I was overcome at Versailles. It wasn’t the palace, a grand place of gilded furniture, handpainted ceilings and rooms where kings and queens held court. I imagine that all was very nice — if I could have seen these things. i’m kind of short and in a place crowded with tourists, about the only thing I really did see was the ceilings. and the Hall of Mirrors — it’s so big there is room for everybody.
I was warned. Don’t — whatever you do — don’t go on Tuesday. Which is exactly when we went. That’s when it’s mobbed. It’s been closed on Monday and the Louvre is closed on Tuesday so everyone is there. And they were. Thousands of visitors, most of them much taller than me. All of them seemed to be armed with cameras, iPads and selfie-sticks.
The thing is almost everybody goes to the chateau and leaves the rest to a few of us. And that’s where the magic is. In the smaller grandeur of the Grand Trianon, which was the home of Louis XIV and later Napoleon Bonaparte, the Petit Trianon and the hamlet of Marie Antoinette, which served as the doomed queen’s getaway. These are grand places, but obviously designed to be private places for royal people — not grand chambers for taking care of state business, as the chateau was. Surrounded by simpler gardens — and a farm near the unusual rural hamlet Marie Antoinette built as her ultimate getaway, they betray a sweet familial side to the king and queen even as they present their royal side.
And on Tuesday, the fountains may be quiet but music is piped throughout the gardens, a romantic and elegant touch.
But it was in the gardens that I found my place. In an outdoor ballroom behind a hedge of tall greenery just off the broad expanse of trimmed bushes, grand statuary and splashing fountains that comprise the water parterres. It’s a small place, really. Surrounded by tiers of hedge and a rock-lined waterfall that wasn’t even turned on the Tuesday I was there.
I had first heard about it in a movie, a 2014 Kate Winslet film called “A Little Chaos.” With our visit only a few weeks away, it seemed a natural. Perhaps a fictional story, it nevertheless depicts an actual garden created for Louis XIV. I would have loved to see water cascading over the rock-lined tiers but with the Tuesday music playing in the background, it was a delightful and romantic spot. And for a few minutes, I had it all to myself. (And my husband,too) There may have been thousands at the palace that day, but the ballroom in all its well landscaped beauty was ours.
ⓒ Text and photos Mary K. Tilghman