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The carriage museum at Versailles

I’m not at all interested in cars – apart from a one time exception made for a beautiful vintage Morris Minor my father and grandfather gave me for my 21st birthday! However the carriage museum which opened recently in Versailles turned out to be a unexpectedly fascinating visit. Housed in the royal stables just opposte the palace, this new museum is free to visit, and allows us a glimpse into another, often overlooked aspect of life at the royal courts, something that I had never even thought about. It’s home to spectacular carriages, golden sedan chairs, magnificent harnesses for the horses and even sleighs used by the ladies to ride around the gardens in winter, including an amazing one with a carved wooden base shaped like a turtle.

If you have some extra time at Versailles, and spending at least a whole day at the palace and in the city is really worth it, a visit to this museum is a treat. And if you’re lucky, you may even get to see the beautiful horses of the Academy of Equestrian Arts practising outside.

Grandes_Ecuries Versailles

  • Les Grandes Ecuries, avenue Rockefeller, 78000 Versailles

Take the RER C to Versailles Chateau, or train from St Lazare to Versailles rive Droite, then it’s a short walk.

Website (in English)

Link to map

 

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Summer nights at the Palace of Versailles

On Saturday evenings between mid-June and mid-September the Palace of Versailles comes alive iat night as we can imagine it would have done under Louis XIV, when lavish balls and parties were held in the magnificent gardens. Baroque music is played across the gardens, the fountains are switched on and the gardens and exterior of the palace are illuminated. Wathcing the sun go down to music and the lights come flickering on across the gardens and in the groves hidden within the trees is truly magical.

As night falls you can explore the gardens. The alleyways are lit up by hundreds of tiny lights, some have bubbles being blown along them, and suddenly you come upon one of the groves, the cascades of water illuminated and music playing. My favourite is the Bosquet des Rocailles, designed by Le Notre in 1685, where balls were once held – blink and you can imagine the courtiers swirling in the candlelight to the beautiful music. And always in the background the palace is blazing with light.

I also discovered that the Orangerie is open, currently empty as the orange and lemon trees are still enjoying the last of the summer heat outside. I’ve rarely seen this open during the day, so it was a treat to be able to go inside.

The evening ends with a firework display, again to music. Seeing Versailles lit up in all its splendour on a warm summer’s night is really something special. Make sure you buy your tickets in advance.

Les Grandes Eaux Nocturnes Versailles official website (English)

Take the RER C from central Paris to Versailles Rive Gauche Chateau, or take the train from Paris St Lazare to Versailles Rive Droite

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The King’s vegetable garden in Versailles

The King’s vegetable garden, or ‘Potager du Roi’ was built in Versailles in 1683 at the request of Louis XIV, and the food grown here was used to feed the king and court. The King would enter by the golden gate leading into the park of the palace, and would bring friends to see the fruit trees, which he was particularly proud of.  It’s a typical example of the French gardening style: surrounded on all sides by high walls, it is constructed around a central pond that also serves as a reservoir for watering, and is divided into 16 sections that are separated by espaliered fruit trees. Approximately 450 varieties of fruit and 400 varieties of vegetables are cultivated here, including many ancient and rare varieties. In 1873 the National Horticultural School was created here and it became a classified monument in 1926.

Open all year round, it’s a wonderful visit for anyone interested in gardening. It covers 9 hectares (almost 2.5 acres) and is quiet and relaxing. There are guided visits available, and events often take place involving dance, theatre or art. You can buy fruit, vegetables and plants grown in the gardens in the small shop adjoining. If you want to learn various gardening skills, a variety of courses and lessons are available throughout the year.

It’s a short walk from the Chateau, passing via rue de Satory you will also find many restaurants and cafés. Check out the Monument café just opposite, a great place for lunch where the delicious food is prepared using ingredients from the Potager du Roi (they also have free wifi and sell tickets to the chateau).

