Jan 14, 2016: Versailles
We sleep in much later than we’d expected, past 10 o’clock, which amounts to about 12 hours and is really snoozing overtime for a chronic burn-the-candle-at-both-ends-and-in-the-middle chap such as myself. But we needed it. And once we get going, we feel gratefully rested to tackle our half-day, as opposed to full day, with renewed vigor. So we’re off on a train to nearby Versailles, and the legendary palace therein.
It’s a short ride, as Meudon is halfway between Paris and Versailles (it’s almost as if we planned it that way). When we arrive, there is a horde of tour guide operators waiting at the station to lure passengers into their snares. They’ve all evaporated a few minutes later when we return to the station in quest of an English-speaking person who could help us locate the nearby branch of our bank.
But we find a couple of men outside a cafe who are able to help us locate the bank nearby. It’s a BNP Paribas, the French affiliate of Bank Of America, and we are able to withdraw the funds we need for the next few days with a minimum of added fees.
Walking toward the palace, we stop at a produce market in the shadow of one of those magnificent old European churches, and again embarrass ourselves with our incompetence at handling euros as we purchase a basket of strawberries. They turn out to be not as good as they’d looked, but at least it’s a few calories in our tummies.
Then it’s on to our appointment with royalty, passing through gates made of gold. No, really. You’ve heard the expression “golden gates” used in a figurative or imaginative sense. These are quite literal.
The Palace Of Versailles was constructed in the Eighteenth Century at a cost that translates to more than 2 BILLION of today’s dollars. It was the seat of the French government (read: monarchy) for a little over a century, after which it became the launching point of a revolution mounted by a citizenry that was fed up with royalty living like royalty while everyone else was starving. It was the home of several generations of royal families, beginning with that of Louis XIV, though Louis XIII had used it as a rural retreat before it was enlarged and turned into the official kingly residence.
At the entrance, we encounter a mother and two daughters from Chicago (they’re in the photo) who are as confused as we are about where to go to get tickets. Together we ferret out the ticket counter and then the self-guided tour begins.
The first thing that strikes you about the Palace Of Versailles is that it’s big. Really, really big. In fact it’s so big… (How big is it?) Well, it’s so big that reportedly the king’s dinner was often cold by the time it was delivered to him, because it had so far to travel from the kitchen. There are some 700 rooms in all and about 1200 fireplaces. There was plenty of room for the royal elbows to stretch out, and even get up and move to different quarters every now and then if they felt like it.
Of course, you can understand how the king’s pizza delivery guys might have been tardy when you see what incredible detail there is in the palace that might have tempted them to stop and gawk.
The kings kept a staggering private live-in museum of priceless artwork, which was secreted out when the revolutionary excrement hit the fan, and now has been largely returned and restored.
The palace had all the comforts of home, if you can call them comforts. How could anyone possibly expect to sleep surrounded by such luxury that your snoring might damage a priceless piece of workmanship?
In this kind of hoity-toity environment, we naturally displayed the most elegant and regal deportment of which we were capable.
The joint even has its own opera house and its own cathedral, another one of those many magnificent old European cathedrals, where the king could go to personally give God His instructions. This cathedral is not open to tours at the moment (and it would cost extra), but we can get a good glimpse inside at the peanut gallery level. Kimberly recalls reading how it was customary in this era for congregants to be seated facing the king sitting in the back, rather than the pulpit. The real action was not grooving on the sermon but watching His Highness groove on the sermon. (You didn’t think celebrity worship started with Trump, did you?.)
Entirely by chance, it appears, an organist enters the cathedral and begins pounding on the keys, lifting snatches of Rameau or Couperin or Charpentier or somebody high up to the heavens or at least a couple of stories.
The kings didn’t just live in style, they died in style. And to prove it, there’s a special exhibit at the moment called The King Is Dead, commemorating the death of Louis XIV. The entrance to this temporary event features an appropriately macabre piece of sculpture.
And once you enter the exhibit, it gets even more grim.
Among other things, the exhibit includes the mesmerizing death masks of a couple of French kings from even longer ago.
Death mask of King Henry II (1559)
Death mask of King Henry IV (1610)
At one point we decide to take a break from all the royalizing and have lunch. On the way we pass a “free toilet” which we gather is an uncommon thing in these parts, and so we decide to take advantage of it.
We also pass through a long hall of statues of the royal dudes. And it’s clear that when they had statues chiseled of themselves, they had the artist indulge in a bit of Hollywoodization. The royals are never portrayed in stone as just plain folk, or even as mere aristocrats. They are memorialized as demigods, as handsome and mighty warriors brandishing swords and looking immortal and invincible. A bit of a contrast with their death masks.
We make our way to the cafe, which looks like a good place to consume our own brown bag lunch and recharge our gadgets.We’ve been rather limited in our gadget charging opportunities, because we discovered back at the apartment that the surge protector Kimberly brought along is incompatible with the European electrical system, or the adapter she brought along, or both. Every time she plugs it in, it throws a breaker. So we’ve been left with essentially a single outlet. [It turned out to be even worse. When we got back home and plugged the surge protector into an American outlet again, tendrils of black smoke curled out of it, looking like the smoke monster from “Lost”.]
