One of the most flamboyant of French royal palaces, Versailles is a must for every visitor to Paris. It’s without doubt a spectacular place, with the main Château, glorious gardens, Marie-Antoinette's country retreat the Domaine de Marie-Antoinette with the Petit Trianon and the gorgeous pink palace of the Grand Trianon.
A Little History
It all began when Louis XIV saw the Château at Vaux-le-Vicomte, the large and imposing palace of his ambitious finance minister, Nicolas Fouquet. The Château was the downfall of Fouquet and the inspiration for Louis XIV who decided to locate his new palace on Louis XIII's former hunting lodge at Versailles, employed the same design team, architect Le Vau, painter Le Brun and gardener Le Nôtre and built a palace a hundred times bigger. Taking from 1664 to 1715, the new Versailles had 700 rooms, 67 staircases and 352 fireplaces.
Versailles was the seat of government where the King ruled absolutely, his every moment supervised and organised in an endless formal ritual that captivated the 3,500 nobles who lived in the palace with their king. Stand in the splendid Hall of Mirrors and you begin to understand how the absolute monarchy dazzled everyone, commoners and royalty alike.
Louis XV took over the palace in 1722 and the royal family kept it as a residence until the French Revolution in 1789 when the rooms were stripped, the furniture sold and the pictures sent to the Louvre. The palace was revived by King Louis-Philippe in 1833 as a huge Museum of French History; in 1871 it returned to the people and was used at times by the government. The Hall of Mirrors was the setting for the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919 which signalled the end of World War I. Today it is run as one of France’s grandest museums, but it retains its formal status as a government building.
Plan your visit
Versailles is huge, but even so it’s dwarfed by even greater grounds which stretch for miles. Plan to spend the day here, but start with the gardens. Leave the palace, particularly the Hall of Mirrors to later, when the morning tour buses have departed. But pace yourself, there is so much to see that you might get lost in the gardens, and make sure you've got enough time and energy to take in the Château itself.
Start with the garden in front of the Château, laid out in formal glory by Le Nôtre, helped by the other designers of Versailles. It was an enormous task requiring an army of gardeners who moved earth by wheelbarrows to lay out the symmetrical flower beds demanded by Le Nôtre, the Orangerie, the fountains, the Bassin d’Appolon and the Canals. The Grand Canal, at 1.6km (1 mile) long, was the place for gondola parties on the water in the evening. It’s pretty fantastic, with lakes and long avenues taking your eye into the distance, the green views punctuated by endless classic statuary.
From here make your way to the gardens west of the Petit Trianon, the domain of Marie-Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI. Here she recreated a fantasy life for herself, a rustic idyll far removed from any reality which did little to endear her to the discontented masses who condemned her to death in 1793. The formal Jardin français is to the west of the palace, with the Petit Théâtre where she and her friends would perform for the King and courtiers. The garden is full of hardy perennials and tuberoses, a wonderful sensual assault of colours and scents filling the air.
The Jardin anglais is a different dream, with a burbling brook, grassy banks and the village and farm where the Queen played at a peasant’s life.
The Grand Trianon
The Grand Trianon was built in 1687 so that Louis XIV could dally here with his mistress, Madame de Montespan. Its pink marble gave it the name of the ‘Porcelain Trianon’, and it’s a delightful place, restored by Napoleon for his visits with his second wife, Empress Marie-Louise. More recently, it was renovated by President Charles de Gaulle in 1963 as a guest house for the Presidents of France.
The Petit Trianon
The Petit Trianon is delightful, built in the 1760s for Louis XV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour. Louis XVI gave it to his wife, Marie-Antoinette as a wedding gift and it formed a major part of her private country retreat
Château de Versailles
The Château is one of France’s great blockbuster showpieces. It’s one of the country's UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the 4th most visited site in France, with a whopping 6.7 million visitors a year. So go in the off season, or take my advice and leave it for the afternoon.
The Royal Apartments are spectacular, completely over the top with red walls, gold leaf everywhere, painted ceilings and over-stuffed furniture. There are 6 grand King’s apartments with the Hercules Salon appropriately being the largest. Louis XIV lay in state in the Mercury Salon. But the main attraction is the Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors). 71 metres long (233 ft), the Hall was designed so the sunlight is reflected back into the gardens outside, a reminder, if it was needed, that this was the palace of the Sun King.
And The Rest
With such a household to keep up, the exterior buildings were just as important. Step by the Grande Ecurie (Great Stable) where the Versailles horses were kept and trained.
Don’t miss the newly re-opened Coach Gallery (closed since 2007). It houses a large collection of those superb coaches and carriages, lavishly decorated with gold and painstakingly worked on to make them safer, faster and more comfortable. You can see Berlins used at Napoleon’s marriage, the funeral carriage for Louis XVIII and small carriages for children as well as all the requisite amount of equipment needed to keep the royal entourage on the move.
If you can, book for one of the equestrian shows put on by the Equestrian Arts Academy. It’s not just dressage, there are elements of song, fencing, Japanese archery and dance.
For practical details and how to get there, check page 2.
Versailles Guide - Practical Details and Information
Château de Versailles Practical Information
Open Apr 1 to Oct 31
Palace: Daily except Mondays and May 1: 9am-6.30pm
Stables: Tues to Sat 2-6pm
Coach Gallery: Daily except Mondays and May 1 12.30pm-6.30pm
Trianon Palaces and Marie-Antoinette’s Estate: Daily except Mondays noon-6.30pm
Garden: Daily 8am-8.30pm (5.30pm on Saturdays with Fountains Nightly Shows and May 30, June 15, 16, 17, July 7 and Oct 30
Park: Daily 7am-8.30pm
Open Nov 1 to Mar 31
Daily except Mondays 9am-5.30pm
Closed: Jan 1, May 1, Dec 25
Admission prices vary according to what you want to see
Also check the free admission online information (for instance some parts are free for under 18 years).
There are restaurants, cafes and shops at the Palace
Check online for the events, which range from shows of the fountains at night, to masked balls, concerts and guided tours
There’s a good programme of changing exhibitions. From July 5 to Oct 2, 2016, try to see Versailles and American Independence, showing how important Franco-American relations were before the Revolution.
Getting to Versailles
Take bus no 171 from Pont de Sèvres in Paris to place d’Armes in Versailles.
By car, take the D10 or A13 from Paris to the Versailles-Château exit.
The trip to Versailles takes bdetween 30 to 40 minutes by car or train.
If you’re at Versailles and want to do some luxury shopping, visit the Cour des Senteurs