On a day that was bathed in sunshine, we voyaged to Versailles, the decadent Baroque palace of France’s sun king, or le roi soleil. As we strolled through the palace’s 250 gardened acres and peered through the windows into the gilded interiors (just as a subject might have done 300 years ago) the origins of one turbulent chapter of French history became crystal clear: the French Revolution.
Wanting to escape the stuffy climate of Paris in the seventeenth-century, Louis XIV summoned architects to spiff up and greatly expand his father’s hunting lodge and grounds, located just 15 miles (24 km.) southwest of Paris. The King’s planners drew up extensive expansion plans that commenced in 1661, resulting in one of the world’s largest palaces. It is estimated that 36,000 laborers participated in the building projects!
In 1678, Louis XIV had begun moving his court to Versailles. By 1682, nearly 20,000 noblemen, servants and flatterers had moved into Versailles resulting in the court’s official establishment there. With the seat of government then outside Paris, and the nobility leading debauched lifestyles at Versailles, so the seeds of the French Revolution were born.
Despite the blazing sun, and ornamental gardens that lack shading and protective canopies, we spent several hours promenading through Versailles’ grounds, which actually form one of Europe’s largest parks. Amazingly, forests were once imported to ornament Versailles’ gardens, the focal point of which is the mile-long Grand Canal.
The flowerbeds and hedges were coiffed immaculately. Versailles’ chief landscape architect, André Le Nôtre’s quotation about the palace’s view into the delicate gardens seemed timely: “Flowers can only be walked on by the eyes.”
In Louis XIV’s time, it was not possible to run all the fountains at once, so when Louis strolled through the grounds, the fountain-tenders turned on the fountains in advance of his footsteps and then turned them off behind him.
Even today the fountains are so costly to operate that they only flow on Saturdays and Sundays. Though we were disappointed that they were not running on the Friday that we visited, we were pleased that our entry fee for the gardens was on the house, as a result.
The gardens’ more than 600 fountains and statues were installed between 1661-1668. I most enjoyed the cherub statues as well as the creative manner in which fountainheads were camouflaged as cat-tail plants or as if they were coming out of turtles’ mouths.
Our readings about the palace’s posh interiors didn’t persuade us to venture into the treasure box-like rooms. Nevertheless, one guidebook statistic about the over-the-top décor stuck with me: Versailles’ paintings, if laid end to end, would equal more than 7 miles (11 km.) of canvas!
Note: This is Part I of a Versailles Series. Also see Versailles in Black & White (Part II) and