To borrow heavily from Dickens:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, we acted with trip wisdom, we were the victims of trip foolishness, we saw ostentation beyond belief, and visitors’ behaviour beyond incredulity, it was a morning of heat and light, an afternoon of chill and darkness, the magnificent gardens proffered hope, the lengthy queues’ despair, we had everything to discover before us, we left nothing unturned behind us, we were pedalling wearily home direct to bed, we were in Parisian traffic confusedly going direct the other way – in short, our day at the Palace of Versailles cannot be compared, for good or bad, to any other, it was a unique and vivid occasion.
Trip wisdom meant an early start and arriving on our bikes as the gates opened at 9.30am we were rewarded with two hours of near solitude in the majestic gardens of Versailles.
Being a Tuesday the musical box hedging piped out a classical renaissance and baroque accompaniment to our meanderings amongst the multitude of gardens and groves within sight of the enormous palace.
The 34 different gardens linked by avenues of chess piece-like topiary and chestnut trees offered gold gilded fountains, classical allegories, colonnaded theatres, gothic statuary, operatic scenes of the Titans’ war, mirrored pools, bathing nymphs, dragons, water gods and finally, Apollo whipping his sun-towing bronze horses into a frenzy.
It was an epic experience amongst the neatly mowed lawns and meticulously clipped privet hedging.
Being a Tuesday also meant that the rest of Paris’ main attractions were closed. This is where trip foolishness saw us spend the next five hours going out of our way to avoid the jostling hordes of differing nationalities of tourists’ hell bent on seemingly standing in the way and taking the inevitable selfie.
It was hard to remain patient at times, but entirely our own fault having fixated more upon the rising costs of our campsite (going up every night) rather than the opening days of the City of Light’s main attractions. So be it, the bright morning light gave Simon the perfect opportunity to test out his new camera lenses as we headed to Marie Antoinette’s estate almost an hour’s walk from the palace.
Here she indulged her ideas of pastoral romance and kept a flour mill, bee hives, dairy and working farm together with a bizarre Marlborough Tower, classical ruined ‘rock’, stone belvedere and Greek temple to love.
Following the banks of the pretty green stream ‘Anglais’ through flower meadows and over small bluffs it was easy to feel a childish release from the constrained formality of the palace gardens. Yet the ‘estate’ buildings had a Disney-ish feel to them and no doubt contributed to her celebrity as a spoilt and self-indulgent queen. A gigantic London Plane tree planted in 1798 caused us to wonder at its age, and then reflect on its genus some seven years after the viciously cruel end to Marie Antionette’s life.
As the weather turned chilly and the skies darkened we headed back to the palace grounds and into a dispiritingly lengthy queue, five deep, to enter the main Honour Gate.
Finally, into the palace amidst stampeding packs of tour groups it was impossible not to draw breath at the ostentation of the gold-gilded, crystal chandelier-lit, sumptuously curtained and highly polished rooms of the Sun King. Louis XIV was obsessed with the solar calendar and his state rooms were each themed according to the zodiac.
It was a heady experience magnified by the jostling movement of, frankly, a stampeding and international mob.
We tailgated a red baseball cap-wearing group of sari-clad Indians who seemingly acted as a Roman battering ram through the disjointed tour groups and found ourselves with limited space to breathe in the legendary Hall of Mirrors. Simon carefully photographed whilst I hung out of the floor to ceiling windows gasping for air.
Marie Antoinette’s first floor state apartments were closed for refurbishment, which was a disappointment as I had wanted to see her ‘green room’ legendary to those of us interested in the leadership of the French Revolution.
I asked confused room wardens about ‘le chambre vert de le Comité de la Sécurité publique’ but none knew what I referred to, unsurprising really as the palace today chooses to ignore the insalubrious days of Thermidor and instead trades on its Ancien Régime heritage and Marie Antoinette’s tragedy. Instead we visited the ground floor rooms of the Mesdames’ Apartments.
A gold-gilded and green room inter-linked by locking doors and lined with book shelves, decorated as per its last refurbishment in 1783 and sporting a large fireplace (where angry St Just threw his hat?) intimate but large enough to contain an oval table and twelve green chairs (on show in the room just next door and originally from Marie Antoinette’s ‘salon’), could it possibly have been the Green Room? Couthon after all was wheel-chair bound, hardly able to assail the steep stone double stair case up to the former queen’s state rooms.
Was this the Green Room of Robespierre’s triumph, terror and demise? Perhaps. Oddly quiet and with few visitors, I lingered there and thought of the twelve men who ruled an astonishing year of tumultuous French, and ultimately modern history, who may just have sat within touching distance of me.
On a high we cycled the wrong way back to the campsite finding a supermarket and loading up with supplies, which we immediately regretted on the uphill cycle return to Bertha.
Tired legs however could not quiet busy minds, Versailles had been a spectacular, fulsome and deeply enjoyable day.