A visit to Versailles is always a massive treat and especially so when you’re there with someone special who has never been before and so get a chance to show off all your special history and art history knowledge to a (mostly) captive audience! I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Versailles six times now, first going there in 1989 when I travelled to Paris for the bicentenary of the French Revolution, and feel like I have been privileged to see the palace grow, change, develop and even blossom over the decades since that first amazing visit. I remember that back in the late eighties, Versailles was a lot more rough and battered around the edges than it is now – it was still stunning, of course, and jaw droppingly magnificent but there was much less of the building open to the public and it definitely lacked the contemporary slickness that today’s palace enjoys thanks to the €500 million renovation currently underway to refurbish the rooms, make more of the palace accessible to visitors and also modernise the facilities.
Almost a decade had passed since my last visit to Versailles and in that time, the palace had changed a great deal with some of the rooms being rearranged, a great deal of restoration and cleaning work being carried out both inside and outside the building and the opening up of hitherto unseen apartments, such as those formerly inhabited by Louis XVI’s aunts or the beautiful rooms lived in by the mistresses of his grandfather Louis XV. Whereas Versailles in 1989 was vast, rather grey and impressive rather than beautiful, the ongoing refurbishments are revealing an altogether more lovely building with a glowing pale gold facade, freshly gilded windows and gleaming, polished wooden parquet floors. Versailles has always had its admirers, and rightly so, but it has never before, I think, been as loved and cared for as it is now. Although the initial phase of renovations obviously pre dates the film, I definitely get a sense that the new modern, fresh spirit at Versailles owes at least something to Marie Antoinette, which was of course partially filmed in the palace and evoked the long vanished ancien règime court of Louis XVI and his Queen as a floral patterned, violet and rose scented, pastel macaron coloured fairytale wonderland lit by beautiful, glittering crystal chandeliers and crammed full of every possible opulent, exquisite and intoxicating luxury. Certainly the recent arrivals of those two iconic Parisian stalwarts Ladurée and Angelina, the latter of which we visited in the Petit Trianon during our recent trip there, suggests the direction that Versailles’ gradual rebranding is taking – and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see them joined by other Parisian luxury brands like Diptyque, Trudon and perhaps even the likes of Chanel at some point.
Back to our most recent visit, which was part of a trip to the Ile de France specifically made in order to see Versailles, Fontainebleau and Vaux le Vicomte with our own star struck eyes. We got to Versailles pretty late in the day but didn’t despair too much when we saw the enormous queue snaking all the way down and around the courtyard – instead we headed to the ticket office (where my intrepid companion bravely eschewed a rather less epic but still daunting queue and instead opted for the strangely completely deserted but far more efficient ticket machines in the adjoining room) to pay our dues then headed straight for the gardens and Trianon, having decided that the queue would probably be much less hideous later in the day once all the tour groups had got tired and moved on. I can’t quite remember how I reacted when I first saw the sprawling magnificence of Versailles from its amazing parterres, but I hope that my face back then was as full of amazed wonderment as that of my boyfriend, who looked completely blown away by it all as he took in both the vast spread of the gardens and the hugeness of the palace itself as it loomed over us. It really is quite extraordinary. Sadly we hadn’t left ourselves much time to explore as much as we wanted to so only managed a little bit of a wander through the various glades and arbours on our way down to the Trianon estate, where we first of all headed to the Grand Trianon, which is mostly associated nowadays with Napoléon (who doesn’t seem to have been all that keen on Versailles) and the Orléanist King, Louis Philippe and his family. It’s a lovely, graceful building with a pink marble colonnade that has starred in many a fashion shoot over the years, and deservedly so.