  • Le Potager du Roi, 10 rue du Marechal Joffre, 78000 Versailles. RER C to Versailles Rive Gauche Château

April – October: Tuesday – Sunday 10:00 – 18:00

November – March: Tuesday and Thursday 10:00 – 18:00

The Potager du Roi (in French)

Follow a course at the Potager du Roi (in French)

The Marché Notre Dame at Versailles

The Marché Notre Dame in Versailles was created more than 300 years ago by Louis XIV. Nowadays it is a wonderful place to shop for food, with covered market halls dating back to the 19th century that are open every day except Mondays, and a large and lively outdoor food market in the centre of the quadrangle of halls on Friday and Sunday mornings. The food is fresh, seasonal and often comes from local producers. It’s a great way to experience the atmosphere of a small town French provincial market, just a stone’s throw away from Paris.

I would recomend you take a train from Gare St Lazare in Paris to Versailles Rive Droite. Buy a picnic at the market and take it into the nearby gardens of the Palace of Versailles. Otherwise there are plenty of fantastic cafés and bistros around the market where you can enjoy a delicious lunch before strolling over to the palace, which is often less busy in the afternoons.

Too often visitors come to see the Palace of Versailles, and completely miss the beautiful town that it sits in. If you want to experience life in a small French town, Versailles is the perfect place to do it.

Marche Notre Dame, 78000 Versailles. Covered market open Tuesday – Saturday 07:00 – 19:30 and Sunday 07:00 – 14:00. Open air food market Tuesday, Friday and Saturday 07:00 – 14:00

Marie Antoinette’s farm at Versailles

If you are visiting Marie Antoinette’s domain in Versailles – the Petit Trianon and her hamlet – make sure you continue on up to her farm. Escaping from the stifling court life in the Palace, she would come to Trianon and play at life in the country. The hamlet and farm were both built for her and were completely artificial, the purposely dilapidated looking buildings housed splendid rooms inside where she would entertain, play cards and take tea (now closed inside as in need of major renovations, about to take place funded by Dior). A farmer was brought in to tend to the crops and animals, and she would from time to time collect eggs, or milk the cows (apparently the cows were specially cleaned, brushed and put in a clean barn for her when she wanted to see them!) The farm supplied her and her children with fresh eggs, milk, vegetables and fruit, and has vineyards which you can still see today.

It’s a world away from life at the Palace of Versailles. Today it’s still a working farm and is used to teach children about farm life – you can still see pigs, ducks, chickens and various other animals roaming around the lovely old buildings.

It’s included with the entry ticket to the Petit Trianon. As I’ve said in other posts about Versailles (see here) if you have time, do try and spend a whole day here and see both the palace and gardens and the Petit Trianon and Marie Antoinette’s hamlet. It’s a beautiful day out and the best way to understand the lives and eventual downfall of the French monarchy, from the glorious reign of Louis XIV ‘The Sun King’ to Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette and their tragic end.

  • Le Domaine de Marie Antoinette, Château de Versailles

Open daily except Mondays.

Take the RER C to Versailles Rive Gauche Chateau or the train from Gare St Lazare to Versailles Rive Droite. It’s about a 25 minute walk from the main chateau.

 

Locked rooms at Versailles

The more I go to Versailles, the more I explore, the more I love it. There is so much more than the crowded ‘Grands Appartements’ that make up the standard visit. If you have time, spend more than just half a day there. Whilst the chateau is breathtaking and the gardens huge and impressive, it’s the harder to access parts of the palace and gardens that really hold the secret to the beauty and history still whispering in the corners and corridors of this incredible place.

locked-rooms-versailles

I’m very lucky that my work allows me access to some of these parts of the palace. This is Marie Antoinette’s bathroom. She had running water, hot and cold. Some of her dresses, a day bed and the lace bath curtain have been reproduced in paper. It’s amazingly delicate and beautiful, the shutters are always closed, the room is hushed and in shadow. The security agent with the key takes us in, away from the crowds, and suddenly it’s like stepping back in history.

Above the King’s Private Apartments, are the Apartments of the mistresses of Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry. Again they can only be accessed with a security guard and a guide, and once again are a world away from what you see downstairs. The shutters are opened as we enter each room, and suddenly they seem to come back to life. Much smaller and cozier than the public parts of the palace and still lavishly furnished, it’s almost as if the ladies have just left. 

The views into the courtyard and across the gardens are spectacular.

apartments-mme-dubarry-versailles

To get access to these rooms you will need to book a guided visit, but it’s so worth it. Combine it with a stroll through the Hall of Mirrors, and an afternoon spent in the gardens and at Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon and hamlet, and you have a magical day that gives you a rare glimpse into the lives of the mythical women of Versailles.

