Delusions of grandeur

Visiting the Chateau de Versailles can feel daunting. There’s a lot of pressure to “do it right” and “avoid the crowds” and “avoid weekends”  and “go early”…….oops. Our attempt to mix these words of tour guide advice with our college student sleeping habits led to rolling out of bed and to the train station by 10:45 and arriving in the quaint city of Versailles around 11:30.

It’s so interesting, because as Americans, our history was founded in small wooden town halls by farmers and business men. Our concept of “American royalty” lies somewhere between George Washington and Beyoncé. And our most extravagant palaces are the big white marble buildings of DC or privately owned celebrity mansions. The Chateau of Versailles is completely foreign territory, and not just because it’s in another country. I struggle to think of a way to describe it other than enormous and sparkly.

No seriously. Everything is covered in gold.

And that’s just the outside. The Palace started in 1623 as the hunting lodge of King Louis XIII. That structure would become the core of the Palace during the reign of Louis XIV. Starting in 1661, he (along with architects and decorators Louis Le Veau, André Le Nôtre and Charles Lebrun) began a massive renovation of the lodge, intending to move the royal seat there, rather than where it currently resided in Paris (in the palace that is now the Louvre museum). He added the grandes appartements du roi et de la reine, la galerie des glaces (hall of mirrors), and-among many other things- the elaborately landscaped gardens, his pride and joy. The court was officially established at the new Versailles Palace in 1682.

I wish I could remember exactly what is in each of these photographs, but truth be told, the Chateau was SO big, and each room was SO overwhelmingly intricate and elaborate that they all sort of start to blend together. I’ve tried to label what I can remember, and if you’re really interested, go read about the palace on wikipedia or some other internet resource because the history is actually pretty interesting! Or go visit for yourself!

What’s just so shocking to me is that people lived here. Sure there was a ton of ritual and court etiquette that went on, and most of the actual “lived in” spaces probably aren’t open to tourists, because imagine: we were probably inside the château for the better part of 2 hours and who even knows how much we saw. It dawned on me that in a giant stone and marble building, it must be SO COLD in the winter, hence the reason for the GIANT fireplaces in every single room. Plus, how many other people lived in the palace with the king and queen? Servants, nobles, advisors, etc etc etc…I just have absolutely not concept of how royal life works and visiting those places where it took place only baffles me further!

We didn’t have much time to stroll the actual gardens (plus how do you even decide where to begin?!) because we were meeting our teacher for a tour in the afternoon, but they are everything anyone has ever thought about when they think of quintessential French gardens, manicured to perfection, symmetrical to a T, flat, sprawling and never-ending. Literally.

Our group took a little tour train down the road to tour the Grand Trianon, the Petit Trianon and the Domaine de Marie Antoinette. This was probably my favorite part of the entire tour because it offered another view at how they lived and how they escaped the pomp and grandeur of the Chateau for…..slightly less pomp and grandeur.

The Grand Trianon was built by Louis XIV to serve as the residence for his mistress, the beloved marquise de Montespan. He originally commissioned a “porcelain palace” of blue and white tile that eventually deteriorated and was replaced in 1688 with the current structure of pink marble. It was here that Napoleon chose to reside during the First Empire as well as the home to many succeeding royal families and is currently one of the residences of the President of the Republic used to host foreign officials. So, when Obama visits France, he can choose to stay in this little palace instead of in a hotel in Paris. Boy, would the American media love that story.

The Petit Trianon is an even smaller château within the gardens of the Grand Trianon. It was built on the order of Louis XV for his mistress, the well-known Madame de Pompadour, who apparently thought the Grand Trianon was too fancy for her and wanted something more quaint. Sadly, she died four years before its completion, so the poor thing had to live in the Grand Trianon her whole life and the smaller house was subsequently occupied by the king’s next mistress, Madame du Barry. Upon his ascension to the throne in 1774, the young King Louis XVI gave the château and its surrounding park to his 19-year-old wife Marie Antoinette.

Marie Antoinette hated court life and longed to escape the pressures of her royal responsibilities. This area became known as the Queen’s Domain and no one was allowed to enter without her permission. The domain includes the Petit Trinon and its gardens, a theatre, various pavilions for playing music and entertaining, Marie Antoinette’s farm, and a little provincial village or Hamlet. What is striking about the area is how secluded it is. Because of her aversion to court life, everything was designed to be as private and comfortable and involve as little interaction as possible. These are not the French jardins of the big Palace. Probably my favorite room in the Petit Trianon, if only for its sheer comedic value, is the Réchauffoir or the room used exclusively for warming plates. The kitchen of course was located outside of the château to avoid fires and so the Warming Room was used to heat everything up before serving dinner. I believe there was also a Harry Potter like dining table, that mechanically lowered into the warming room so that the table could be set and raised into the dining room without the servants having to interact with the Queen and her guests. Pretty swanky.

Finally, we visited the Hameau de la Reine, or the Queen’s Hamlet which is a tiny little farm built for Marie Antoinette in 1783. There’s a farmhouse, a dairy, a mill, and the Tour de Marlbourough, a small lighthouse on the edge of the pond. Again, the whole idea was to give the impression of being in the countryside, rather than the court of Versailles and the entire little village is a little like walking through a Disney movie.

At the beginning of the French Revolution, the Royal Family was forced to move back to Paris where they were eventually arrested and guillotined. Napoléon occupied the estate during his reign but after that it was neglected for several years…In 1833, King Louis-Philippe established the Palace as a museum dedicated to “All the Glories of France.”

*p.s. special shout out to my friend Rebecca for letting me share her camera/pictures after my battery died about halfway through the trip!*

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