For those of you thinking about traveling to France, if you happen to be here on a beautiful, sunny day, it is imperative that you visit the gardens of Versailles. Skip the chateau, and instead get lost in this labyrinth-like estate that was once the playground of Marie-Antoinette. Not only will you marvel, but you will feel instantly alive and inspired, and simultaneously nostalgic and curious about this fascinating period of French history. Shall we?
We begin walking from the street entrance down a beautiful cobblestone road lined with trees whose leaves have turned to the most stunning colors. The walk takes about 15 minutes, and leads you right to the Grand Trianon.
This beautiful marble retreat was built by Louis XIV as an escape for him and his long-term mistress, the Marquise de Montespan, in the 17th century, and features some of the most lavish and picturesque gardens. From the front, the Trianon is not as grand as one would expect from a man whose nickname was the Sun King, but once seen from the other side of the marble pavilion, it is an entirely different world. The lush gardens overlooks a large canal where you can rent a boat or sit on the banks and picnic, and the variety of flowers and plants give a colorful backdrop to this otherwise quotidian mansion. We got a bit snap-happy here, as the gardens are a perfect place to take photos.
Continuing from behind the Grand Trianon, we walk down a dirt pathway that takes you to Marie-Antoinette’s private party house. Yes, I’m serious. The small pavilion was her personal frat house, if you will, and was where she threw her famous soirees. Though it wasn’t open when we went, I could picture this intriguing French queen in her lavish gowns, drinking and dining with the who’s-who of French high-society under a moonlit sky some night hundreds of years ago. It is magical and opens your mind to a past defined by class and etiquette, when one was confined to the position to which they were born. Just a short walk from the pavilion is Marie-Antoinette’s Petit Trianon, a small mansion set apart from the large chateau of Versailles that was the Queen’s personal retreat.
The Petit Trianon was commissioned by Louis XV for his long-term mistress, who died before it was completed. Louis then gave it to his next mistress, Madame du Barry. The next king, Louis XVI, gave the chateau and its park to his wife, Marie-Antoinette, to use as an exclusive retreat. No one, including the king, could enter without her permission, and was designed to leave her more self-sufficient, with less interaction between the guests and the servants. What many people don’t understand is her need to escape: she was often considered a failure because she couldn’t seem to produce a male heir, only females. Her “retreat” at the Petit Trianon was more like banishment. Marie-Antoinette is one of history’s most intriguing and misunderstood characters – she was a young girl when she became queen, and was nowhere near ready to rule a country that was slipping into revolution as she was slipping into her royal robes. I have always been fascinated by Marie-Antoinette, and being at Versailles was just so cool.
Exiting the Petit Trianon, you will see the Temple de l’Amour – the Temple of Love – which I can’t really bother to research right now but is absolutely beautiful and offers a spectacular view of Petit Trianon. Continuing on the path from the Temple of Love, you’ll walk about 10 minutes until you reach a beautiful lake inhabited by fish, ducks, and swans, and surrounded by little cottages. This area, known as “le Hameau” or “the Queen’s Hamlet”, was completed in 1785 at the request of Marie-Antoinette and is designed to resemble an 18th century pastoral village. The Queen had her own building, with a bedroom and dining room that she later converted into a billiards room. It is so picturesque, despite the bizarre concept behind it: Marie-Antoinette was so desperate to get away from the pressure and etiquette of court that she
commissioned this little hamlet so she could pretend to have an ever-so-quotidian life. If only.
This ends the tour through the gardens of Versailles, but it’s much longer than it seems. The gardens are beautiful, well-maintained, and peaceful. One could spend an entire day just wandering through the park, getting lost in the regal history and enjoying the sights and sounds of nature that are so rare in Paris. I highly recommend this tour, especially when accompanied by such lovely friends as mine.