You’ve been dreaming of going to Versailles. After all, it is the most beautiful Castle in the world, right?
Abso-freakin-lutely. But you’ll hate it. Why, you ask? Because, just like Venice and Dubrovnik, Versailles is a place that is ridiculously overrun by idiotic tourists who don’t even know how to behave. The volumes of people are so large that the castle is almost impossible to traverse. The crowds are so large that guards can’t even take care of the art work. I had to yell at some asshole American tourist who was touching a painting. Then he had the balls to look at me incredulously as if I had no right to do this. If any of you know the “gentleman” in the pictures, please give him the following message as I may have been too furious to be articulate when I was yelling at him in broken French:
THIS GOES TO THAT YOU AND THE MANY MORE LIKE YOU – THE ART IS NOT YOURS – THE ART IS FRAGILE – THE ART IS OLD – IF YOU TOUCH IT WITH YOUR GRUBBY, DISGUSTING, KENTUCKY FRIED CHICKEN LICKING FINGERS, YOU ARE GOING TO RUIN THE ART. YOU ARE NOT ANYWHERE NEAR AS IMPORTANT OR AS SIGNIFICANT AS THIS ART IS. YOU’LL LIVE AT MOST 100 YEARS, BUT THIS ART CAN LIVE ON MUCH LONGER IF ASSES LIKE YOU DON’T TOUCH IT.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I’ll give you some tips on what you should see at Versailles, as well as things that will make your trip significantly more pleasant.
Things to see in Versailles
The Orangerie – Sweet oranges were quite precious in France at the time. They had been introduced to France around the 15th century and were important for commerce. The orangerie at Versailles was started by Jules Hardouin-Mansart in1684, before any other part of the complex was begun. Some of the trees that you will see there are over 200 years old. These are basically the subterranean spaces where the fruit trees can be wintered over and brought into spring. Do not miss the equestrian statue by Bernini.
The Fountain of Latona – The fountain, designed by Balthazar Marsy features the goddess Latona as the “cake topper”. It originally sat on top of a rock, but Hardouin-Mansart placed Latona and her children in the top register on a marble base made up of four tiers. Latona, Apollo & Diana’s mother, protects her children from the peasants of Lycia who refuse to let her drink from their water. She has them turn into lizards and frogs (which you see on the lower registers). In the middle registers, you can see the transformation happening and on the bottom register you see lizards & turtles fully transformed. Something tells me the king really identified with Latona, why? There was an event called The Fronde that took place during the King’s youth. The people challenged and rose up against royalty. The coup was put down by monarchic forces but only at great effort. It was because of this idea of the constant threat of uprising that it was believed that Louis XIV was leery about living in Paris (heart of the Fronde). The king erected this allegory as a warning to those who may rise up against the monarchy that they too would be turned to frogs if they rebelled.
The Fountain of Apollo -This fountain replaced the Fountain of the Swans. This gilt lead group by Tuby depicts Apollo on his chariot and was inspired by a Le Brun painting. Apollo is seen rising from the horizon on his quadriga (I have a thing for quadrigas – don’t get me started on the Tomb of the Infernal Quadriga). The composition is stunning when the water is on. It looks as if the water parts at his command and adds movement and dynamism. The water even spouts in a Fleur de Lis, a symbol of the French royalty. Basically, this sculpture is the king saying, I am no mere king. I AM APOLLO.
The Grove of Apollo – Hugh Hefner had nothing on Louis XIV. This, in my opinion, is the ultimate grotto.
The Colonnade with Pluto & Persephone – Built by Hardouin-Mansart, the Colonnade replaced the Springs Grove Le Nôtre. There are 32 marble columns. The arcades is decorated with low reliefs showing children. The arches depict nymphs and naiads. The subject of the sculpture in the colonnade is another scene from the metamorphoses where pluto carries her away from her mother Demeter. Demeter then punishes the earth with the seasons. The sculpture was executed by Girardon (1678) who took inspiration from Bernini who sculpted the same scene in 1620.
The Dragon Fountain – I have a thing for dragons, you can blame George R.R. Martin for that obsession. The Dragon Fountain depicts a winged snake killed by Apollo’s arrow . The dragon is surrounded by dolphins and putti armed with bows and arrows as they ride swans.
Avenue des Enfants – Leading to the dragon fountain is an avenue of children. It is a double row of “tiny” fountains depicting children.
The Grand Canal – It is huge. If you think it looks big in pictures, wait until you see it in person. Louis XIV actually had models of ships made to float on the canal. Venice once gifted two gondolas (which came with gondoliers) to the king. Rent a boat and get a good upper body workout. The infinite feel of the great canal makes you feel the infinite power of the king.
Galerie des Glaces – This is the thing everyone wants to see, the famed Hall of Mirrors. It’s stunning…the room is by Hardouin Mansard in 1678, and the ceilings were painted by Charles Le Brun in the mode that was invented in a hotel on Ile St. Louis by Le Vau (Hotel Lambert). Combination of painting, sculpture and decorative arts as well as architecture that had been preceded by things we find elsewhere, like Vaux Le Vicompte, Hotel Lambert, etc… You really get to see the development of French art here.