  • Chateau de Versailles, Place d’Armes, 78000 Versailles

Chateau de Versailles

Marie Antoinette at Versailles – The Petit Trianon

There is so much to see at Versailles, you should spend at least a full day there, if not more.

If you have time, don’t just do the standard palace visit with all the crowds, get out into the gardens if the weather is nice and go and see where Marie Antoinette used to escape from the crowds back then. Yes, Versailles has always been crowded! The Petit Trianon is about a 20 minute walk from the Palace, and is a haven of beauty and calm.

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The Petit Trianon was given to Marie Anoinette  by her husband King Louis XVI (who gave her a key encrusted with diamonds), and as soon as you step in you can see why she wanted to spend as much time here as possible. Set in beautiful gardens which she loved, the Petit Trianon is intimate, elegant and full of light. She would come here with her close friends and ladies in waiting, and relax, away from the protocol and prying eyes of the court.

I seriously want to live here, and one of the many things that convinced me was Marie Antoinette’s boudoir. Not only is it gorgeous, but she could press a button and wooden panels with huge mirrors on would slide up from below and cover the windows. Or vice versa, depending on the weather or her mood… you can see it here with one right up and the other not quite up to the top.

I was here for work and was lucky to be accompanied by the lady with the key who can open the doors that are usually locked to the public.

secret-doors-petit-trianon-versaillesUpstairs are the rooms of her closest ladies in waiting, and the king’s bedroom when he was visiting, with spectacular views over the gardens.

And there’s more. She had a theatre built where she could act on the stage. The courtiers were not allowed to watch her, so her servants and their families would make up the audience. Again we were lucky enough to have it unlocked and go right in, usually you can see it through a glass door. I even got to go on the stage and imagine I was her… And I learned from the wonderful guide who was with me, that everything in there is made of cardboard and papier maché. The people believed the Trianon had walls covered with gold and diamonds, but in fact the truth, and the real Marie Antoinette, was quite different.

Further out in the gardens you come to Marie Antoinette’s Hamlet, a Normandy style farming village (completely fake, a couple of farmers were hired to tend to it for her) where she would come and imagine she was living the simple country life, eating produce from the farm and enjoying the freedom of the gardens that she loved so much. It consists of 11 houses, 5 of which she and her ladies in waiting would use. Their rustic country facades hid elegant rooms inside where they would be served dinner or play cards. There were for example 2 dairies, one where normal milking activites took place, and one clean one where the milk would be placed on a marble counter for her to come and drink! She was provided with the fairy tale version of a country life; the wheel on the water mill was not attached to any kind of mill inside… it’s all a beautiful illusion. Vegetable gardesns, orchards and alleys covered with flowers were planted, fishing was provided in the lake, or boating.

UPDATE! Dior are currently financing the renovation the Queen’s house and it should be open to the public in 2017.

I spent a wonderful sunny morning here and can’t wait to come back again and again. I really recommend a visit, you can come without visiting the palace, or take the little electric train (or hire a Versailles golf cart!) from the palace if it’s too far to walk.

Meanwhile, I’m off to buy a book about the life of Marie Antoinette.

UPDATE! If you want to learn more, I recommend Marie Antoinette by Stefan Zweig.

  • Petit Trianon, Château de Versailles

Take the RER C from central Paris to Versailles Rive Gauche Chateau.

Or take the train from Paris St Lazare to Versailles Rive Droite

The Cour des Senteurs at Versailles

A short walk away from the Palace of Versailles there is a courtyard tucked away that is well worth a detour. Due to the presence of the royal court here Versailles has always been home to a tradition of luxury, and in particular perfume making for the Kings and courtiers. The Cour des Senteurs opened recently and is now home to a traditional, family owned luxury glove maker, the gorgeous French perfumer and candle maker Diptyque, Guerlain and a café by Le Notre: it’s a little haven of peace and tranquility away from the crowds at the chateau.

