This summer I traveled to Paris for the first time and visited many of the iconic tourist destinations from the Eiffel Tower to Notre Dame, the Louvre, and Montmartre. But the highlight for me was the day we spent at Versailles. This was my personal reason for including Paris on our travel itinerary. I had always wanted to see the palace of Louis XIV, the Sun King. As a native Londoner I wondered if it was really more magnificent than Buckingham Palace. I found the answer is an unequivocal yes. The vast size of the building and gardens make Buckingham Palace look like a humble cottage. The sheer amount of gold ornamentation, baroque paintings, and sculptures covering every available surface, and idealized images of the Sun King everywhere you look is overwhelming. In the Hall of Mirrors, the mirrored walls and crystal chandeliers reflect and dazzle with an almost blinding light, the apotheosis of Louis’s self-aggrandizement. By the end of the day the French Revolution seemed an inevitable and necessary reaction to all this excess.
Here are some books I consulted before my trip so I would be an informed tourist:
Versailles: A Biography of a Palace by Tony Spawforth.
A “fast-paced” (Kirkus Reviews) history of the building and the lifestyles of those who lived there, royalty and servants, from construction to the revolution.
The Gardener of Versailles by Alain Baraton.
This memoir by the gardener-in-chief at the palace since 1982 was a best-seller in France. While overseeing a team of 80 gardeners on the 2,100 acres, Baraton also deals with visitors who try to hide in the gardens overnight and other misadventures.
Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King by Antonia Fraser.
The popular biographer gives a lively account of the many women in Louis’s life from his mother and wives to his many mistresses. Also available as a CD Book.
The Affair of the Poisons: Murder, Infanticide, and Satanism at the Court of Louis XIV by Anne Somerset.
The compelling story of a scandal that roiled the court at Versailles as a craze for fortune-telling and love potions ended in a witch-hunt and the burning of a woman accused of poisoning and sorcery. This book is available from Inter-Library Loan.
Not surprisingly the splendor and romance of Versailles have inspired many novelists, including these:
Versailles by Kathryn Davis.
A poignant historical novel told from the perspective of Marie Antoinette, for whom the palace was both playground and prison, separating her from the people who would determine her tragic fate.
Merivel: A Man of his Time by Rose Tremain.
A sequel to Restoration, this novel by the critically acclaimed author follows her anti-hero Sir Robert Merivel to Versailles where he hopes to become King Louis XIV’s physician. His adventures at the court he deems dazzling but superficial include an affair with a beautiful Swiss botanist and the rescue of a captive bear.
A Plague of Lies by Judith Rock.
A mystery featuring the series character Charles du Luc, a Jesuit priest in seventeenth century France. In this episode du Luc travels to Versailles to present Louis’s wife with the gift of a reliquary. But on his first night at the palace a courtier dies of suspected poisoning, and a gardener is found murdered.
The gardens are perhaps the most spectacular part of Versailles. I had hoped to visit le Hameau de la Reine, the mock farm in the gardens of the Petit Trianon where Marie Antoinette and her ladies played at shepherdesses. But our guide pointed to the map of the gardens and explained that the Petit Trianon was a two hour hike away! That gave us some perspective on the vast scale of the palace grounds. We had quite a hike just exploring the gardens in the immediate vicinity of the palace. It would be easy to get lost in the maze of walkways between the many circular enclosed gardens hidden away behind walls and hedges. Each one came as a surprise, ingeniously disguised until you suddenly came upon it around a bend or up a rise. The most memorable was a fountain water garden heralded by the sound of baroque music playing. I couldn’t resist taking a video:
French music in the reign of Louis XIV was heavily influenced by Italian opera and ballet. In fact the leading composer at the French court, Jean-Baptiste Lully, was born in Italy. He changed his name from Giovanni Battista Lulli when he arrived in France in 1653. As I write I am listening to some of his compositions for Louis XIV on MCPL’s free music streaming service Classical Music Library.
Finally, for a virtual tour of Versailles check out the DVD The Palace of Versailles: A Grand Tour inside the Historic French Palace.
After we left Versailles, suffering a kind of sensory overload from all the gold and glitter and baroque magnificence, we relaxed over traditional French crepes in a little bistro just a short walk away. Somehow our conversation turned to the French Revolution.