Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Versailles Day

Caught the #27 bus up to the Place St Michel, which we have done so often it feels like a commute to work. But today, rather than walking or taking the metro from there, we descended into the RER (suburban railway) station. A double-track train line with stations is basically hidden inside the left bank of the Seine, under the riverside street above. The station was cramped and crowded. The train to Versailles made many stops on its run out to the suburbs; we joked it was the TGL, train de grande lentement. OK, that's feeble.

Quite a mass of people emerged from the train at the end of its line, Versailles, and crowded out of the station. Where do we go? We wondered. And then decided, heck, just follow this crowd. And shortly we turned a corner and saw where we were going.

The immensity of the palace grows on you as you continue across a vast fore-court. Also the immensity of the horde that has preceded you here.

Louis XIV says "Howdy, come on in!"

We came to understand, after a short period of denial, that the queue to enter the palace snaked up and down the width of the courtyard four times, probably a thousand people. We spoke to a guard who opined it was at least an hour's wait to get in. Could we instead go and look at the gardens behind before going in to see the State Apartments? Why yes, M'sieur, that would be a good idea. Just through there, when you have seen the gardens, come back perhaps 1pm, the line will be shorter. So we did that.

Turns out you can enter the gardens of Versailles with no ticket at all, and this would be worth doing, if you were in the area long enough to return multiple times, as they are huge, occupying about 3 by 2 kilometers, all landscaped in beds, waterways, walks, and forests of square-cropped trees. A kilometer's walk (literally) out into the manicured forests are also the smaller palaces of the Grand and Petit Trianon. If you have a Versailles ticket you can enter these as well.

First view of the grounds from behind the main palace.

Walking down the grand central drive you note topiary'd bushes.

There are a couple hundred of these.

There were several large fountains that would have been impressive, had the water been turned on, but it wasn't today.

Apollo's chariot of the sun arising from the sea.

We went through the two Trianons fairly fast. We are such cognoscenti of stately homes and palaces that they struck us as pretty thin stuff.

Main hall of the Grande Trianon. Not exactly Motel 6, but we've seen better.

They did offer some art, including a lovely bust of the last (of four) queens to live here, Marie Antoinette.

Something we didn't do and probably should have, was visit the Queen's Hamlet, Marie Antoinette's fake farm where she would go to play at being a simple person. But anyway we bought a delicious lunch of stuffed baked potatoes (and who'd'a guessed there'd be a vendor of hot stuffed baked potatoes next to the Petit Trianon?) and caught a mini-train ride back to the main palace about 2pm.

Here the line was indeed almost gone, a five minute wait and we were in—just as the rain that had threatened all day finally began. Such timing! The ticket included an audio guide, another simple one that worked well and had plenty of helpful info.

The State Apartments at Versailles are the real payoff, the attraction that draws constant streams of tour coaches. And, speaking as long-time visitors to castles and palaces, we agree they really are stunning. Some of the German palaces we saw had more gold leaf and twiddles and furbelows, but the Apartments at Versailles are bigger in every way. They are actually worth the pain of fighting through the crowds to see. Here's some pics.

A school group and a tour group create a temporary rugby scrum viewing the chapel.

What they were fighting to see.

When Louis wanted a bust done, he got Bernini to do it.

The city of Venice gave Louis XIV a really big painting by Tiepolo, and he remodeled a room to display it. So why are all these people not looking at the incredibly rare Italian painting on the wall?

Because this was the ceiling the old one-upper put above it!

You want to click through on this one.

The big splash is the Hall of Mirrors, a 70-meter-long ballroom lined with mirrors.

For more pictures of the Hall of Mirrors, the Queen's Bedchamber, and other fine things, go to The Gallery, jump to the end, and work backwards.

So about 4:00 we headed out, part of a heavy stream of people heading for the station, somewhat bushed from 6 hours of walking and standing. Marian had the great idea of stopping for a drink first, but where? Hah! David spotted a hotel on the street to the train. A nice hotel whose hotel bar was almost empty, so like proper flaneurs we stopped for a drink. Marian had a Kir (Cassis and white wine) and pronounced it very good. The train back was jammed and the station at Place St Michel was actually frighteningly crowded as homebound commuters collided with town-bound tourists. But we were home and dry by 6:30.

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