I go to the counter in quest of a cup of decaf coffee, but no such luck . So I decide that it won’t kill me to have a cup of the real thing, especially if I just drink half of it and admire the rest from a safe distance. It turns out to be rather good coffee. In the seating area, we again encounter the mother and daughters from Chicago, though we don’t notice each other for a while because we’re in our world and they’re in theirs.
Next, it’s time to proceed to the Hall of Mirrors. Mirrors were a luxury when they constructed this grand salon 240 feet long, 34 feet wide and 40 feet high. Only the rich could afford reflection back then. But there are 357 mirrors lining one wall of this hall, and some of them are big enough to make reflections for Paul Bunyan.
The ceiling features paintings depicting the achievements, real and fanciful, of Louis XIV, known as The Sun King, including some of him interacting with cherubs and other supernatural creatures. The “Sun King” was a bit of an egomaniac who turned his every little action into a grand ceremony at which attendance by his subjects was mandatory — even going to bed at night and getting up in the morning.
And what’s on the other wall of the hall across from the wall of mirrors? Glass doors looking out onto the vast grounds and garden. The mirrors are placed so that the views of the garden through the doors are reflected in them.
From the beginning, the Hall Of Mirrors was the site of festive and historic occasions — including royal weddings. It has continued to be used for momentous occasions of state in modern times; it was the site, for example of the signing of the Treaty Of Versailles, which ended World War I.
Just missing a heavy and chilly shower, we go out into the garden ourselves. Comprising 2000 acres, the garden is a maze-like complex where the royals could lose themselves in more ways than one. It’s been reported that 200,000 trees and 210,000 flowers are planted here every year. EVERY YEAR.
But they’re not doing it right now. There’s a plus side and a minus side to visiting major tourist sites in January. The plus side is that there are fewer of those nasty tourists to bump into, though let me tell you there are still plenty. The minus side is that some attractions are closed, and some activities are curtailed. So we were unable to see the garden in full bloom, and (rather bizarrely) the 400 statues lining the paths are all seasonally covered, making them look like modern art rather than classical sculpture.But the garden still has an austere beauty all its own, and there are some views that maintenance staff just can’t ruin no matter how they try.
We round out the day with a hike of half a mile or so to the Petit Trianon, a “small chateau” (i.e., country mansion that looks gigantic and palatial to anyone living in Manhattan) built by Louis XV (well, by his laborers at least) to house his mistress at a discreet distance. Later, it became a refuge for the queen of Louis XVI, a teenage blueblood named Marie Antoinette. Here, she could take an occasional break from being pampered in the palace and go instead to be pampered for awhile at a more rustic villa — without ever even leaving the royal property.
Incidentally, Marie Antoinette never said “let them eat cake”, a saying that had been floating around long before she came along. In fact, she donated to charity and was rather sympathetic toward the plight of the poor. Nonetheless, her lavish lifestyle didn’t make her very popular with the revolutionaries, and she eventually lost her head over it.
It’s close to 1700 hours by the time we make it to Petit Trianon, and it’s just getting ready to close. So we’ll have to postpone it for our next trip to France. There’s a trolley that carts visitors back up to the palace, but it requires a separate ticket, so we just walk toward an exit gate, concluding our packed half-day at Versailles.
With twilight floating in, we make our way back toward the station, passion one of those charming little carousels that seem to sprout up in all sorts of odd places in France.
Back at the station, we see something that we didn’t see this morning: heavily armed soldiers standing guard, about half a dozen of them. When we get back to the apartment, we mention this to Aurore, and she says this has become commonplace since the terrorist attacks in Paris back in November. That’s understandable, but it’s odd that they weren’t here when we left this morning, as the trains were almost as crowded then.
Aurore very politely asks me not to leave my shoes where I did yesterday — behind the door, which turns out to be in front of their shrine, a bookcase loaded with a variety of symbols from Eastern spiritual traditions. I wonder if some guest are alarmed to spot a swastika among them, since many people know the swastika nly through its association with the Nazis. But it was a respectable icon for several millennia before the Nazis stole and perverted it. (It’s actually related to the cross, which predates Christianity.)
When Shan comes home, they tell us about their night out last night celebrating his birthday. Aurore’s surprise was an evening of food and music from his native India. While we’re chatting, he brings out some lassi he’s made and shares it with us. It’s among the best we’ve had.
We’ve noticed that one wall of our room (and we think of it as “our” room after spending one night in it) is covered with sticky notes left by former guests, as well as postcards that they have mailed from back home. It’s an impressive collection, considering that they’ve only been renting out this room for a few months. We resolve to contribute to it. [Actually, we ended up sending postcards to all of our hosts but one — we’ll get to him in due course. They all got the same card, bought in New Mexico, with several scenes from Route 66 — including a shot of a Native American chief in traditional costume. How much more American could it get?]
After getting Aurore to show us how to operate the bizarre European radiator, so we will snooze a little more cozily than we did last night without bundling up so much, we settle in for a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow we plant our flag in Paris itself.