Versailles

Sandy Mitchell
gardens at Versailles Palace

The Chateau de Versailles, located in the small town of Versailles, about 30 minutes southwest of Paris, is a magnificent 2000 acre estate, which was home to the French royalty and nobility from 1682 until the French Revolution in 1789. The building of Versailles was more than just an act of vanity. It was a good strategic and political move. By keeping the nobles vying for the King's attention at the palace, he could keep them from plotting against him in their home provinces. What's more, the country air and open spaces was much healthier than the open sewers and crowded streets of 18th century Paris.

History

Originally a royal hunting lodge, the current palatial Chateau de Versailles was conceived by King Louis XIII. He had plans drawn for its construction, but never broke ground. It was his grandson, King Louis XIV who decided to build the monumental palace in order to consolidate his power. The final design was completed by architect Louis Le Vau, decorator Charles Le Brun, and landscaper, Andre Le Notre. Later buildings were added by Louis XV and Louis XVI, including the Grand Trianon Grand Trianon, the Petit Trianon, and Marie Antoinette's petit hameau (hamlet).

Not only was the estate expensive to build, it was very expensive to maintain. It is estimated that at least 25 percent of the French Government's income went to the care and feeding of the royal family, their staff, and entourage, and the upkeep of the Chateau and grounds. These exorbitant costs as well as the royal family's isolation from the plight of the cities, especially Paris, in no small way led to the French Revolution in 1789.

The palace, especially the Hall of Mirrors, has been the site of many historic events. The Treaty of Nijmegen was signed here in 1678 starting a long tradition. In 1871, the German Empire was proclaimed here after France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. It was also in the Hall of Mirrors that Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles, ending World War I and portioning much of Europe.

The Palace of Versailles

The Hall of Mirrors

At the time of the revolution, the palace, a symbol of all that the citizens of France hated about government, was ransacked. Much of the extensive art collection and furniture was sold at auction to raise funds for the fledging republic, although some of the treasures eventually found their way to the Louvre Museum. Whole sections of the Chateau were demolished and the elaborate paneling sold. The Chateau sat dormant until 1830 when the Citizen King, Louis Phillippe declared it a museum.

Little was done to the Chateau until the 1960s, when Pierre Verlet, a French decorative arts scholar, championed its restoration. He managed to talk private collectors and museums around the world into returning some of the treasures to Versailles and raised necessary private funds to begin the extensive project. The work is painstaking and slow and continues to this day. The Palace itself has 700 rooms, about 120 of which have been restored, including the King's chambers, the state apartments, and Mesdame's - the King's sister's-apartments. The Palace has over 2100 windows, 67 staircases, and 6000 pieces of furniture.

The Gardens

The Gardens at Versailles

The beautiful formal gardens at Versailles have been restored to their former glory. The gardens are huge. There are 27 miles of trellises, 200,000 trees, and 50 fountains with 620 fountain nozzles. The Chateau de Versailles employs 48 gardeners and 8 fountain technicians to maintain the well-manicured estate. The Environs Outside of the main Chateau are two significant out buildings, the Petit Trianon and the Grand Trianon. The Petit Trianon was built for Louis XV's favorite mistress, Madame de Pompadour, but she died before it was completed in 1768. The little palace was occupied by her successor, Madame du Barry, and later became a favorite of King Louis XVI's wife, Marie Antoinette. The larger Grand Trianon was built by King Louis XIV in 1687 as a kind of retreat from the bustle of the main palace. It is a great example of 18th century French Baroque architecture. It was named the Trianon after the French Village of that name that King Louis demolished in order to build his retreat.

Visiting Versailles

Visitors to Versailles can take the RER commuter train from Montparnasse station in Paris. It arrives just across from the Palace entrance. Different portions of the Chateau carry separate admission fees. Visitors should purchase a pass to the King's Chambers and add on the other portions they wish to visit, such as the Petit and Grand Trianon, Mesdames Apartments, and the Gardens. Alternately, visitors can purchase a one-day pass, which includes all of these areas.

The Chateau has several full-service restaurants, numerous gift shops, ATM machines, lockers, and ample rest rooms. There are horse-drawn carriages and a mini-tram to take visitors from the main palace to the Petit and Grand Trianon. In the evening, the Chateau is illuminated with a spectacular sound and light show. Expect to spend at least one very full day at Versailles. To avoid the crowds, arrive early, around 830am.

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Versailles