My expectations for the Palace of Versailles were high – I’d heard the palace and the surrounding gardens were ridiculously ornate, full of interesting history, and much larger than most people can imagine. Despite my preconceived notion that this place would be awesome for a history and photography nerd like me, I had no idea just how awesome it would turn out to be.
Versailles became the seat of power for France in May 1682, as well as the royal residence for King Louis XIV. It’s iconic in France, a symbol of the absolute monarchy of the Ancien Régime. Angela and I waited for about an hour and a half to get in, which was not bad considering the number of tour buses in the parking lot and the steady stream of tourists walking from the Gare de Versailles Château Rive Gauche (train station), through the city of Versailles towards the famous palace. Thankfully the line was well organized (unlike the gong show of disorganization we found at the Eiffel Tower) and moved steadily. One piece of advice if you find yourself wanting to visit during the summer – go early!
At least there are interesting things to look at while you wait, like the statues and buildings below…
…and the golden gates that guard the entrance to the front courtyard. Apparently more than ten million people pass by these gates each year, so that makes for a lot of photo-happy tourists snaking past.
The details in the gates are impressive. I appreciated the small sun seal that you see throughout the grounds, but really, the intricate details you find here will make you feel that you’re lazy when it comes to your own arts and crafts projects.
Once inside, we had to go through security. There was a misunderstanding about food (they will allow it in gardens, but not in the palace, so we had to check our bag full of tasty goodness we’d bought at a local boulangerie). So if you’re packing a lunch on the day you plan to visit the palace, prepare to be separated from your handy picnic basket for a few hours.
Security cleared, we made our way into the front courtyard. Right from the beginning this place makes you feel like you’re living in a fairy tale. A fairy tale with people dressed in flip flops, but a fairy tale nonetheless.
We waited in the line for audio guides, working our way to the front desk in about fifteen minutes. We were next in line when they put up a sign in French stating no more audio guides were available. Summer at Versailles – get there early.
When you first enter the palace on the first floor, there’s a stunning room (the Royal Chapel) off to the right that is roped off. We patiently waited for our chance to view the chapel while hordes of tourists stood there for minutes, enjoying the informative narrative spewing into their ears via their audio guides. Taunting us with their access to information. No matter, this wasn’t the first time I’d been uninformed and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
After our silent viewing of the Royal Chapel we made our way into the main hall, where everything you look at is grand, marble is in abundance, and natural light blasts its way across the palace floor.
I won’t go into the details of every room in every wing, on every floor, because honestly it would take far longer than you, dear reader, would be willing to put up with. This place is massive, each room more impressive than the next, so I’ll tell you this – expect a lot of ornate details, countless paintings, sculptures, and chandeliers, all being happily photographed by countless cell phone owners from around the world.
Instead of covering it all, I’ll hit you with a few representative details that highlight the rooms and features that stood out to me when it comes to the interior of the palace:
The Hall of Mirrors / La Grande Galerie
This room was the highlight for me. Almost 240 feet long, it features 17 mirror-clad arches, using a total of 357 mirrors. There are stunning chandeliers, beautiful paintings on the ceiling, and gold statues throughout. It’s fun to watch people walk into this magnificent hall and stop as their jaws hit the floor and their eyes instinctively move upward.
Statues don’t usually capture my attention, but in this place they just kind of wear you down. They’re all beautifully crafted, they’re many in number, and they add gravitas to a place already chock full of gravitas.
Louis XIV dressed in antique costume, Jean Warin, 1671-1672
The Small Details
The artwork is spectacular, the paintings grand, and the chandeliers sparkly. But having said that, I’m trying more and more to be aware of the small details that make venues and attractions great. In this case, every corner of the palace is authentic. When a staff member opens a door (as above), things look just as regal as the main halls. Every corner is adorned with marble and gold, every doorway meticulously crafted. This level of detail is impressive, and is something I’ve rarely seen in my travels.
