the whole time. And most importantly - get a ticket online and skip the longest line I've ever seen, except to get into the Vatican. The more time to explore, the better! This place is truly a must see.