Tuesday, May 24, 2011


After whirlwind Paris, that Wednesday, we headed to Versailles, not so far out of Paris. Interesting, driving through the little town (same name as the Palace), Isabella pointing out ‘there, the Queen’s stable, now a government office, there Monsieur’s stable—that’s the King’s brother, next in line (whichever king that was), there a whole building for the wardrobe of a king’s mistress.

Since we were with a group with a scheduled time, we got to skip the line with the 500 or so ungrouped people, standing/melting in the sun on the asphalt parking lot. (You know, there is a ‘skip the line’ company for many monuments and museums—sign up online, pay a bit more, and well, skip the line. I used that quite a bit in Florence last year.) We got our radio headsets on, so Isabella could narrate to us, and in we went.

Of course, the Palace was crowded. No, not just a Saturday at the Mall. Crowded. Shuffling tiny steps, in contact with six or seven also-too-warm-bodies at every moment, heads of strangers in most photos, the blare of tours in Spanish, Japanese, German...

There is quite a bit of history of how the Palace evolved from a hunting lodge to an official royal residence for Louis XIV, which someone else will fill in. Of course, all of the interior is visually stunning, deliberately so—walls and ceilings are covered with gilt design or paintings, long hallways are filled with statues, ornate lamp-holders of cupids or angels, a throne here and there, king-sized fireplaces, crystal chandeliers, all that. Many are Christian-themed, but perhaps more embrace Greek myth as a key to grandeur, such grandeur itself a concrete form of politics. And so we often find ‘the Sun King’ as Apollo, surrounded by a dozen other deities.

After the formal tour, Willy and I wandered ‘out back’ through the Gardens. One fountain in elaborate weathered bronze would have had turtles and frogs shooting streams of water, but none of the fountains were on. Apparently, this would have often been the case even with the King in residence, since the combined fountains on the ground would have used more water than even the aqueduct from the Seine could have supplied. We were told that the hapless groundskeepers dealt with this with an elaborate system of whistles, alerting each other of the royal approach and turning on fountains just in time to appear always on. Seems a bit stressful.

In any case, Willy and I wandered on down the hill, and just from walking began to feel how extensive the grounds are. We walked down the central vista-path between sections of the maze on each side, the shrubs trimmed to 15’ walls, with marble copies of famous Greek and Roman statues lining each side. The “copies,” I think, claimed more ostentation that the originals would have—all were precise, but done in the same pure white marble and scaled exactly the same.

Just before these paths opened out to a large basin (think the Mall in DC) and trees, we reached another fountain, which featured Apollo and his chariot rising from the water. That may have been my favorite thing at Versailles.

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