When planning our time in France last Spring, I will not lie, Versailles was my main target. I wanted to make sure we had ample time to explore not just the palace but the entire Domaine and there was one thing I absolutely did not want to miss: the Grandes Eaux Musicales display. We planned our entire trip around this one event because if there was one fact I grasped as soon as I began studying the palace of Versailles in my architectural history classes, it was that while Louis XIV designed his palace to impress foreign dignitaries and royals, it was through his extensive mastery of the grounds surrounding his palace that he wanted to demonstrate his power. He wanted to show everyone that his power as absolute monarch was so great that he could even control nature. I felt as though if I didn’t make a thorough visit to Versailles, I was missing out on the whole point of the place.
Louis the XIV did not have an easy time setting up his vast gardens, especially when it came to the creation of his ornate fountains. Versailles is built on drained marshland, so you would think that would have made building all the fountains and keeping them running day and night easy, but nothing could be further from the truth. When we visited last March on the opening day of the Grandes Eaux Musicales, the event was capped off by a display of the Neptune Fountain. In order to run this fountain, which has ninety-nine jets, the palace fountaineers had to shut down almost all the other fountains in order to divert all their water into the Neptune Fountain. To read more about the trouble with providing water to all of Versailles’ fountains and the many ways in which Louis XIVs architects tried to alleviate the issue you can head to the last section of this article. To make a long story short though, the constant need for water led to a nearby pond drying up, the diversion of water from the Seine with limited success and an attempt to divert water from another, even more distant river. Nowadays, rainwater is collected to help and the fountains only run for part of the year on set days. If you do go to Versailles, try to make sure you go on a day when the fountains are running, seeing them is well worth the extra few Euros.
As for the Petit and Grand Trianon and the Hameau de la Reine, a small pleasure farm built for Marie-Antoinette, Adam and I set a day aside just for them. The Grand Trianon was built by Louis XIV as a hideaway for he and his most famous mistress, the Marquise de Montespan and the Petit Trianon was built by Louis XV for his mistress the Marquise de Pompadour and was later given as a gift to Marie-Antoinette by Louis XVI. These separate palaces were always designed to be escapes from the strict etiquette of Versailles for monarchs and their most intimate acquaintances and this is reflected in their size, design and decoration. Our favorite was by far the Petit Trianon which Marie-Antoinette had redecorated in a neo-classical fashion while she had the gardens surrounding the Trianon redone in the relaxed English style. Choose a day without rain to visit these sections of the Domaine and pack a picnic to take with you as they are quite a long walk from the main palace and fountains.
As you can see, we spent most of our time at Versailles outside of the main palace. The reason for this is that the palace is a victim of its fame and is seriously overcrowded. So visit it, by all means, but you should absolutely make sure you keep en entire day free if you want to see the essence of Versailles and how its inhabitants truly lived. No one wanted to spend their days in the chronically overcrowded palace (it was once home to over 7000 people), the many nobles and dignitaries who lived there spent great swathes of their time outside, enjoying the gardens or waiting for invitations to Trianon. Truly, without its gardens Versailles would not be the marvelous place it is.