Me and a few thousand international friends thought it would be a good idea to check out Chateau de Versailles, the iconic grand palace and grounds, built by the Sun King, Louis XIV, in the late 1600s, then transformed in the early 1800s into a museum of the history of France, “à toutes les gloires de la France.”
Basically, it has been a tourist attraction since it was built, but especially so on a beautiful sunny Friday in August, the absolute height of the tourist season. (Apparently it is *even more crowded* on Tuesdays and weekends because there’s an extra feature. I seriously can’t imagine what that’s like. *shudder*)
Visiting the chateau was simultaneously glorious and miserable. Yes, yes, it is full to bursting with the most luxurious materials imaginable. And splendors of art, history, and decoration everywhere the eye falls. As a private joke with myself (since no one else there, including my mother, would give half a damn) I chose specifically to wear a vintage toile-style dress featuring sketches of c1700s French bourgeoisie frolicking in the countryside. However, trust and believe that underneath it, I was wearing my cranky pants all day long. A 12-hour deep breathing exercise.
For the rest of the weekend, I swore up and down that I’ll never go back, but of course that might be a lie. I absolutely shure as shit won’t be back during the height of the season again, and I discourage anyone else from doing so either. There are simply thousands of sheep herding through room after room, robbing a thoughtful visitor of any opportunity to experience the spaces meaningfully. It ain’t just about gilt, mirrors, and marble — though of course that’s all that can show up in the pictures. 🙂
After a 90-minute trip that was complicated by planned railway work, we arrived at 10:15, though I’d hoped for much earlier, oh well. Visitors approach the very wide entry plaza, and the line wraps several times across the expanse. There used to be a great advantage to buying advance tickets, but now everyone does. I resigned myself to the first of many long waits.
The huuuuuuuge property, very intelligently divided into zones, is like a national park. It really is very well run, but with an essentially unlimited-guest policy, in its busiest season, there’s only so much the large staff can do.
It took us about an hour to work our way through the line to the gate. Once through the security entrance, the first thing most of us do is immediately line up again to enter the Palace. Since my last visit 20 years ago, they have added interactive audioguides (an absolute MUST), great historic videos with computer-rendered graphics, and models and dioramas. The first several rooms of the Chateau are dedicated to backgrounders and context. (This was an area that I felt most keenly the negative effects of my fellow visitors. Could not really appreciate any of it. Ugh.)
Then you follow a path through the palace that mostly focuses on the innumerable beautiful objects and decor — including the iconic Hall of Mirrors — and some mentions of the uses for each room and their history. Inevitable bottlenecks at every doorway were hugely frustrating. Then we came to Coronation Hall, which is a real barnburner, and noted that all the tour groups really peter out at this point.
We broke for a leisurely and very necessary civilized lunch at the Angelina restaurant, then resumed with the history lessons in the Galerie des Batailles and Salon de Paix (which celebrates artists and writers, whom Louis-Philippe believed helped make France great in a different though equal way as what the generals and armies did).
Then we checked out the princesses’ rooms (lesser known, and happen to be under the Hall of Mirrors) and found a quiet corner bench where Mom caught 40 winks as I considered what came next. I didn’t think she could handle the long walk out to the Grand and Petit Trianon/Marie Antoinette’s hamlet, but the line to the “mini train” (aka tram) was absolutely unworkable. The trams were small and only ran every 30 minutes. Bicycles are out of the question for her. A few golf carts were available for rent, at 32E per hour, plus a wait in yet another line — no thanks.
She decided to give the long walk a try. We were doing well, if going slowly, until she fell down on the uneven gravel pathway. Luckily it was just a knee scrape, and we were able to rinse it and slap a bandaid on, but that was a little scary and – once we decided to resume — caused us to move even more slowly. I find slow movement to be more enervating than overexertion, so I just felt my energy draining out as we trudged. But how can I complain when Mom is really making an effort, right? So I didn’t of course.
More than an hour after we left the Chateau, we arrived at Grand Trianon and by that time I was just on autopilot. Part of me really wanted to see all the rest of it: the Trianons, the grounds connecting them, Marie Antoinette’s hamlet, but it was just more than my brain could process as enjoyable. Plus all the gilding and brocade and marble and chandeliers and formal gardens and manicured topiary was starting to repeat itself to a point of being weirdly normalized and sort of dull. I’ve experienced this before; funny how even something awesome just becomes tiresome if you’re overexposed to it. I’ve made jokes about “pastie fatigue” and “boobie fatigue” at Burlesque Fests that went on for too many hours, and we’ve all had that time where we ate a favorite food until we lost interest and even felt sick of it. This is kind of the same thing: “uuggghhh more luxury feh who cares.” And that’s not even spending a moment considering the whole haves/have nots/ revolution/inequality thing. If you walk onto those grounds with that particular chip on your shoulder, you’re just a masochist. It’s the Olympics of straight-up gorgeousness gawking.
So here I am at about 5pm, over 7 hours into our visit, privately bored, mentally and physically drained, and generally grouchy. Mom also had reached close to the end of her endurance. But we’d come all the way out here, and how were we going to get back? Another thing for me to worry about. Luckily, we were able to buy a one-way ticket on the tram, which was much easier to access from the Petit Trianon than from the Chateau. 4E each and obviously WORTH IT. (Would have been worth it at twice the price… and it was only the 2 hour wait that kept us from taking it previously. But now I’m repeating myself.)
As we pulled up to the Chateau, Mom wanted to grab some final pics of the Chateau’s gardens and so I parked my butt in a corner until she was ready to roll.
Then I navigated us all the way back home… including an incident with some RER/Metro station frustrations and in which I might have made us jump the turnstiles and steal rides home on what I think might have been the last train out for the day. We’ll never know.
And that was Friday.
PS: If I had the same circumstances again, I’d definitely do the Chateau last, after 4pm. I’d arrive early again and wander the gardens and grounds, strolling out to the farther buildings in the cooler morning air. They open at noon and would probably be nearly empty at that time. Their smaller scale also would be a gentler start. Depending on my companion’s energy, we would either take the tram back part or all the way to the Chateau, stopping for either a picnic or restaurant lunch (there are lots of facilities midway). Maybe lay under a tree. Then gird myself for the Chateau in the last couple hours, after all the tourbuses have left. If the Chateau exhausts me, I then know that all I have yet to do is get back to the train and go home.
PPS: As I’ll say about several of the tourist spots in France: Contrary to the (outdated) stereotype, there IS air conditioning. It works. The air is cooler than it is outside, even with thousands of visitors inside. Just don’t be the American who expects everyplace to be a meat locker or you whine about how it’s “stifling” and “unbearable.” This is Europe and it’s summer. If you want to be constantly chilled, travel in winter.
- Official history
- Some good blogs by other visitors, who took better pictures than I did.
– Quick and breezy
– This chick is *obsessed*… very helpful. 🙂 Especially this rundown
- Roundup of several visitors