Versailles Palace is one of the most beautiful creations of 18th-century French art:
As you approach the gates of the Château de Versailles you inescapably have the feeling of entering not a palace but an entire city. The impression is justified given the massive scale of the building and the even larger grounds.
Beginning as a modest palace of stone and slate to serve as a hunting lodge for Louis XIII, Versailles Palace blossomed – figuratively and literally – during the reign of his son Louis XIV. By 1682, after 20 years of work, the ‘Sun King’ took up residence… and then building really began.
Versailles – the Seat of Power
In May 1682, King Louis XIV decided that the French court and the government would be established permanently in Versailles. With the expansion of the Palace of Versailles, Louis XIV wanted to impress the courts of Europe and that he managed to achieve. At its height the grounds covered 1,800 acres and besides the enormous palace, it housed over 1,500 fountains with water pumped up from the Seine. Around 300 remain today.
Versailles Palace Gardens
Around the grounds are several distinct gardens. Watered by a system, only part of which were 150 km of canals, the gardens and fountains are themselves a show on weekends. The magnificent fountain displays reveal the skill and artistry of three centuries of French garden design and engineering. The Versailles Fountain show is accompanied by music composed at the time of Louis XIV’s court.
Covering 250 acres, the expansive gardens were designed mostly between 1661 and 1700 and continue to amaze visitors. André Le Nôtre was the designer of the gardens and the poor man worked endlessly to create this magnificent garden which took forty years to complete. Be sure not to miss the large Fountain of Apollo, with the Sun God driving a chariot of horses out of the surface.
Also on the grounds are huge stables. Closed to the public for almost 200 years, they were originally home to 600 horses owned by Louis XIV. Now home to 20 Portuguese Lusitanian horses, the indoor arena is decorated with a sculpture and drawings of which the Sun King himself would have been proud.
Visitors can enjoy a directed tour of the stables and watch a morning dressage with costumed riders. (‘Dressage’ – French for ‘training’, is a standard equestrian term. It means, roughly: training horses to move in complex patterns similar to a dance.)
Inside Château de Versailles
But, of course, it is the Versailles Palace itself that forms the (literal and symbolic) centre of the site. With 700 rooms no single visit could encompass more than a small percentage of the total.
Thousands of nobles and their servants lived here in the late 17th century, as Louis XIV managed his government with tight reins within the palace gates, which interestingly were always left open in order to give a sense that the palace was ‘owned by the people of France’.
Throughout the palace are paintings, sculptures, wall hangings and structural elements drawn from all over Europe.
One of the main attractions, justly so, is the 73-metre long La Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors). Bearing no resemblance to a fun-house, the high mirrors line the walls on one side, with seventy windows open to the gardens on the other. Still impressive, the mirrors were the state-of-the-art technology of the time. Set off by Corinthian pillars of green marble, the room (which once hosted many a formal dance) still dazzles. It was here that the Treaty of Versailles was ratified in 1919.
Viewed by thousands of visitors daily, expect long ticket queues in summer. If you have limited time and want to get the most out of your Versailles Palace visit, consider joining a small group tour. Versailles Palace can be quite hot and stuffy in the summer, even outdoors so dress appropriately.
The grounds and palace are open year round and can be reached via the RER line C: Versailles – Rive Gauche.
Certainly an interesting Versailles tour by Viator is to go on a guided bicycle trip – that is if you can cycle. It’s the only way to see Versailles’ expansive gardens in a single visit, plus you’ll get to see highlights of Versailles that most visitors miss, including Marie Antoinette’s country-style Hameau, the Petit Trianon and the Grand Trianon. You’ll also enjoy a picnic by the Grand Canal then take a tour of the Palace of Versailles.