The Grand Tour II: ‘Masterpiece of bad taste and magnificence’

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PARIS — When one goes to Paris, one must visit the Palace of Versailles — I believe it is a condition of entry. Versailles is opulent, extravagant, luxurious and a little bit tacky all at the same time — to be fair, the same could be said for quite a few of the major palaces of Europe. It is an ostentatious display of wealth and power — and a prime spot for more than three million tourists each year.

V22Visitors in the summer can expect to wait in line for an hour or more, according to the time of the day, so plan to get up and going early. It is important to buy tickets ahead of time and remember that the line that snakes around the square in front of the gates is the line to get in, not the line to get tickets — that’s a whole separate line. More than one person wasted time in the line before finding out they had to get tickets first. There are lots of good deals online that include multi-museum passes that can save you money (we used Paris City Pass but there are many options to suit your schedule). Some careful research and planning will pay off.

Versailles is about an hour on the train from Gare Saint-Lazare, followed by a five-minute walk, so plan accordingly.

The site of the palace was originally an 11th-century village before becoming the seat of French power in 1682 when Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” shifted the court there from Paris, bringing 20,000 people with him. Housing the court meant that large sums went into designing, expanding and maintaining the palace, and it set the style for French taste throughout Europe. The last royal couple to live there were Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

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Galerie de Glaces (Hall of Mirrors). Photo by Andy Coughlan

The palace is vast, both inside and out. If Versailles is your plan for the day, know it is your plan for the whole day, but it is well worth it. Room after room of ornamentation (700 of them) can get a little overpowering (museum fatigue is real thing), but the gardens go on and on (2,000 acres) and a pleasant walk is great way to recharge the batteries.

The site of the palace was originally an 11th-century village before becoming the seat of French power in 1682 when Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” shifted the court there from Paris, bringing 20,000 people with him. Housing the court meant that large sums went into designing, expanding and maintaining the palace, and it set the style for French taste throughout Europe. The last royal couple to live there were Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

During the French Revolution in 1789, the royal family fled to Paris and the palace fell into disrepair and much of the furniture was sold off. A renovation began under the guidance of Louise Phillip I In the early 1830s and conservation has continued ever since, with the most recent plan initiated by prime minister Jacques Chirac the palace was used for official state events and the 1919 treaty to end WWI was signed in the 73-meter-long Galerie de Glaces (Hall of Mirrors).

V01In case anyone wonders, the palace and its grounds include 200,000 trees, 210,000 flowers planted every year, 50 fountains, 2,150 windows, 67 staircases, 6,000 paintings, 1,500 drawings, 2,100 sculptures and 5,000 pieces of furniture. Anyone care to count?

The philosopher/poet Voltaire described Versailles as “a masterpiece of bad taste and magnificence” and that perfectly sums it up. It is a wonderful way to spend a leisurely day and get a look at how the other half — or half of one half of one half percent — lived.

The palace is open every day except Mondays. Admission is 18 euros, which includes an audio guide (take advantage of it, there is lots to learn and the crowds make it difficult to read everything), and free to under-18s.

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