As a history lover, I appreciated the informative signs in each room and the video walls where you could learn about the various construction phases of the palace and the grounds.
The Palace of Versailles is an embarrassment of riches. From the Hall of Mirrors to the King’s Grand Apartment, the apartments of Marie Antoinette, to the Royal Chapel and the hundreds of rooms in between, this place is unreal. By the end people are looking up at another stunning painting / chandelier / statue and saying, “are we almost done yet?” There’s so much to take in during one trip, it’s truly amazing (and tiring!).
And yet, after walking indoors for a couple of hours, you still have the highlight (for me, anyway) of this trip to come – the gardens. So on weary legs we picked up our lunch sack at the bag check, quickly munched down our baguette jambon gruyere and got ready to tackle the gardens.
Walking around the side of the building, we strutted over to a railing at the foot of the palace and took in the Orangerie Parterre, a garden studded with orange, pomegranate, and lemon trees. It’s massive, it’s impressive, and it’s just the beginning. Just the beginning of an outdoor garden utopia covering 800 hectares, including more than 200,000 trees, 50 fountains, and 210,00 flowers.
Turning away from the Orange Parterre, we made our way to the large staircase that leads down to the centre aisle that grants access to the massive grounds that host the gardens. At the bottom of the staircase is the Latona Fountain, and sweeping views of the property. We were in the middle of a mini heatwave in France, so I was dying to jump in the fountain, but recognized it would have been frowned upon (and I’m nothing if not a model of impeccable etiquette).
The waterway in the distance is the Grand Canal, and that Lord of the Rings style tower in the middle is a massive water feature that periodically produces a gigantic waterfall.
When you turn off the main path you journey down a garden path, giving you a break from both the sun and the crowds. Navigating the paths can make you feel like you’re in a maze, and we got twisted around more than once.
Dozens of groves, gardens and fountains can be found when exploring these paths. One of our favourites was the Enceladus Grove, featuring the Enceladus Fountain, sculpted in lead by Gaspard Marsy (1675-1677). From the Versailles website: “The subject is taken from the myth of the fall of the Titans, who were buried under the rocks of Mount Olympus, which they had tried to climb in defiance of the prohibition of Jupiter. The sculptor depicts a giant half-buried under the rocks and in the throes of death.” The sculpture is full of raw emotion.
There was a little drama as an American tourist tried to get too close to the water by walking on the grass near the edge. A security guard starting yelling, “Non, monsieur! Non, monsieur!”
It took the guy a minute, but he eventually figured it out and got off the grass. Pro tip for the rest of you out there – if you’re thinking of going off the pathways at Versailles be prepared to be very quickly put in your place.
There were countless other highlights from the gardens, and honestly, we hardly scratched the surface. We never got to Marie Antoinette’s hamlet (a mini village she had constructed on the property to create a “countryside” atmosphere on the grounds), the Grand Trianon, the Petit Trianon, and many of the groves. You can’t do it all in a day – it’s just too big. You can rent golf carts to help speed your progress, but I kind of felt like that would be cheating, so Angela and I walked. My pride might have kept us from seeing more, but I had a killer day as far as my Fitbit step count was concerned.
Here are a few remaining images from the gardens:
Overall, the Palace of Versailles is one of the most impressive palaces I have ever visited. It’s not cheap – at 25 euro, it makes it one of the more expensive attractions you’ll visit during a Paris trip. But you’ll get your value out of a day here many times over – there’s certainly no shortage of things to see and do. It was built during a time when budgeting mattered less than opulence, creating a place that feels unlike any other on Earth. That sounded dramatic, and I don’t tend to do that much, but the sheer scope of the Palace of Versailles has that effect on people.
So gear up, get ready, and if you’re planning to go make sure you pack your camera, slap on some sunscreen, and get there early!
Have you visited the Palace of Versailles? If so, what did you think? Leave comments below – cheers!