I would have liked to explore the Grand Trianon gardens a bit more but time was pressing and so we carried straight on to the Petit Trianon, which is basically a shrine to the vanished world of Marie Antoinette and her circle of friends. Actually, maybe ‘shrine’ isn’t quite the right word to use here as it implies something static, dusty and rather sad when actually the Petit Trianon is the absolute opposite of all those things but is instead as luminously pretty, elegant and exquisitely turned out as it was in its eighteenth century heyday. Although the building is obviously strongly associated with the story of Marie Antoinette, there are shades of its other residents, which included the likes of Napoléon’s scandalous little sister Pauline (whose behaviour was far more decadent and shocking than anything dreamt up about the Bonaparte’s Bourbon predecessors), there too and despite these regal associations, there is still something about it that never lets one forget that this charming little mansion, so exquisitely bijou and feminine in appearance, was originally intended as a hideaway for a royal mistress, Madame de Pompadour. It’s utterly delightful inside and even though most of the original furnishings were dispersed during the Revolution, their carefully chosen contemporary replacements more than adequately evoke the charm of Marie Antoinette’s fairytale world before it was so rudely shattered. Unlike the main palace, the Petit Trianon is relatively sparsely decorated with very little gilt and embellishment – what ornamentation there is, however, is absolutely beautiful and in the best possible taste. The main salon, where Marie Antoinette and her guests spent most of their leisure time, is particularly delightful with its raspberry pink silk furnishings, exquisite panelling and elegant neo-classical lantern hanging from the ceiling. Whereas the main palace would actually be pretty uncomfortable to live in (even though everyone who visits inevitably jokes about wanting to live there), it’s impossible not to visit the Petit Trianon and not want to move straight in.
It is perhaps fitting that it was at the Petit Trianon, the place most associated with her, that Marie Antoinette was informed that a mob of Parisian women (and several men disguised in dresses) was marching on Versailles and that the revolution that had seemed so far away in Paris was finally being brought to the gates of Versailles. Gates which, incidentally, had never been closed in all its long history and had become so rusted that it required a huge effort to close them before the invaders arrived. She was sitting in her grotto when the news arrived and as she ran through her lovely gardens, some of which had not yet come to full maturity, she almost certainly had no idea that she would never see them again, which is perhaps a mercy as it would have made leaving them behind all the more difficult. Even on the most overcast day, the gardens at the Petit Trianon with their elegantly fanciful Temple of Love, Belvedere, French Pavilion and infamous and surprisingly large toy farm, the hameau, where Marie Antoinette could tend lambs, collect pre-washed eggs, churn butter and pretend to live what she fondly and, sadly for both her and them, wrongly believed was the simple, pleasantly rustic life enjoyed by most of her subjects, are an enchanting spot and a tranquil antidote to the crowds and bustle of the main palace not so far away. Despite the ongoing fascination with Marie Antoinette, they are never very crowded and it is still possible to imagine oneself transported back in time to the eighteenth century – much as the two English school teachers Charlotte Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain famously did in 1901 when they claimed to have encountered the ghosts of Marie Antoinette and other members of her circle at the mansion.
After a restorative break at the Petit Trianon branch of Angelina, where I VERY much enjoyed their famous hot chocolate and an amazing Mont Blanc cake, we headed back up to the main palace. To our great relief, the enormous queue of earlier on had completely vanished and so we were feeling extremely self congratulatory and savvy (although in the case of my companion this was somewhat tempered by the fact that he had managed to lose his ticket pretty much as soon as we bought it and so had to sadly and shame facedly proclaim it ‘totalement perdu’ at every place we entered) when we simply strode straight into the palace and enjoyed a series of virtually empty rooms, each one apparently more opulent and embellished than the last. Although most people seem to blaze straight through them, probably because they don’t feel confident about their knowledge of French history, I really love the permanent displays about the history of the palace and its court – they’ve added some great models of Versailles throughout its history since my last visit and the paintings on display are absolutely magnificent and worth lingering over. It really is a treat to see them in the flesh.
The main attraction is, of course, the amazingly marble, gilt and crystal adorned state rooms where Louis XIV and his successors lived their public lives – with every moment of their existence accounted for by the byzantine and elaborate court rituals that were intended to simultaneously keep them on display while at the same time maintaining the distance between themselves and their subjects, transforming the increasingly portly, not especially attractive or particularly intelligent Bourbon kings into demigods and, at first at least, emphasising what they considered to be their divine right to rule. Versailles is perhaps one of the greatest and most elaborate theatres in the world – an elaborate and expensive exercise in propaganda and showmanship. It was never really designed to be a home, although several thousand people were crammed beneath its roof, but was instead the gilded, enormous, candlelit stage for the relentless self promotion and glorification of the ruling house of France. Although the marble, gold and crystals are all real, the lives lived out amongst them were not – Versailles was basically like The Truman Show on steroids and with the biggest budget the world has ever seen. No wonder therefore that behind this glimmering, beautiful facade there exists another Versailles of tiny staircases, cramped corridors and intimate little rooms overlooking the palace’s many courtyards. Some of these areas were intended as a sort of rat run to keep the servants out of sight but they also served another purpose as the private quarters of the French monarchs, where they could take off their wigs, unbutton their silk waistcoats, throw themselves down on comfortable sofas and relax with their closest friends and family. It is in these areas that one truly gets a sense of the actual personalities of the Bourbon rulers, which is ironic really as their state rooms and the elaborate daily play they performed there were designed to create a cult around even these glorified individuals, with even their most intimate activities venerated by their courtiers. And one can’t help but wonder why, if it was really so great being King, they felt the compulsive need to hide themselves away as much as possible, tunnelling further and higher into the palace’s infrastructure in their frantic attempts to burrow further away from the relentless gaze of the court and public who came out in their droves every day to watch the royal family eat their meals, play cards and promenade in the gardens.
