Versailles Palace, located in the western suburbs of Paris, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in France. Normally, I’m not a fan of such iconic tourism sites, as they’re often overrated and offer little opportunity to truly experience local culture. But in the case of Versailles I made an exception because this lavish palace has figured so prominently in historic events ranging from the popularization of chocolate by Louis XIV; to the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, in which France pledged to help the United States in the Revolutionary War; to the reign of Louis XVI and his bride, Marie Antoinette, which ended badly when Louis was sent to the guillotine during the French Revolution. I particularly wanted to see the Hall of Mirrors, site of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I, and the magnificent gardens designed by Louis XIV.
In an effort to avoid the mob that descends upon Versailles Palace every weekend, I opted to visit on a Tuesday. Even so, the crowds were suffocating. Shoulder-to-shoulder, I shuffled from one opulent room to another, stopping whenever the throngs parted enough to capture a decent photo. After what seemed like hours I finally reached the Hall of Mirrors. Though somewhat smaller than I expected, it did not disappoint. Seventeen mirror-clad arches reflected floor-to-ceiling windows on the opposite wall and the gardens beyond. This was the room used by Louis XIV to demonstrate his power; the long walk down the gallery, leading past priceless mirrors, statuary and crystal chandeliers on the way to his raised throne, never failed to impress. Today the sight is no less affecting. I stood in open-mouthed awe, trying to fully grasp the historical events that had been hosted in this chamber over the past 334 years.
Photo gallery of the interior of Versailles Palace:
Unable to tolerate the crowds for one more minute, I fled to the palace’s meticulously manicured gardens. Though more than six million people visit each year, the groves are so extensive that a bit of serenity can be found, even on the busiest of days. I strolled down the wide central promenade known as the Great Perspective, enjoying classical melodies broadcast from speakers tucked in amongst the greenery. My delight was short lived, however. At the end of the walkway I stopped in front of the Fountain of Apollo’s Chariot, waiting for jets of water to spout from the mouths of half-submerged stone fish and churn up under the hooves of trampling horses. Fifteen minutes later the basin was still glassy so I sought out an employee and asked about the schedule.
“Our fountains are only activated on weekends and public holidays. On Tuesdays we play the music,” she explained. “Today is our Musical Gardens day.“
Photo gallery of the gardens at Versailles Palace:
I was crestfallen. For the next few hours I explored maze-like paths, many of which led to elaborate fountains. The weather was perfect, the music was soothing, and the 2,000 acre grounds were so large that many of the groves were totally deserted, but my disappointment grew with each silent fountain. The Ballroom, a semi-circular arena of stone steps over which water is designed to flow, was the ultimate letdown. Undoubtedly beautiful when operating, in its dry state the fountain was uninspiring, if not downright ugly. I finally called it a day and headed back to the train station, wishing I’d chosen to brave the weekend crowds.