Monday, January 31, 2011

Je vois la vie en rose...

With the victory of Notre Dame (the cathedral, darn it, not the football team!) firmly under our belts and soaring in our minds, there was only one thing to do. I mean, besides eat and have more coffee and more wine. (Those are a given.) The thing to do was to take a train out to Versailles Palace.

Now, having lived in Dubai, which is nothing if not conspicuously indulgent in many, many ways, and having been to the Dolmabahçe Palace of Istanbul, the attempt by the sultan of the time to make Turkey appear opulent (unfortunately for the plan, it cost so much it almost completely bankrupted the country) we figured we're pretty well immune to such things. I mean, how gilded and over-the-top could a palace be?

Let me tell you.

Louis XIV took a hunting lodge and in a political masterstroke had it transformed into a palace fit for a god, the Sun God, actually. A place where he could rule supreme, forcing the nobles of Paris and the rest of France (and the world for that matter) to have to come to him on his terms if they wished to receive his favor. He strikes me as a man who desired to be nothing more than the most powerful king of the most powerful country in the world. Obviously such a king would not only need but was also entitled to the most magnificent palace in the world.

As the longest reigning European monarch in history, (72 years to Elizabeth II's current 58, if you're keeping score, but she still has the larger castle, good for her), Louis XIV the Sun King, had plenty of time to make his palace in his image, and he did a knockout job.

So here came Mike and me on the train, along with the millions of others each year who visit the palace that housed Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Louis XVI, and then finally that little man with a particularly big opinion of himself, Napoleon. The train spit us out into the village of Versailles and it was with no difficulty that we found Versailles Palace itself.

Which, even when employing the panoramic option on one's camera, can't be fitted into one frame.

Just as big as you might expect, living up to the hype and legend, this palace consists of 700 rooms, surrounded by another 1800 acres or so of gardens. The line to get into the palace was proportional, seeming acres of people standing single file in line, a rope-defined maze of straights, corners, and boredom. Mike manned up in a highly generous gesture, asserting that he would have less interest in the gardens than I, and volunteered to wait in that very, very long line. I agreed, only half reluctantly, that we should conquer by dividing our resources, and feeling less guilt than I probably should, went out to the gardens, which are, incredibly, free to the public.

If you like topiaries, symmetry, and statuary, then the gardens of Versailles are for you, my friend. I cannot fathom the army of gardeners that it must require to keep up this level of perfection. Yet we never saw so much as one with a pair of clippers.

I suspect some sort of French magic is employed there to make it work.

Awestruck, I noted that not only are there the topiaries and brilliantly blooming beds of flowers, there are also beautiful urns and statues every few feet, aesthetically placed for the greatest impact, and each one is different. I could easily have spent an hour just photographing details from the urns.

But I had promised to hurry, and I tried, I really did. I honestly only went through the closest part of the garden, and I only took shots of my very favorite statues and scenes. Even so, breathless and overwhelmed, by the time I'd dashed back to where Mike had been waiting he'd was already inside purchasing our tickets. I had wondered about the folks who forked out 30 Euros per hour for golf cart rental to drive around the grounds, but I think that it might be a real necessity for true garden lovers. Or several days to explore and sketch and marvel. And good shoes.

I decided I would have to make sure Mike got out to the gardens, but for now we entered the palace itself.

What a place. The best word to describe it would have to be spectacular.

With honorable mentions to overdone, ridiculous, amazing, and holy guacamole.

While I'm not sure I should approve of the excess, especially at the cost (Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette's heads 100 years later, for instance), if you're going to go the distance, I suppose you had better do it shamelessly. I couldn't help but be pleased that so many artisians were employed to make it happen so many years ago. Gilt, crystal, velvet, marble, artwork, every surface covered with richness. By the time we'd reached the awe-inspiring Royal Chapel, Mike leaned towards me and whispered, this makes Dolmabahçe look like a trailer park.

He was right.

Even with its vast interior, Versailles was crowded, of course, and I was shocked more than once to see tourists actually touching the paintings. Crowd control there must be a nightmare. Just because there were rooms where there were mere inches between the frames, so covered were the walls with portraits of important persons and beloved pets didn't mean they weren't still valuable and irreplaceable pieces.