Sadly for my companion, the stunningly beautiful Queen’s apartments are currently shut for refurbishment and so he was unable to see Marie Antoinette’s wonderfully opulent and rather beautiful bedchamber. I was a little disappointed myself to be honest as although I’ve seen it several times before, I was looking forward to reacquainting myself with what has to be one of the most gorgeous bedrooms ever created and also paying homage to the two iconic Vigée-Lebrun paintings of Marie Antoinette that hang in the apartments. Luckily, we’d already decided that we were going to return to Versailles as soon as possible so will no doubt try to make our next visit coincide with the reopening of those rooms but if you’re planning to go soon and are on a bit of a Marie Antoinette pilgrimage, please be aware that her bedchamber is currently closed to the public and there doesn’t seem to be much information out there about when it is likely to be open again. Sad times.
Perhaps even more sadly, for me at least, was the fact that our late arrival had the knock on effect of making us leave the state apartments after the shop had closed for the day, which was a massive disappointment as I’d been really looking forward to buying lots of books about French history and acquiring all manner of ridiculous Marie Antoinette souvenirs. My intrepid companion found an open shop in the courtyard and with an air of deep resignation settled himself down for a long wait outside as I scampered about, adding books to my pile and exclaiming over Marie Antoinette plates and tea towels. Sadly I got kicked out before I was able to locate everything that I wanted but I more than made up for it in the Fontainebleau gift shop the next day so can’t really grumble.
We had SUCH an amazing time at Versailles. If you’ve ever even vaguely considered visiting then you should definitely go as it really is a most rewarding experience and, other than some of the palaces here in the UK, it’s hard to think of many places that have so much history and so many amazing stories all under one roof. Or several roofs. This is Versailles, after all where the motto definitely seems to be ‘Go Hard or Go Home’ so why have just one roof when you can have twenty?
1. Wear comfortable shoes – you’re going to do a LOT of walking.
2. Don’t lose your ticket – although if you do, it’s not the end of the world as they can trace the transaction.
3. Marie Antoinette’s bedchamber is currently closed. Sorry, guys.
4. Leave plenty of time to visit the main Versailles shop at the end. Hell, visit it first if you can.
5. The huge queue vanishes in the afternoon so definitely plan to see the state rooms at the end of your visit.
6. Don’t be scared of the ticket machines!
7. Definitely visit Angelina and have a Mont Blanc. OMG. So good.
8. Take someone awesome with you.
9. Wear something pretty – if you can’t flounce around Versailles, where CAN you flounce? Right?!
10. Make sure you take the time to visit the Trianon. Many people don’t and they’re really missing out.
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My critically acclaimed biography of Marie de Guise, mother of Mary Queen of Scots is available now from Amazon. As is my book about Henrietta Anne, Duchesse d’Orléans and youngest sister of Charles II, which is available to buy now.
My upcoming biography of Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII is due to be published at the end of September 2018 and is available to pre-order from Amazon now.
As the youngest daughter of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, Marie Antoinette was born into a world of almost unbelievable privilege and power. As wife of Louis XVI of France she was first feted and adored and then universally hated as tales of her dissipated lifestyle and extravagance pulled the already discredited monarchy into a maelstrom of revolution, disaster and tragedy. Marie Antoinette: An Intimate History is now available from Amazon US and Amazon UK
‘Frothy, light hearted, gorgeous. The perfect summer read.’ Minette, my young adult novel of 17th century posh doom and intrigue is available from Amazon UK and Amazon US and is CHEAP AS CHIPS as we like to say in dear old Blighty.