VERSAILLES, June 19 — Marie Antoinette, Austrian princess and the wife of King Louis XVI, was legendary for her beauty, her infamous solution to the shortage of bread faced by peasants (“Let them eat cake!” she was claimed to have advised), and her excesses in Versailles (till she lost her head during the French Revolution).
As the Queen of France from 1755 till 1793, the scene of her decadent lifestyle was none other than Château de Versailles (the Palace of Versailles) with its vast landscaped formal gardens, built in the mid-17th century to celebrate the glory of the reign of Louis XIV, also known as the Roi Soleil (the Sun King). Today the palace retains a special place in the history of France and is well worth a visit for any travel buff.
Located about an hour away from Paris, to the west of the capital, Versailles is a prosperous city in the Ile de France region. To get there, take the train to Versailles Château-Rive Gauche. Once you’ve arrived at the station, cross the street and follow the crowds (most of the passengers will be heading to Château de Versailles too) till you enter a tree-lined pedestrian pathway. This will take you to the Place d’Armes outside the palace, where the equestrian statue of Louis XIV will greet you.
The majesty of the palace before you belies its humble (or as humble as anything royalty-related could be) origins. Château de Versailles started out as simply Louis XIII’s hunting lodge before his son Louis XIV decided he wanted something far grander and kept expanding it. In the end, the Sun King even moved the court and government of France to Versailles in 1682.
The palace itself was designed by architects Louis Le Vau and Jules Hardouin-Mansart, as well as painter and interior designer Charles Le Brun. Work began in 1661 and didn’t complete for another 40 years. Château de Versailles is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered the embodiment and crowning achievement of classical French art.
As you walk around the palace compound and wait your turn to enter the interior, marvel at the thousands of intricate detailing everywhere. Each fresco, marble and gilt adornment and well-preserved woodcarvings are the legacy of Le Brun and his team of artisans all those centuries ago.
In the 1670s, Louis XIV built the Grands Appartements du Roi et de la Reine (the State Apartments of the King and Queen). Look closely and you will see tales from ancient Greek and Roman mythology unfold in front of you; there are rooms dedicated to Hercules and Mercury, Venus and Mars.
The pièce de résistance of the palace has to be the Galerie des Glaces, or Hall of Mirrors. This 75-metre long ballroom has 17 large mirrors on one side and, to balance it, 17 large windows on the other side overlooking the gardens. Here history was made in more ways than one; it was in this room that the signing of the Peace Treaty between the triumphant Allies and the defeated Germany on June 28, 1919 that signalled the official end of the First World War.
More ostentatious displays were added over the next century by succeeding kings. Louis XV built the Chapel and the Royal Opera (Opéra Royal), which only further increased the opulence and beauty of the palace. All things come to an end, however; Château de Versailles lost its role as the nation’s seat of power in 1789. Today the palace plays a new role as the Museum of the History of France.
As you walk from room to room, along one corridor to the next, you can’t help but feel as though you are taking a stroll through history.
Feeling a bit peckish after all that walking? There are a number of restaurants and cafés on the palace grounds but these tend to be expensive and crowded with tourists. A better option would be to take a short walk into town. Here, there are many small shops that offer more affordable and authentic French fare.
A local favourite is Le Carré aux Crêpes along Rue Anjou. Considered the best crêperie in town, it’s a small and charming shop with friendly (albeit always busy) servers. Traditionally eaten in Brittany in the northwest of France, sweet crêpes are made from wheat flour (crêpes sucrées) whereas buckwheat flour is used for savoury galettes (crêpes salées).
Le Carré aux Crêpes does both versions really well, from a classic crêpe dusted with desiccated coconut to a galette complète (stuffed with Emmental cheese and a perfect sunny side-up egg cooked in its centre). Light, tender and crispy at the edges, these are exactly what incredible Breton pancakes ought to be. Finish your meal with an espresso, which will keep you energised for more walking in the afternoon.
Return to the Château de Versailles: this time, you leave the luxurious interiors of the palace for the magnificent gardens outside. The gardens of Versailles were designed by André Le Nôtre in 1661.
Le Nôtre was commissioned by none other than Louis XIV himself. In the king’s mind, the gardens were as important part of the his legacy as the palace itself.
Little wonder then that the gardens were a colossal undertaking. Stretching 800 hectares with over 200,000 trees and about the same number of flowers planted annually, the grounds first had to be completely transformed. Hills were flattened, forests relocated and marshes drained.
In their place, flower beds were laid out, 50 fountains were constructed and a Grand Canal spanning nearly six kilometres was built. Thousands of workers and soldiers from all the provinces of France were employed in the labour of transporting earth and trees till the gardens were finally completed... 40 years later.
Today, if you were to look down into the gardens from the central window of the Hall of Mirrors, your gaze may begin at the Water Parterres — two large rectangular pools that reflect the sunlight and light up the Hall of Mirrors — and extend all the way to the horizon.
It’s a perfect spot to watch the sunset. This was the view the Sun King himself might have beheld centuries ago... and remains as breathtaking today.
Château de Versailles
Place d’Armes, 78000 Versailles, France
Open daily (except Mon closed) 9am-5:30pm November-March and 9am-6:30pm April-October
Tickets: Day Pass for Apr-Oct €18 (RM83) weekdays & €25 (RM115) weekends, and for Nov-Mar €16 (RM74) all days
Le Carré aux Crêpes
22 Rue Anjou, 78000 Versailles, France
Open Tue-Fri 12pm-2pm & 7pm-10pm, Sat 12pm-2:30pm & 7pm-10:30pm, and Sun & Mon closed
Tel: +33-1-3949 5047