The Domaine of Versailles

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.

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Our Vacation to England and France

Last month Adam and I finally made it off on vacation for the first time since our honeymoon in June of last year. Let me tell you, it was a much-needed change of scenery and rhythm! Our chosen destinations were Paris, where we spent two nights in the Montmartre area followed by a week spent in an apartment in Versailles. From there we commuted back and forth to Paris, went on a day trip to Chartres, explored every nook and cranny of the Château and Domaine of Versailles and visited Malmaison, the home of Joséphine Bonaparte. After nine days in the Paris area, we hopped on the Eurostar and travelled across the English Channel for two nights in London and a final two nights in Windsor. Needless to say, I have plenty of travel tales to tell, so I will be breaking them down into three separate posts.

Let’s begin with Paris! This was my first visit to the City of Light which, at the age of 35, is a bit odd for an art and architectural historian but there you have it! I loved my Parisian experience however I must say that the image of Paris we see in popular culture is seriously glamorized. Paris is portrayed as a beautiful, romantic, chic city, the type of place you cannot help but fall in love with. I did not fall in love with Paris but I did fall in love with parts of it.

Paris is a surprisingly small city but extremely densely populated by both Parisians and tourists. Do not go to Paris on holiday if you are looking for peace and quiet, you will not get it. I was also surprised by how loud the city is. Paris is by far the loudest of all the European cities I have visited so far because of how heavy traffic can get. Also, a large portion of the vehicles in Paris are scooters and motorbikes which are louder than cars. Don’t get me wrong though, Paris is a beautiful city and despite all the people and noise, it is very easy to get some lovely photos of all the most famous landmarks thanks to the fact that central Paris was largely rebuilt by Georges-Eugène Haussmann in the mid-19th century.

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Thanks to Haussmann, Paris is very easy to explore on foot and it also has a very vast public transit system so if you do get tired of walking you are never more than one block from a metro station. However, there is a serious lack of concern for the comfort of visitors in the city’s attractions, namely in the availability of bathrooms. Notre-Dame-De-Paris? Stunning, I absolutely loved it but there are no washrooms inside the church. If you need to go, you have to leave the cathedral, go around to the back and pay .50 centimes to use the washroom there. When I wanted to go the bathroom, unfortunately the only one in the area, it was closed while the church was still very much open.

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And the Louvre? It is also, naturally, a must see. Do not expect to leave the museum feeling anything other than exhausted though. You will more than likely start your visit by standing in line. We spent forty-five to fifty minutes in line outside. We were lucky it was a cloudy day because the lineup for the Louvre is in the palaces courtyard and there is no shelter from the elements. I cannot begin to imagine how horrible it must be standing in line at the Louvre in the Summer heat with no shade and no water fountains. Be advised that there are no water fountains inside the Louvre either, so bring water! P.S.: There are no bathrooms in the vicinity of the Louvre, so plan accordingly or you will suffer like I did.

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Once you are inside the museum, be prepared for massive lineups for the washrooms. I suggest you go even if you don’t really need to, because bathrooms are few and far between in the galleries. Wear comfrotable shoes because there are very few places to sit and above all else, do not set out to visit the entire museum in one day, it simply cannot be done. Decide what you absolutely want to see and limit yourself to that. As for the Mona Lisa, she is indeed splendid and worth the crowds that surround her but be sure you pay attention to all the other stunning works of art that lead up to her and surround her. Also appreciate how incredibly amused she seems by being the center of so much attention.

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My favorite area of Paris was Montmartre where we stayed in a lovely little hotel for two nights. Montmartre was too far from the center of Paris to be touched by Haussmann’s overhaul, so it has kept its network of narrow, winding streets. Also, since far fewer tourists make it all the way to Montmartre, Parisians are much friendlier there. If you are lucky enough to visit Paris one day, make sure you set aside at least half a day for a thorough exploration of Montmartre and you will be charmed.

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To sum it up, I loved my first visit to Paris and while the city itself was a bit of a trial at times, I was thrilled to finally get to see so many places and monuments I had been dreaming of seeing; in some cases, since I was a little girl.

Here is a list of dos and don’ts to keep in mind if you are planning to visit Paris for the first time:

Do:

1-Carry toilet paper, hand sanitizer and .50 centime coins with you at all times. You cannot get into pay-to-go bathrooms in France that do not have an attendant with anything other than a .50 centime coin and be aware that they unfortunately frequently lack toilet paper, soap or both.

2-Keep your bag in front of you at all times when you are in crowded areas if you are a lady. Gents: keep your wallet in your front pocket.

3-Carry water, a hat and sunblock with you.

4-Walk as much as you can! Paris is best enjoyed on foot, if you try to drive in the city you will spend a lot of time in traffic. Adam and I walked an average of 10 kms a day during our entire vacation and wow, did it ever leave us feeling amazing!

5- If you are a foodie, enjoy the markets! France is very well know for its excellent food and the French love using fresh ingredients, so rent an apartment for your stay so you can do your own cooking and go for a walk in your neighborhood to learn where the local bakeries, cheese shops, butcher shops and fishmongers are. If you cannot find one of these within a few blocks of your place, ask a shopkeeper and they will more than likely be able to point you to the right place to find your missing ingredients.

Don’t:

1-Do not expect service with a smile. You may have heard that Parisians are not the friendliest of hosts. This is unfortunately true and I must admit, it really rubbed me the wrong way. Service with a scowl is more the Parisian way of dealing with tourists…

2- Do not bring your diet on vacation with you! French food completely lived up to my expectations. I did not have a single bad meal the entire time I was in France. We drank wine every night and ate all the cheese, baguettes, pastries and charcuterie we wanted and guess what? I actually lost weight while we were away. See point #4 of my ‘do’ list for probable cause but seriously, you will regret blowing off your diet while in Paris way less than you will sticking to it.

4- Do not eat right next door to a tourist attraction or within one no matter what. You will be the victim of inflated prices and low food quality. Walk a few blocks away from any major attraction before giving any serious consideration to eating.

5- Do not take public transit at rush hour if at all possible, especially not if you are even the slightest bit claustrophobic. The Parisian public transit system can get extremely crowded, so for your comfort, try getting on after peak commuting times.