Oscar Wilde once famously said: “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess”. He may well have been speaking about Versailles. In a world where one only had to dream of something to bring it to life, Versailles remains the gold standard for excess. Now UNESCO protected, it’s inspiration for endless chateau and palaces worldwide.
Once playground to French royalty, downfall of same, its graceful beauty seduced even Napoleon, self appointed man of the people post Revolution. So much for that – he went on to be crowned Emperor and live in each of the royal playgrounds.
We’ve scored a perfect day to see Versailles, cold yes, but under clear blue skies.
Despite seeing the palace fifteen years ago, I can’t resist another pass through. The Queen’s private chambers are closed for restoration, but the formal rooms, the King’s private chambers and the magnificently restored Hall of Mirrors are open.
I’d give my eye teeth to photograph the Hall of Mirrors free of people. The crowds are insane, there are so many more people compared to when we were here last.
Zooming through the castle, our main focus are the parts of Versailles we didn’t get to see last time: the summer residences, the Grand Trianon, the Petite Trianon and the Queen’s Hamlet.
The Grand Trianon is a pink marble wonder tucked at the back of the estate – the royal family’s summer house.
Simpler in design and style to the palace it’s still gorgeously opulent.
The Mirrored Room proves my favourite of the day, a symphony in pale green, gold and ivory, so very lovely. The business of the court continued here, albeit in a slightly less formal manner.
The Petite Trianon meanwhile, was the Queen’s private summer retreat.
Not one building, but a series including a theatre.
Because the Queen enjoyed putting on plays and acting in them. As you do.
It speaks, to me, of an unsettled Queen searching for meaning in her life. And in the absence of meaning, distraction works quite well. Human nature doesn’t change much across centuries.
Despite its modest appearance, it’s the Queen’s Hamlet that really drives home how far she had strayed from reality.
Late in the 18th century, there was a movement to “the simple life” amongst aristocracy. They quite fancied playing at being peasants. Without all that pesky work, dirt, hunger and poverty, of course. Amongst this movement the Queen decided she needed a farmhouse, and given that a farmhouse would have looked completely out of place in Versailles, she had a hamlet built around it. So that she could pretend she lived in a village.
Whilst externally the hamlet is made up of medieval reproduction half timbered houses, the Queen’s of course the grandest, a peek behind the curtains reveals silk curtains, gold trimmed plasterwork and elegant furnishings. The hamlet produced fresh vegetables and dairy for the Queen’s table, but in essence it was her most private of residences. Entry to its confines was the ultimate in royal acceptance. Its only residents now are the ratty water guinea pigs – we see not one, not two, or three, but four by the river. Three white ones! They’re not at all fussed by the crowds. Royal ratties. They’re quite sweet up close.
The hamlet messes with my perceptions of Versailles in a way the opulent glamour did not. In a time when the people starved, French royalty lived in extraordinary luxury, cushioned from the outside world under glorious art, endless gilt and the finest silks. It’s easy to see why the people revolted, toppling them from power, lopping heads off as they went.
If I’d been a starving farmer of the time, the Queen’s hamlet might just have been the thing that pushed me over the edge – its complete disconnect from the reality of peasant life – not the glamour of the palace.
It’s also very easy too, though, to imagine Marie Antoinette’s utter terror, dragged from her luxurious bed chamber, imprisoned then brought to trial, the dawning realisation that her violent, public death was at hand. It’s hard loving Versailles as I do, to settle on a position as to how I feel about the pull between those opposing poles of thought. It’s oh so very easy to be seduced by beauty and power but it’s just as easy to understand the utter desperation starvation can bring.
By day’s end, we’ve walked miles and we’re both tired. I’m tempted to walk up the canal once more, to the coach house but Chris can’t be convinced. He wants to get on the road to get some distance west in the last of the light.
The fuel tax protests get in our way of course. We divert off the main road, doubling our travel time and then some. It’s completely dark by the time we stop.
I’m quite weary of this protest business. It’s escalating and getting out of hand.
Versailles is a multilayered feast. I’m really glad we had the opportunity to see it again, but there’s still so much to explore. Next time I’d like to bring our bikes and ride through the grounds. As far as we walked today, there are still so many nooks, gardens and fountains yet to see.
And then there’s the coach house. And the town of Versailles, which looked rather fabulous too. The lure of the gilt and glamour. It’s most seductive.