Saturday, July 14, 2012

Versailles! Piece de Resistance of our Rambles

Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Versailles, France


Finalement, I suppose, it was irresistible. I mean you cannot spend a good chunk of the summer in Paris and not go to Versailles! So, we scrapped Giverny, caved in and made the royal pilgrimage in quest of Louis Quartorze's domain on the outskirts of Paris. Besides, our friend Cynthia said she preferred to prance around a chateau than dawdle in a garden--even if it happened to be Monet's and had appeared a thousand times over in his paintings. Also, as she effectively argued, Versailles offered a chateau AND gardens--the very best, in fact, by none other than Andre Le Notre. It was getting to be a bit of a no-brainer, really.

So we set off after a breakfast that was still based on leftovers in the frigo--brioche and baguette and pain au chocolat with coffee (tea for our frend from across the English Channel). The journey by metro was painless: the A train goes straight to Versailles Rive Gauche station from where the Palais is only a short walk away. We changed at our "favorite station" (Not!)--Chatelet Les Halles--and were at our destination (together with hordes of other 'royalists') in  a little more than an hour--past the miniature Statue of Liberty that holds court on Pont de Grenelles.

At the Tourist Office that is within sighting distance of the Palace gates, we purchased our tickets: 18 euros got us the Grand Tour:  in addition to the main Palace and the Gardens it included the Grand Trianon and the Petite Trianon which is the estate of Marie-Antoinette (M-A). Although I have been to Versailles twice before, I never did 'do' her estate (referred to as her 'domain"), so it made sense to cover it on this visit.

Dodging the Hordes:
We congratulated ourselves on paying 2 euros extra for what we thought would allow us to beat the ticket lines at the gates. But we were sadly mistaken. There were no lines for tickets--what was winding around in serpentine fashion all about the gigantic courtyard in front of the glittering gilded gates was the line to enter! We simply had to worm ourselves in somehow because if we were to join it and get in the kosher way we'd be exhausted even before we'd set foot into the chateau!

With the ease of a pro, our friend Cynthia stunned us by finding an opening in the queue and before we could say "Le Roi Soleil", we were in! It was a bit of a magic trick that I still can't fathom. There is no way strait-laced Llew would have stood for such short-cuts from me! Still, how thrilled we were when we finally had our audio guides in our hands and were facing the altar at the Royal Chapel which is the first real stop on the tour.

Wandering around Versailles:
A royal hunting lodge had existed at Versailles since the days of Henry IV when la chasse was a monarchical pastime. But, if you recall my blog notes after visiting Vaux Le Vicomte, you will remember that Versailles as we know it today came into being when Louis XIV (The Sun King) was seized with jealousy. He was invited to attend the Opening Ceremony of his finance minister, Nicholas Fouquet's new chateau--the Vaux le Vicomte--created by the Big Three: The Architect Le Vaux, The Interior Designer and Painter Charles Le Brun and The Landscape Designer Andre Le Notre. Well, when Louis compared his piddly estate to Fouqet's new showpiece, he went ballistic and immediately imprisoned poor Fouquet who died while inside. Livid Louis then commanded The Big Three to create a chateau for him that would outstrip Vaux many times over. Probably shaking in their chaussures, The Big Three gave him--Ta-Daah! Versailles--a palace that is so OTT (Over The Top) that every other royal residence pales into insignificance when viewed against its grandeur.

Not that Louis XIV is solely responsible for Versailles' splendour. Louis XV and XVI added to its size and substance--the last even building an opera house in the palace. In later phases, it was Jules Hardouin-Mansard, Louis XVI's architect, who had a huge hand in fashioning the form that the palace took. In fact, it was while Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette were sleeping in their beds that the enraged mob that had just sacked the Bastille and had marched all the way to Versailles from Paris barged into the royal apartments to take the king and queen into custody. M-A managed to rush into her husband's bedchamber (you would have gathered, by now, of course, that royalty kept separate bedrooms) where she was spared for one more night--but ended up in Paris and the Conciergerie the next day, anyway, where they were both subsequently guillotined. As for Lolly-lovin' Louis XIV, well, he just died in his bed at the ripe age of 71 with the satisfaction of having lived in the most elaborate home in the land. 

And it is this elaborate home that we had arrived to explore. In fact, it is after one sees 'homes' such as these that one understands why the starving French rebelled against their kings and terminated their monarchy. Interestingly, after the monarchy ended in 1789, following the uncertainties of the French Revolution, most of the original furniture at Versailles was ransacked and sold. There were plans to set fire to the palace--which, fortunately, was spared.