Bust of Louis XIV by Bernini – 1665 – The king invited designs from the most important artists. Bernini came to Paris for 5 months and sculpted this piece. Think of it as a slap in the face to Italy since Bernini’s patron was the Pope, but he felt this commission was so important that he would leave Rome for 5 months to sculpt it.
Tips to Make your Versailles Trip Easy & Fun
- Passeport pass – Get this. It costs €18 (or €25 when there are water shows) but this gets you access anywhere on the grounds.
- Advance tickets – Buy your tickets in advance so you can skip the lines. If you forgot to buy your tickets online, go to the tourism office in Versailles when you get to town. It’s pretty empty and you can buy your passport pass there.
- Rent a bike – There are bike rentals at the gardens. Pick up a bottle of rose at the castle, a jambon beurre, and find yourself a nice quiet spot. This will make the trip to Versailles worth it.
- Get there early – like I said, this is one of the worst places for tourists. So if you get there early, you may avoid some of the crowds. Give yourself plenty of time. Versailles is big, an hour or two won’t do it.
- Go in late September/early October – the crowds are smaller and the fountains are still on.
- Check out the city – The actual city of Versailles is tres charmant. Definitely make some time to walk through and pick up food at one of their restaurants.
- Wear sunscreen & comfortable shoes – that’s just common sense.
The property that is now Versailles belonged to a Florentine man named Gondi (a Medici) who was a part of the parliment in Paris. As good Parliamentary members tended to do, he invited his king Louis XIII to drop by for a hunt in his forests. Louis fell in love immediately and thankfully for Gondi his fate was much better than the guy who owned the property Versailles is modeled after. Louis XIII purchased a piece of the property for his use and began to make enhancements. He started off by hiring Le Roi (an architect) to build a small hunting chateau. It was a simple stone structure with a slate roof. In due time, Louis XIII decided to buy the entire property. By 1643, the property was no longer a humble hunting chateau…Versailles had turned into a town with over 1,000 people. The King died in 1642 when his son was a mere 5 years old.
In 1661 when Louis XIV began his own rule, he showed an interest in the site. He liked the idea of escaping Paris and his political duties. Paris was a rough place for the king. Politics and insurrection had interfered with his fun. He began to show interest in the Versailles location and decided to move his offices from Paris to Versailles.
This is where Nicholas Fouquet comes in. He was the minister of finance to Louis XIV (king Junior). Apparently, Nicholas Fouquet was doing so well with the king’s finances that he decided to hire one of France’s most sought after achitects, Louis Le Vau, André Le Nôtre and Charles Le Brun to re-design his Chateau -Vaux-Le-Vicompte. He decided (like Gondi) that he would entertain the king. Unfortunately for him. the king was so impressed with the castle, he began to ask himself how Fouquet could afford such an amazing Chateau. Three weeks after their meeting, Fouquet was arrested for embezzlement. His property was seized and became the model for what is seen stylistically in Versailles.
Louis XIV (King Junior) then hired his own architect, Louis Le Vau, after seeing his work at Vaux-Le-Vicompte, to completely make over the chateau into a full on castle as well as landscape architect Andre Le Notre to spruce up the grounds. By 1682, the court had officially moved from Paris to Versailles. Paris lost its title of capital…and anyone who wanted to move to Versaille got a piece of land in the city for free – if they paid taxes each year AND built the house to the specs decided by the architect in chief of the king (gotta love zoning laws).
In 1678, the king officially transferred his court and the government to Versailles. As of 1682, Paris was no longer the capital of France. The city of Versailles grew as the king allowed anyone to have a lot in the city for free as long as they paid a tax every year and built a house according to established architect in chief of the king.
Louis XIV’s house in Versailles is a sign that by this time this vocabulary of architecture (Classical Language – arches, column, engaged columns, horizontal elements) is fully established, it is the only way to build and nobody would go back to the medieval past.
GARDEN design becomes a major element…Land takes over building. The patron makes a statement of his aspirations and the way things should be in his world. Basically the king rules the people, architecture, and nature.
Now that we’ve gotten through a bit of history, I know you want to see the castle. Heck, I could not resist. I suggest you get there super early before the crowds roll in. As soon as the castle starts to feel stuffy….get the hell out and into its gorgeous gardens.
How to Get to Versailles Castle
Versailles Rive Gauche (RER C from the Saint-Michel and Champ de Mars stations from Paris)
Versailles Rive Droite (Transilien from Saint-Lazare and La Défense stations from Paris)
Versailles Chantiers (Transilien from Montparnasse station from Paris)
DO NOT TAKE A BUS – the train is a quicker and more pleasant ride.
By Car: Take the A13, exit at Versailles Centre. There’s parking at the Place d’Armes, Allée de Bailly, Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon