On a recent trip to Paris, our family (including my 15 and 8 year old daughters) took the train to the suburbs to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Château de Versailles. I had first planned to visit Versailles on a trip to Paris in 1995 but a strike by museum workers foiled my plans and I had to wait nearly 17 years for another opportunity.
History of the Château de Versailles
During the reign of Louis XIII, there was very little apart from an old brick and stone hunting lodge on the site of what is now the Château de Versailles. His son, Louis XIV, however, had grand plans for its expansion and in 1661 work began to transform and enlarge both the palace and the gardens at Versailles. The court and government of France was moved to Versailles in 1682 and remained there until the French Revolution in 1789.
The transformation of the palace was entrusted to two architects, Louis Le Vau and then Jules Hardouin-Mansart while the gardens were designed by André Le Nôtre. Work continued until the death of Louis XIV in 1715 and his successors, Louis XV and Louis XVI continued to add to the palace. In 1837, the palace officially became a museum dedicated to "All the glories of France".
The Château is a short walk from the train station and one need only follow the crowd as everyone disembarking the train is heading to the same place. Visitors approaching the palace are greeted by an equestrian bronze statue of the Sun King and a view of stunning golden gates.
The original gate was torn down by revolutionaries more than 200 years ago and has only recently been recreated and installed. The royal gate which stands at the entrance to the cour d'honneur is constructed from wrought iron covered with gold leaf and features fleur de lys, crowns, masks of Apollo, cornucopias, and the crossed capital Ls that represented Louis XIV. The funds to replicate the gate were raised by private donors and a team of historians and craftsmen ensured that it was an exact replica of the original.
From a young age, King Louis XIV associated himself with the Greek god Apollo who was god of peace, patron of the arts and often referred to as the god of the sun. This connection ignited a desire in Louis to be seen as the monarch of peace and the arts and as the giver of life. It also prompted him to select the sun as his emblem and to have images relating to Apollo repeated in the design of the palace and around the estate.
Interior of Château
Guests may either embark on a self-guided tour or join a guided tour through the various apartments and galleries in this palace which stands as a remarkable testament to 17th century French art.
Among the key features of the château is Chapelle Royal (the Royal Chapel) where Louis XIV attended mass every morning.
There is stunning artwork to be seen everywhere in the palace even just walking through the corridors.
The most remarkable and best known room at Versailles is the Hall of Mirrors which was designed to reflect Louis XIV's desire to have a room that demonstrated France's superiority. This stunning hall has 17 mirror-clad arches that reflect 17 windows overlooking the gardens and each arch, in turn, contains 21 mirrors. The 220 foot long gallery also features marble walls, stunning chandeliers and ceiling paintings and the overall effect is a glittering jewel of a room that simply takes the breath away. It was in this room that the Treaty of Versailles which ended World War I was signed in June of 1919.
There are many other impressive rooms to view in the palace as well.
One of the most elaborate rooms in the palace is The King's Bedroom which is apparently located on the axis of the sun's journey across the sky as an affirmation that the very modest Louis XIV was indeed at the centre of the world. Lengthy ceremonies were held daily to mark the king's rising in the morning and going to bed at night - actions akin to the rising and the setting of the sun.
Emma's favourite room in the palace was The Queen's Bedroom and it's not difficult to see why. The feminine room is decorated in pinks, pale greens and floral patterns with plenty of gold accents. The Queen would have received the court in this room and royal births took place in public in this room as well - apparently to establish that the Queen had, in fact, given birth to her children. The short railing that is visible in the second photo kept the public separated from the Queen.
Before we headed outdoors to explore the park and gardens we stopped at Café Angélina to see the selection of pastries and bottles of the signature chocolate drink lined up neatly in the display case. There is also a Ladurée shop for visitors interested in shopping for macarons without the lengthy queue that always seems to exist at the Parisian locations. The restrooms located in this area of the château have probably the best toilet sign that I have ever seen.
Gardens and Park of Versailles
We had a gorgeous sunny day for our visit so after we finished our self-guided tour of the palace we headed outside to explore the park and gardens. Visitors who don't wish to tour the palace can skip the entry queue when arriving in Versailles and visit the gardens free of charge. Families with young children may prefer to allocate all of their time in Versailles to the park where they will have far more freedom to play in the fresh air and enjoy the fabulous setting without fear of causing damage or disruption.
The fabulous gardens designed by Louis XIV's gardener, Le Nôtre, took 40 years to complete and include formal gardens, an orangerie, fountains, a canal and two smaller palaces.
The vista from the terrace of the château down through the formal gardens to the Grand Canal is stunning. As we were short of time, our visit was limited to a walk through the main thoroughfare of the gardens as far as the boat hire in Little Venice. There are many more gardens off the the left and right of the main path but we simply did not have sufficient time to explore them all. Our visit was in mid-March so the gardens were still in winter mode but lovely nonetheless.
The Water Parterres can be viewed from the Hall of Mirrors and are the first element one sees in the gardens upon exiting the rear of the château onto the terrace. The Parterres consist of two rectangular pools which reflect sunlight. Each pool is decorated by reclining statues that represent the main rivers of France as well as statues of nymphs and children.
Katie in the gardens at Versailles
Just beyond the Apollo Fountain, visitors reach the area of the Grand Canal known as Little Venice which is a lovely place to sit and reflect on the beautiful day as swans swim by, enjoy a snack or picnic lunch, or rent a boat to row on the placid waters. Emma was keen for a boat ride but Katie and I were content to just sit and watch.
Versailles is an excellent day trip for families who are visiting Paris for more than a couple of days and looking for an activity outside of the city. It's only a short train ride from central Paris yet affords visitors the opportunity to be transported to the 17th century to see how royalty lived - and there may be varying opinions among family members about the lavish lifestyle that the french kings enjoyed. My younger daughter was very impressed by the beauty of the palace whereas my teenage daughter declared it to be an excessive waste of money that could have been better spent elsewhere.
We only spent about 3 hours in Versailles but we easily could have spent the entire day and still not have seen everything. We skipped much of the gardens since they weren't at their peak and we also missed the two smaller palaces of Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon because we would have had to commit the full day to tour them as well. We had plans to return to Paris for a cruise on the Seine and a visit to the Musée Rodin so we had to limit our exploration of Versailles to a partial day. I would love to return sometime to see the gardens blooming in season, water flowing in the fountains, and to more thoroughly explore the extensive grounds and the palaces of Versailles.
What You Need To Know
- Versailles is located 21km southwest of Paris and can be reached by RER train on line C - Versailles Rive Gauche;
- The palace is open daily, except on Monday, some French public holidays and during official ceremonies. High season hours are 9am - 6:30pm, Low season 9am - 5:30pm;
- The Park and the gardens of Versailles are open every day from 7am or 8am until 6pm or 8:30pm, depending on the season;
- Palaces of Trianon and Marie-Antoinette's Estate are open every day except on Monday, some French public holidays and during official ceremonies. High season hours are 12 - 6:30pm and low season 12 - 5:30pm;
- Tickets may be purchased in advance online in order to avoid the queue;
- The use of flash bulbs and mobile phones is not allowed inside the buildings;
- Free toilets are available as are baby changing stations;
- Meals are available in the Grand Café d'Orléans and also in Salon de Thé Angélina. There is also a Ladurée shop selling the famous macarons and other products;
- There are several restaurants located in the gardens;
- Free Audioguides are available in 10 languages;
- There is a mini-train that will transport guests who would rather not walk to Petit Trianon, Grand Trianon and Little Venice; there are also electric vehicles for hire.
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