Sunday, 18 October 2009

The Magnificence of Versailles

One of the great things about visiting or indeed living in Paris is the opportunity to access some of the most beautiful public buildings imaginable. Many of which are surrounded with a wealth of historical, architectural and cultural significance. With that in mind, none could be regarded as any more significant in France than Versailles. This was the stunningly opulent palace built by Louis X1V and would eventually become a central location in the story of the French revolution. Sitting just a short train ride outside of Paris, it is easily accessible and well worth the journey. Our first encounter with the grand building was when we trekked to see it with ‘Fat Tire Bike Tours’, who conduct regular trips by rail. After a short train journey, we unload the bikes and then we were off to the local market to pick up the mandatory supplies of cheese, bread and wine before our leisurely ride through the town and onward to the Palace of Versailles. We entered the vast grounds from a rear entrance and were immediately struck by the scale and beauty of the gardens. We then pedalled along the ‘Grand Lake’ to take up a picnic spot at the far end, looking back toward the grand palace. This was apparently a favourite location of Marie Antoinette who would often picnic here. You can certainly see why, with it’s vast view of the magnificently wide canal that was once the setting for numerous nautical spectacles. Along the banks are row upon row of box shaped trees that heighten the perspective and leads the eye toward the palace. This style of tree pruning represented the sixteenth century ideology of the mastery of man over nature, but causes much debate between Jules and myself…I tend to like them and Jules does not, preferring trees to remain in their natural shape! Nonetheless, it is fair to say that Versailles certainly makes a bold statement about ‘the haves and the have nots’ in France, a fact that would eventually spark a sweeping revolution throughout the country. This is further reinforced when walking around the palace itself, with rooms such as the famed ‘Hall of Mirrors’ providing an insight into the sheer wealth and indulgence of the monarchy of the day. Yet despite it’s chequered past, the French remain immensely proud of Versailles and regard it as a high point of their artistic and cultural history. This was particularly evident later in the year when we were invited by some French friends to their home near Versailles for Sunday lunch. At the conclusion of our meal, they kindly offered to take us a short distance to the palace for a late afternoon stroll. We actually entered near ‘The Petit Trianon’, which was Marie Antoinette’s private chateau that sits close to her own little village where she could enjoy simple rural indulgences away from the grandeur and formality of Versailles. By the time we arrived the tourists were beginning to leave and we could enjoy the grounds and the magnificence of her salmon coloured chateaux quite alone. It was very different than other areas within Versailles, with its slightly more modest scale and sense of seclusion. Apparently the Queen spared no cost in designing it to her own distinctive taste that tended to favour a more ‘English’ style of architecture and garden. It is still a very grand affair, but far more appealing than the 'big house'. As the sun began to set on a beautiful clear winters day, the scene was amazingly beautiful. We could sense our friends patriotic pride, but they didn’t say a lot…they didn’t have to! It certainly was a memorable moment for us and as we walked around the grounds, in the footsteps of Marie Antoinette, we both recognised that it is places like Versailles that make France such special place to visit.

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