Having grown up in India, I’ve done my fair share of travels around North India. I’m not a stranger to the concept of forts and palaces. From past experiences, I have learnt to look at these magnificent structures in two very different ways. One, as a tourist left gnawing at the architecture and the depth of human understanding for building structures at a time when civil engineering concepts hadn’t been cemented. The second, as a modern person, despite having been to many palaces, coming to grips with the realization about the gap that existed between the royalty and the commoners.
This brings me to Versailles – oh Versailles! After a few days of walking around Paris, it was finally time to dedicate a day to exploring this exquisite piece of French History which started off as a hunting lodge. I distinctly remember the train ride to Versailles from Paris as a mundane one. Don’t get me wrong, I had a sense of excitement – as you would for any day that you wake up in Paris – but nothing out of the ordinary. It didn’t really hit me until I was a few hundred metres from the gold gates of the Palace of Versailles, and then – smack! Gobsmacked.
I went during winter and the wait to get in was approximately 30 seconds as we arrived just as it opened for the day. I have heard the queues get exorbitantly long during peak seasons – well into an hour!
So there I was with my audio guide ready to explore this overwhelming enormity oozing of opulence. I took my time learning about all the French Kings and Queens. I found Louis XIV, The Sun King, to be my favourite. It was also an unsettling realization that intelligence and knowledge was not of great importance at that time. I am a great believer in education and how it transforms your life, so it was somewhat disheartening to see that there was a time where your sheer luck determined your fate in life. The hierarchy was all wrong for me and thus a hard concept to accept.
As I made my way through the Dauphin Apartments I was in awe of the interior design. The intricate wallpaper lined the walls with gold detailing bordering the corners. The furniture – vintage – was just to my taste. I wanted to live here.
The frescos in the King’s apartment were astonishing. The talent that existed at the time was unbelievable but it also made me think of the artists who had to stand for hours on end to paint these beautiful ceilings.
Next was the Hall Of Mirrors, the most popular room in Versailles, and I could see why. I had never seen so many chandeliers, frescos and gold in the same room at one time – and I’m from India! We are like the Kings of Gold. I thought there couldn’t be possibly anymore that would engage and intrigue me as much as the morning had but the best was yet to come.
Every girl has gone through a Marie Antoinette obsession at one time or another. I hadn’t really been interested in her, or any European royalty to be frank. The only thing I knew about her was that she was famous (but no idea why) and that the Marie Antoinette’s estate were a must see as advised by the person at the counter. Yes, I am guilty of going to a place just because I have heard great things but not really knowing anything about it. I was pronouncing Versailles as ‘Ver-sails’ up until I arrived at the palace and heard someone pronounce it a different way, but hear me out!
There was nothing as serene as the simplicity that was Marie Antoinette’s estate. It was like taking a fresh breath from the grandeur of the palace and stepping into a modest chateau. Learning about Marie Antoinette was the most memorable part of my trip.
The most common quote attributed to her is, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” (Translation: Let them eat cake). Although, there is speculation as to if she ever said it. Nonetheless, It made her out to be a snotty egoistic royal (and let’s face it, it’s hard to learn about a royalty who’s not). However, listening, reading and watching all about her provided me with an unexpected reality that was her life. Away from the harsh judgements of the court and its pressures bestowed upon her, this was a fantasy that she had created for herself. This was a twisted fairytale not a happy-ever-after.
There were picturesque cottages surrounded by a lake and a quaint bridge over a pond with colourful fish. There were donkeys, chickens, peacocks, geese and goats. It was very country. It made it so easy to relate to her struggles, and really empathize with her. It was very easy for me to feel this way because I never had an ill impression of her in the first place. Although, I could also see why it made the French dislike her.
After a walk around the gardens, it was time to head home but not before one last whizz around the entire palace trying to capture the beauty of the place in every photograph that I could. I think I was one of the last few people leaving the palace but it was a beautiful day. I wouldn’t say I am one that is very interested in history, but somehow Versailles spoke to me. I distinctly returning home to New Zealand and watching a few hours worth of documentaries on Versailles.
If you ever get the chance to go to Paris, I would urge you to explore the palace. Not only because it is so grand but because you will surprised at what you’ll find fascinating. I was hoping to take away some snippets of the palace, but I took away so much more. I never expected to be more taken back by the amount of man hours that went into building this beauty. I learnt about the smell of urine and horse manure the royalty had to endure when the the chateau was in its early days. You wouldn’t think to ever look at the life of a royalty with empathy but there I was, doing exactly that. Traveling catches you off guard sometimes; this was definitely one of those times.