Much of the brushwork was fortunately beyond reach, above our heads as vividly painted ceilings, and everywhere were motifs of sun and fleur de lys and cockerel. The Hall of Mirrors (Grande Galerie or Galerie des Glaces), is rightly one of the most famous rooms in the world.

Mirrors were a true luxury in their day, and the room, designed to showcase such wealth, is stunning, especially in a historical sense. It was there that Louis XV met his future mistress, the Madame de Pompadour during a masked ball, (ironically, to celebrate his marriage) during which she daringly dressed as Diana, the Goddess of the Hunt.

And they say Hollywood has run out of tales to tell.

William I was declared Emperor of Germany in the Hall of Mirrors in 1871, and to really annoy the Germans and rub their noses in it for losing WWI, the French Prime Minister insisted the Treaty of Versailles be signed there in 1919. Today it is still used for State occasions.

I'd rather like an invitation to one of those.

Goodness, what would one wear?

I probably don't need to worry about it.

If you ever want to get a real insight into the thinking of the time, you must look up Louis XIV's Lever , the extremely elaborate ceremony of the king's waking in his bedchamber. Un-be-lievable. From being kissed every morning by his nurse to allowing only the most privileged nobles to address his majesty before he began to dress, (lesser favored nobles might see him whilst he dressed, which was quite the crowd, and then other courtiers would have to wait until he actually got up and left the bedchamber.) Benjamin Frankin, for instance, was personally received in the bedchamber, (France looking for ways to undermine England any way she could) which ended up being a good thing for the Colonies and not such a good thing for the coffers of France, but that's another story.

Either way, here is one of the Royal Beds, one of the rare pieces of furniture still left in Versailles.

Most of the original bits were carted away by the poorer and rather rebellious French commoners whenever the political winds blew that way. We were assured that the curators are doing their best to try and get some of it back.

We wish them luck with that one.

The Hall of Battles was another impressive area, stretching along, enormous paintings depicting the tales of French victories

(yes, there are French victories in battle, all joking aside, now!) next to the Coronation Room which I believe was bombed in 1978 by radical Breton separatists (they don't talk about that on the audio guide) a room devoted to artwork from Napoleon Bonaparte's time.

Napoleon was not only one heck of a military man, he also, we learned, employed artists to paint people in or out of paintings depicting scenes of historical importance should they have changed status in his favor. Therefore his mother ended up being a guest at his coronation after all, and I seem to recall that Empress Josephine was painted out of another painting after their divorce.

The Coronation of Empress Josephine. She got to stay in this one.

Being a god but short and with bad teeth must have made Napoleon a bit cranky, some days. Fair enough.

We were happy enough being mere mortals, walking the marble corridors of history.

Though we were fatigued by so much grandness, I insisted Mike must follow me outside to see the gardens, and to admire the palace from that side,

which he agreed was time well spent.

We couldn't bring ourselves to go chasing down Marie-Antoinette's estate, preferring instead to settle back onto the train with our feet up for the 40 minute ride back to Paris.

We ended up near the Paris Opera house, with a nod to the Phantom.

It really is glamorous, and a good place to watch the visitors and residents of Paris. I can only assume it is quite good for opera lovers as well.

The evening upon us, we drifted tiredly back toward the Arc de Triomphe and our hotel, and found, on the little side street Rue de Surène, a softly glowing and simply modern restaurant that appealed called Le Taste Monde.

Finally, on our last evening in Paris, a meal for the Gods. With exquisite service and an emphasis on wine, little English spoken, but what did that matter in the language of food, we had a simple but memorable evening. Mike even had Ratatouille for one of his courses, which pleased our Pixar movie lovin' children no end when they heard about it.

A perfect ending to the day.


*Paula* said...

That sounds like a wonderfully satisfying day. Loved your recap!

Nathalie said...

Oh, memories from my childhood are coming back... my grandpa used to take me and my brother to Versailles. Everything looked over the top and it sounds like it still does even for an adult! :D The first photo of the statue is my favorite!

Joanna said...

Versailles is very cool. I went in November, so the crowds were small, though the gardens weren't in bloom quite as much (though they were still amazing!). Another travel escape from studying, thanks. :)

Mumsey said...

Ironic that the place where the king had such a ritual to his very rising now is host to hordes of tourists. Vive la revolution! (I guess)

AKBrady said...

Oh, lalala. I like that. All of it.