The king has left the palace, but the opulence lives on.
Every trip we make to Versailles, the gilded confection of a palace 20 kilometres southwest of Paris, includes a pilgrimage to see handmade furniture by Georges Jacob, one of the era’s best furniture makers. My father’s French family may be distantly related to Jacob, whose designs were not only popular with the court, but who later became a favourite of empress Josephine. Even without blood ties, we can’t help but admire the neoclassic fluted curves and beading, so much that my mother bought a Jacob chair (although it’s often shrouded by a sheet to protect the delicate pale blue silk upholstery from the sun).
Even those with no personal connection will be awestruck by Versailles and its treasures, as evidenced by the phalanx of tour buses that pull up to the gates every morning. What started off as Louis XIII’s humble hunting lodge grew to be the most illustrious palace in Europe, at a cost of $2 billion in today’s dollars. Each of the three French kings who lived there made it more grandiose. The palace contains over 700 rooms, so it’s easy to be swept away by the sheer scale, but here are some of my favourite highlights that bring home the personal nature of this grand chateau.
Hall of Mirrors: No doubt the showpiece of Versailles, palace officials light 20,000 candles in 43 glittering chandeliers to illuminate the palace during special events and create a ‘corridor of light.’
Marie-Antoinette’s Bedroom: Opulent and feminine, this room is one of the largest apartments in the palace because protocol dictated the queen give birth to her four children watched by as many as 200 courtiers. The queen escaped an angry mob in 1789 through a concealed door to the right of her bed.
The Opera: Considered to be one of most beautiful in Europe, it has a mechanism that allowed the orchestra level to be raised to the stage so it could be used for dancing and banquets. The opera required 3,000 candles to be burnt for opening night, and was rarely used due to its operating cost.
Grove of the Baths of Apollo: The realistic sculpture of Apollo bathed by nymphs is in sharp contrast to the rough-hewn rocks that surround it. Sculptures appear to wander in and out of grottos, and horses seem to drink from the cascading fountains.
The Hameau (Hamlet): To escape the formality of court at Versailles, Marie-Antoinette built a series of buildings where she could pretend to be a shepherdess or a milkmaid. The buildings were authentically rustic — there were even cracks in the walls — but that’s where the realism stopped. Cows were washed prior to the queen’s arrival, and lambs were taken for walks on silk ribbon leashes.
Buy tickets online billetterie.chateauversailles.fr and print them out in advance so you don’t have to queue up. Go online and book an English group tour; you’ll skip the line and can visit the rest of the palace afterwards.
Don’t miss exhibitions and special shows such as the Grandes Eaux musicales et Jardins musicaux shows.
Plan on spending the whole day exploring Versailles. The inside of the palace can take over two hours, and the gardens are larger than Manhattan. You can take a train which loops between the chateau, canal, and the Trianons.
Arrive early and buy bottled water from stands in the gardens and use the restrooms after the ticket check. Once you start touring the rooms, visitors are funneled forward and you can’t turn back.
Travel light. Check bags and umbrellas and the like. Tripods aren’t allowed inside, but you can use them in the garden, and grab a map to find hidden groves.