If you’re in Paris for a week or more, why not take a day trip to see some sites beyond the City of Lights? When I was in Paris in November, I had time for one such day trip. I chose, as many tourists do, the Palace of Versailles, and I’m so glad I did. I’m fascinated by history, and Versailles is nothing if not steeped in relevant French history. Yes, it’s a popular tourist destination, and can get a bit packed with student or tour groups, but don’t let that turn you off from a visit. Even if you have to go on a brutally cold day in November (as I did).
I had done my research online ahead of time, so I was well-prepared for what I needed to do to get there (see directions at the bottom of this post). Finding the Palace from the train station in Versailles was also easy. I followed the instructions I found in the Rick Steves’ guide, but I could have just followed the crowd. You essentially cross a street, walk down a block, turn left and straight ahead is the Palace. It’s an easy walk. I stopped at the tourist information office on the way to the Palace to purchase my ticket. Because of how cold it was, and because I really wanted to get back to Paris before it got dark out, I chose to skip the Queen’s Hamlet and focus on the Chateau and the gardens.
Rick Steves’ audio guide for Versailles is spot-on. Once I figured out the correct entrance at the Palace, it was smooth sailing from there. From first glance, you can see the Palace of Versailles is all about extravagance–gold accentuates everything from the gates to the statues ornamenting the exterior of the building, to furnishings inside. Opulent chandeliers hang from the ceilings, and nearly every square millimeter of every wall and ceiling is covered in some sort of adornment–paintings, sculptures, tapestries, you name it. Without a doubt, the highlight of the palace for me was the spectacular Hall of Mirrors, where the Treaty of Versailles was signed following World War I. The chapel, the war room and the king’s and queen’s bedchambers were also as impressive as you would expect them to be.
Room bled into room bled into room, as I listened to Rick crack corny jokes about the history of the royals at Versailles. After awhile I started wondering how anyone could have lived at the Palace without carrying a map around all the time just to find their way from the bedroom to the front door. The Palace alone is huge–and I never even made it to the Trianon or Marie Antoinette’s estate.
One thing I will say did not impress me at all was that the Chateau was hosting a Japanese Manga exhibit throughout the property during the time I visited. I don’t know who thought that was a good idea, but imagine the juxtaposition of walking into a room perfectly modeled as it existed in historical times, with gorgeous frescos on the ceiling, massive paintings on the walls, exquisite furniture, tapestries, chandeliers. . . and in the middle of it all, completely out of all context, these crazy, cartoonish manga sculptures. It was so bizarre. And it really irritated me when I was trying to take photos, because in some rooms I couldn’t find an angle where those damn manga sculptures weren’t in the way. I have no opinion on the relative merits of manga art in general, having had absolutely no previous exposure to it–just that it didn’t belong in the Versailles.
When I had finished with the Chateau, I wandered out to the gardens. It was very, very cold. The sky was grey and looked as though it was going to snow or rain or otherwise spit upon us. It was not the kind of day you want to spend much time outdoors. But I couldn’t very well leave without exploring the grounds, so I walked all the way down to Apollo’s Fountain, snapping photos of the Palace, the gardens, and the Latona, or “frog”, fountain along the way. One of the interesting tidbits I picked up from Rick Steves’ audio tour (which of course, you can read about at the Versailles website as well) was that the Palace has an orangerie. The citrus trees are kept inside in the winter, but brought outside in the summer. The orangerie dates back to the 1600s. Way to avoid scurvy, royals!
I called it quits when I lost all feeling in my fingers and began shivering uncontrollably beneath my coat, hat, gloves, scarf and long underwear. I was also ravenous. There were some food carts selling meals on the grounds , but the idea of eating outside when I couldn’t feel my fingers didn’t appeal. I wound up eating at the McDonalds on the way to the train station with about a hundred other tourists.
Aside from its historical significance and mind-boggling opulence, I think Versailles offers a valuable life lesson: Just because you’re wealthy and powerful and surrounded by expensive things doesn’t mean you’ll live happily ever after. King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, had every luxury known to man at the time, as well as ultimate power, yet both were imprisoned and later killed at the guillotine during the French Revolution. Personally, I’d rather have a lot less wealth, a lot more happiness, and keep my head.
How to take the train to Versailles from Paris:
- Purchase a round trip RER-C ticket; this is combined with a metro ticket, so you only need the one ticket to take the metro and change trains at the RER stop.
- Depart from (or take the metro and transfer to) one of the RER-C stations in Paris: Invalides, Gare d’Austerlitz, Musee D’orsay, Notre Dame, Champ de Mars Tour Eiffel, or Pont de l’Alma.
- Follow signs to the platform for the train going to Versailles Rive Gauche. Trains going to Versailles have names beginning with a V. (I believe mine was Victor or Victory).
- Get off the train in Versailles, which is the last stop.
- Length of time: 30 minutes
- Cost: about 6 Euros.
- Cost of Admission to the Palace: 15 Euros.
- For more information about Versailles, including hours, events and advance ticket purchase, visit the Versailles website.