Go through to the end of the courtyard and along the passageway and you find yourself in a beautiful garden. Designed around over 200 plants and essences used in perfumes, you also have a wonderful view over the old town of Versailles, and can continue your walk as far as the King’s vegetable garden, still in use today and still producing an amazing array of fruit and vegetables.

Diptyque have produced a special set of candles for their shop here, jasmine, green mint and roses – burned together they apparently smell just like the gardens of Versailles!

If you have an hour or so free after visiting the palace, especially in the crowds of high summer, I highly recommend you come down here and enjoy a few moments of quiet and relaxation.

  • Cour des Senteurs, rue de la Chancellerie, 78000 Versailles

Versailles – after hours

Have you ever wondered what it would be like having the Palace of Versailles all to yourself? How you’d feel wandering through the Hall of Mirrors on your own?
Last night I was lucky enough to find out. Well not entirely to myself, but I was invited to a travel trade evening after closing and it felt a world away from the daytime crowds.

Versailles is of course beautiful at any time of the day, or year, but it was really special to be able to walk through the silent corridors and enjoy the peace and beauty of the palace in the early evening light.

Built originally by Louis XIII as a hunting lodge in 1624, and coming into all it’s glory under the Sun King Louis XIV and his court, the palace has 2300 rooms and is set in a vast and magnificent park. Despite the summertime crowds, it’s a visit not to be missed. I love visiting the private apartments of Louis XV and XVI, hidden inside the huge public apartments they are small and still lavishly furnished rooms where the royal family would go about their lives away from the prying eyes of the court. The contrast between the crowds today in the main apartments and the intimacy of these rooms really helps understand a bit of what it must have been like living at court in times gone by.

Next time, I’m going back with the man with the keys! I can’t wait to discover the secrets hidden behind those closed doors. I’ll also be heading out into the gardens and down to Marie Antoinette’s hamlet.

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Open daily except Mondays. In the summer on Tuesdays music is played in the gardens, on Saturdays and Sundays the fountains are switched on with the music (you will pay extra for the gardens on these days but it’s well worth it).

Watch out for the huge lines! Taking a tour that cuts the line is a good idea here, and a good guide will also mean you get to learn all about court life at Versailles, which is really what makes it come alive. If you want to see the private apartments then you need to book a tour as individuals are not allowed inside.

Take the RER C to Versailles Chateau or the train from St Lazare to Versailles Rive Droite (great views of the city if you take this line) and it’s a short walk from either station.

Chateau de Versailles

  • Chateau de Versailles, Place d’Armes, 78000 Versailles

A different Versailles – the Royal Stables

If you’re already planning a trip to Versailles, did you know you can also enjoy a lesser known and much less crowded visit, the Royal Stables or Grande Ecuries? Just opposite the chateau, built by Jules Hardouin-Mansart in 1682 and reputed to be the most beautiful in the world, the stables used to house the school for the royal pageboys, a high honour reserved for sons of the military nobility. Here they would learn how to be perfect gentlemen – horse riding, fencing, dance, music and drawing, as well as military skills.

royal-stables-versailles

The stables also housed and trained the king’s 600 horses. Completely restored and remodeled, today they are home to the world famous Academy of Equestrian Arts, founded in 2003 by Bartabas. Horsemen and women come from all over the world to learn and perform a mixture of dressage, ballet, fencing and traditional Japanese archery.

If you are there on a Sunday, you can see ‘Les Matinales des Ecuyers’. For 12€ this gives you access to a visit of the stables, and you can also watch a 45 minute training session set to music and featuring their magnificent Lusitano horses, the same breed that was the glory of Versailles in the 18th century. This takes place in the stunning Grand Arena, recently remodeled by Patrick Bouchain.

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I really enjoyed this visit and beautiful performance. It’s a great complement to the crowded main chateau and gives a glimpse into another side of the palace life that we rarely see.

The Matinales take place at 11.15 on Sundays, and you can also see their full performances on Saturdays at 6pm and Sundays at 3pm.

They have a website in French at http://www.bartabas.fr or check out the English website for the Chateau de Versailles. They are sometimes on tour, so make sure to check before you go.

  • Les Grandes Ecuries, avenue Rockefeller, 78000 Versailles

Take the RER C to Versailles Chateau, or train from St Lazare to Versailles rive Droite, then it’s a short walk.