The audio guide took us through the initial rooms where we looked at a lot of splendid paintings of the royal heads that had once lain in its various beds and of the buildings and its gardens. These were punctuated with short films which were also very enlightening and helped us piece the seams of history. But as we walked deeper and deeper into the Royal Apartments, the rooms got larger and more ornate and the genius of  Le Vaux and Le Brun became very evident indeed. Aside from its furniture (which the curators are still trying to recover and return to their original positions), the rooms in Versailles are notable for the ceiling paintings many of which are the work of Le Brun and Hardouin-Mansard. The commentary points out note-worthy pieces of furniture, gifts to the monarchs from other dignitaries of Europe, interior decorative elements such as violet marble fireplace mantles and hand-embroidered bed hangings and the preferred lifestyle accoutrements of the occupants of the space. The grandest gallery of all is the famed Hall of Mirrors which  must have twinkled from the light of thousands of candles whose flames were reflected in the mirrors that line the walls of the room. The tour ends in a room that contains, among other paintings, the massive one by Jacques-Louis David of the Coronation of Napoleon (one version of which hangs in the Louvre in Paris). We did thoroughly enjoy the tour  but were starving and ready for lunch before we undertook the daunting task of visiting the gardens.

Lunch at Brasserie de la Girandole:
To my huge disappointment, we discovered that the Grand Parterre was completely out of bounds to visits as they were preparing for a party and had a shamiana and furniture to put into place. This meant that we could not appreciate the stately bronze sculptures of Greek Gods that  surround  the reflecting pools. Left with little choice, we walked down the steps towards Le Notre's box-edged flower beds that were a lovely blanket of soft summer shades: pinks and mauves mixed with white--as we made our way to the restaurant for a meal. We chose the sit-down service at Brasserie de la Girandole (which means the Pinwheel Brasserie) as we badly needed a rest. It is amazing how exhausting these jaunts through royal chambers can be!

Lunch was Cynthia's treat and we chose well: Roast Chicken (a son jus--"in his juice") with fries for Llew, Confit de Canard (roasted duck breast) with sauteed fingerling potatoes for me and a Croque Monsieur with Salad for Cynthia.  I enjoyed my duck very much indeed and did justice to my meal. Although I had no room for dessert, Llew and Cynthia had vanilla softie ice-cream cones before we found the energy to continue our exploration of the extensive lawns.

Le Notre's Gardens at Versailles:
The Gardens of Versailles are extensive--so extensive that your eye cannot even travel as far as the Grand Bassin. It stops short at the Neptune Fountains (which, irritatingly, were also not playing when we visited). I always feel shortchanged when museums or gardens charge you full price and close off part of the premises--it is simply unfair not to reduce the entry fee if you are not going to allow visitors to get full value for their money. Anyway, now that I have finished ranting, I will say that the fountains without water jets might as well not have been there--they did nothing to enhance my pleasure in the gardens.      

In Marie-Antoinette's Domain:
We did make a sharp right turn at this point to go on to the Grand Trianon, the estate of Marie-Antoinette and for the next hour, we explored a much smaller palace which, for the most part, was occupied by the ladies. The concept seemed to me similar to the Moghul zenana or the Turkish harem--for it was a place in which the ladies could seek their entertainment and pleasure far from the prying eyes of the outside world. More gorgeous interior design and decoration is in evidence here--albeit with a feminine touch--giving full indication of 18th century tastes in finery. Here too the gardens that surround the properties were beautifully planned and planted, the colors of the flowers coordinating perfectly to allow wonderful photo ops: reds and violets and whites. It is impossible to describe it all, but I will say that the Malachite Room was my favorite in this section--it is one in which the gigantic blocks of green stone known as malachite that were gifted to the French monarchs by the Russian Tsar, were carved into table tops, a wash basin and compotes. The effect is truly stunning because it is so rare a material. As the 16th century made way for the 17th and 18th, other notorious royal mistresses were ensconced in this space--such as Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry, both 'favorites' of Louis XV!

The Petite Trianon is a smaller castle that became M-A's favorite and one in which she spent a great deal of time. As time went by, she turned it into an entertainment area where she could pretend she was just a simple shepherdess and play bucolic games in the grounds with her ladies-in-waiting! This, I suppose would allow her to imagine how the other unfortunate three-quarters lived. Sadly, by then, we were wilting with fatigue and simply did not have the stamina to plough through those parts. So we gave up and asked for the way out--it was a walk of over a mile to get back to the metro station and, needless to say, we were drooping.

We spent the rest of the evening very quietly at home recuperating over drinks and then dinner--more home-cooked fare: melon and smoked ham for starters with buttered baguette, cheese-stuffed ravioli in a tomato cream sauce with sausages and bacon with green beans for a main and fresh apricots for desserts with Boursin cheese with figs and walnuts. Yum, yum and more yum!

I was simply too exhausted to stay up writing my blog--which explains why this one is so tardy!

A demain!        

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