Friday, August 13, 2010

The Palace at Versailles

As undergrads, we all studied World War I and learned that it ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in the Hall of Mirrors.

(courtesy of Wikipedia)
The pictures of the signing in the Treaty that ended the Great War led me to find out more about the Palace of Versailles. Now, I had a chance to see this magnificent palace started by Louis XIII in the 1600s.

Back in the 1600s, Versailles was a small town 17 km outside of Paris that was covered in woods and was considered a good place to hunt. Louis XIII liked the place so much that he built a small hunting lodge or “gentleman’s chateau” of stone and bricks with a slate roof. Sadly, XIII died when his son, Louis XIV was only 5 years old. The little king lived in Paris at the Palace of the Louvre, but that Palace was frightening to the young king, as he witnessed an uprising there. When L the XIV takes his turn with the family business, that of ruling France, he moved his court to the “hunting lodge” at Versailles. The “hunting lodge” was not small, but it’s not grand enough for the King of France, so XIV hires an architect and a landscape architect to transform the lodge into something grand.

Over the next few centuries, each successive king enlarged the property more or less on whims. It was a private enclave for the court. It was grand, excessive, and just a wee bit over the top.

On the day we visited the Palace of Versailles, we were treated to a crowd like you cannot imagine. (France has a money maker here, so they let everyone visit and that’s the problem...everyone visits Versailles. As an aside, Peru has a money maker with Machu Picchu and they limit visitation to 400 people per day! A much more sensible-but less lucrative--thing to do.) We arrived at the Palace by bus and parked in the cobblestone “parking lot” and hiked to the gate which led us to a larger path where we hiked to a line of people all waiting to get into the Palace at their designated time.

We get into the line and wait...when finally our guide says it’s time. She’s a pushy woman, which is good, and we manage to get our group into the entry hall where we are all inspected for contraband articles, almost, but not quite like going through airport security. Up a flight of stairs and we get a glimpse of some of the splendor. The ceilings are alive!

The chapel, which was built by L the XIV is huge! The rooms we pass through are filled with life sized portraits and statues of the various kings and queens who lived there over the years.

We learn some strange facts.  Louis XIV was about 5’2” tall. He shaved his whole body as body hair was a magnet for lice in those days...without hair, lice was harder to get. He wore high heeled shoes and a bouffant wig in order to appear taller.

We also learned that the Queen’s bedroom had one major purpose other than sleeping. It was a viewing room for “the court" to prove that the Queen really did give birth to her children. The bedroom is huge, large enough to seat 200 people to view “the event,” but there is a fence, albeit fancy, between the bed and the viewing area. So much for privacy!

Finally, we see the Hall of Mirrors where the Treaty of Versailles was signed. It’s an enormous room with 17 huge chandeliers. There are mirrors on one side, and on the other are huge windows with views of the magnificent gardens. The mirrors reflect the light from both the chandeliers and the windows, making it a spectacular room. The ceilings are decorated with pictures of victory, as the Hall was designed in the 1670s to show the glory of France. With gilding and marble and crystal and hundreds of mirrors, the room is indeed grand. However, it’s hard to see the grandeur with a thousand tourists in the way.

After fighting hordes of people for a couple of hours, we get a break from the crowds and we pay another fee to see the gardens. Here the crowds are less. If you go on a Sunday, the fountains play. The rest of the week, the water features are idle. According to our guide, the plumbing system is old and the government does not want to overtax it!

The gardens are formal and lovely. They are not nearly as crowded as the Palace. It was good to get out into the fresh air and enjoy the flowers.
I found it hard to imagine living in such an opulent building. Yet, several generations of kings and queens of France did exactly that. It’s beautiful. It’s filled with splendid art and fine decorations. It’s so crowded that it’s hard to see and appreciate all the beauty that surrounds you. If you go, be prepared to wait in long lines. You will be shoved and prodded and poked to keep on moving. Forget fancy shoes and wear something “sensible” as the cobbles are killers. We asked if it was always as crowded as it was on our Sunday visit and our guide, said “yes.” She also said, the best months to visit are November and February. November is cool and February is cold. Both months have fewer tourists. That might be something to keep in mind if you decide to visit. I was happy that I finally was able to see the Palace I had studied so many years ago, yet I was disappointed to be part of the madding crowd. Little did I know that we would see this type of crowding at the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. Paris is just too popular I guess.

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