During the time that Louis XIV, XV and XVI occupied Versailles, the Chateau was under almost continuous expansion and transformation – but it was not alone. The city itself was constantly expanding with people who wanted, or needed, to be as close as possible to the seat of French power – from 1,000 inhabitants at the time of Louis XIII’s death to 60,000 at the beginning of the French Revolution. Now considered a wealthy suburb of Paris, Versailles is a town that in many ways still reflects its rich past while being firmly seated in the present. If you are planning a visit, and can spend more than a day or two, you might want to consider spending a half day or more exploring this amazing town that dates back to the 17th Century.
During my 5 days in Versailles, I spent a few hours each day walking the cobble stone and tree lined sidewalks. Not only does it offer an incredible variety of restaurants serving cuisine from authentic French to Japanese to Indian, there is also some exquisite architecture, and one of the oldest and largest continuous street markets in the country on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays from 7am-2pm.
The Marché Notre-Dame is located in the same place as it was during the reign of Louis XIV. It is situated near the center of town and includes four permanent pavilions – one built on each corner of a large intersection. The vendors in the permanent pavilions are open almost every day, but it is on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays when the sidewalks between the pavilions overflow with open air vendors with some of the most amazing fruits, vegetables and baked goods you can imagine. I made sure to get there early on Tuesday to see the market at its best and what a treat it was.
The Potager du Roi is also worth a visit. Located just a short walk from the entrance to the main chateau, it was created by J.-B. de La Quintinye in 1678 at the command of Louis XIV to supply fruits and vegetables for his table. Completed in 1683 it was so successful that the King would often invite his guests to tour the site to show off its 25 acres of grounds including thousands of fruit trees. At one time they grew fifty varieties of pears, twenty varieties of apples and sixteen varieties of lettuce. The thirty expert gardeners were so skilled that they were able to grow fruits and vegetables out of their normal season as well as exotic varieties such as pineapples and bananas. Today it is a school and produces over fifty tons of fruits and thirty tons of vegetables each year which are sold at local Versailles markets and in the school’s store.
Next to the Potager du Roi is the Pièce d’Eau des Suisses. It is a 13 hectare pool that was excavated by the Swiss Guard to allow the Potager du Roi to be drained. Surrounded by tree lined paths and massive expanses of grass it is a wonderful place for a picnic, a hike or just to relax. I spent a relaxed hour and a half walking around the entire pool enjoying the cool breeze and watching the ducks and swan. From the far side you have a beautiful view of L’Orangerie at the Chateau. In the distant forrest you can also hear guns being fired at a local shooting range which conjures up images of a Royal hunt.
Only 100 meters from the Palace entrance is the Jardin des Senteurs. The shops were closed the day I went so I only walked through the Jardin which was an explosion of colors and aromas from plants used in fragrances from around the world.
Just to the East of the Potager du Roi is Cathedrale Saint-Louis which was built between 1743 and 1754 in the baroque style boasting an exquisite and massive pipe organ. When I went in, I was the only person in the vast church allowing me to enjoy its elegant arches and beautiful artwork without distraction.
The hotel where I stayed, The Trianon Palace, has a beautiful park right next to it where I could see goats grazing. When I inquired about them, I was told that they are direct decedents from goats that were raised for Marie-Antoinette in the 18th century. It was quite amazing to think that the goats were just as steeped in history as the town. I walked down the long tree lined road with fields on both sides. One side has signs indicating that it is to be used exclusively for games and picnics. What other purpose it might be used for I could not imagine. When I reached the end of the road, it was intersected by another road. In one direction was a large and ornate gate and in the other the Petit Trianon. I was overwhelmed by how peaceful it was there. I could hear the breeze moving through the leaves of the trees, the occasional ‘baaah’ of a goat and every now and then a jogger would pass by and then vanish down the road.
Three days into my stay, I returned to my hotel tired and ready to relax. I suddenly remembered that the Royal Opera House at Versailles was showing Catone In Utica. It was an opera I had never heard of and knew absolutely nothing about, but I didn’t care. I wanted to see an opera at the Royal Opera House. I went on-line and found a ticket and an hour and a half later I was being escorted into what was once the King’s box. I couldn’t believe it. I knew I had purchased the most expensive ticket available at €150, but I wasn’t expecting this! It was luxuriously appointed with fabric and painted walls, gilded moldings, beautiful chairs and lovely golden cherub lights. Set dead center to the stage I had a perfect view and couldn’t wait. As I began to read (as best I could) the program it dawned on me that this was an opera in 3 acts with 2 intermissions for a total of just over 4 hours. On top of that, it was in sung in Italian with French subtitles above the stage. I was undaunted however, and committed myself to staying for the entire performance. There was something magical that happened that night. Something beyond what I could have ever imagined. I was transported to another time by the majesty of the theatre and another place by the beauty of the opera itself. Without any amplification, every note, every rise and fall of every aria flowed through the room as if a gift from the performers to their audience. There were moments that the room was so filled with music that one could actually feel the pressure and weight of it surrounding us like diving to the deep end of a pool. When it ended there was an explosion of applause and ‘bravo’ that would seem to bring the house crashing down around us. It was a rush of emotions and an experience I will never forget.
The Royal Opera House was inaugurated in 1770 in honor of the marriage of the future Louis XVI to Marie Antoinette. In the 1950’s it underwent extensive renovations restoring it to its original 1770’s state. I was simply in awe being in the presence of such history while seeing what turned out to be a brilliant production. If you have the opportunity, do not pass up seeing a production at this historical Opera House. Performances of different types are ongoing and can be viewed on the Chateau’s official website.
Granted, the Chateau and Jardins are the main attraction in this ancient town. But if you have the time, allow yourself to be enveloped by the majesty of the town, the quiet tree lined streets and the relaxed pace it encourages.