Travel Tales: The Palace of Versailles
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We were huddled on the far end of a large underground platform. The train to the Palace of Versailles was late. I paced around in circles, bored out of my mind. There was no wi-fi on the platform, which meant I couldn’t use my phone. You can only talk to a group of people you don’t know for so long before running out of things to say. Nikos bought everyone a small cake from a nearby vending machine to lift our spirits.
The Journey to the Palace
The train pulled in, almost an hour late. Almost nobody got off. As we shuffled on, I realized how large this train was. It wasn’t the ordinary subway. There were two floors, with a staircase near the doors. A few of our group members found seats, but the train was too full; there were no more seats. I wound up standing near the staircase along with Dounia and Nikos for the full 30-minute train ride.
I was bouncing my knees trying to keep them from going stiff when we finally pulled into our stop. As we emerged from the train station, I could tell we were a long way from Paris. The clustered apartment buildings and car-lined streets had suddenly vanished, replaced with wide, fenced greenways and grand government-looking buildings. The wide sidewalks were accentuated with young trees, and the street was nearly void of cars. As we rounded a corner, we saw the gates to the palace in the distance.
The Gardens of Versailles
Past the gate, we walked down the long, gravel driveway to the entrance. It was swarmed with visitors waiting in line for tour guides. Nikos told everyone to wait nearby while he went to check in with our pre-scheduled tour. After about 15 minutes, he returned and told us we had about an hour until the tour started. He passed out tickets to the Gardens of Versailles, so we could explore while we waited. I was simply happy to get out of the surging mass of people.
Although I had heard about the Gardens of Versailles before, I’d never really thought about them. I didn’t know any details about it, like how big it was, what was in it, and what made them so beautiful. I was extremely surprised as I walked towards the balcony to look across the largest piece of manicured landscape I’d ever seen. My jaw hung ajar and then slowly curled into a smile. This place was awesome! There was so much to explore, they were renting out golf carts to the tourists. I immediately was disappointed that we only had an hour to see as much of this gorgeous garden as we could. There were several gold-encrusted fountains, a large reflection pond, mazes, pathways, topiary gardens, and probably much more.
Unfortunately, it was still cloudy and rainy. Even though the sun wasn’t out, the gardens were magnificent. I can only imagine what it looks like in the sun, with the gold reflecting off the pools and the shade of the trees stretching across the paths. I feel like I had barely scratched the surface of the gardens when it was time to return to the palace for the tour.
Crowded is an Understatement
When we met up near the tour’s entrance, we were each given a small listening device. This way, the tour guide could speak into a microphone and all of us could easily hear what she was saying. This was especially important, and I quickly realized why once we got inside.
I’ve never quite felt exactly like a sardine until the tour of the Palace of Versailles. Everyone shuffled inches at a time. Both of my shoulders were touching three or four different strangers while I tried my best to reach my group. There were people everywhere. I felt like I couldn’t quite get a clean breath of air because there were so many bodies in such a small area. The room we were in was lined with beautiful paintings and had a large mural on the ceiling, but I couldn’t really enjoy it because of all the people in that first room.
As we continued the tour, the people began to thin out and I started to relax. There was gold everywhere we looked, it seemed like. Red was everywhere. Red walls, red curtains, red blankets on the bed, a red and gold bedazzled throne. There was a wood floor throughout the entirety of the palace that we toured. The tour guide took us from room to room, explaining what each was and what they had been used for. Then, we went into the Hall of Mirrors.
A Look into the Past
The Hall of Mirrors was, by far, my favorite room in the castle. The ceiling housed another gorgeously done mural, with golden ornamentation along the molding of the ceiling and walls. On one side of the hall, there was a long row of windows that looked out into the gardens. On the other, there were massive mirrors. They were old and slightly translucent. They weren’t the quality of mirror you’d typically see today. There were flaws and spots were age had gotten to it. My face was a little distorted when I looked into it.
I was almost confused about the quality, as I assumed that people would have figured out mirrors by then. This, as I found out, was a very wrong assumption. As we roamed around the hall, the tour guide told us that peasants would come to visit the palace simply to look into the mirrors for the first time in their lives. They’d never seen themselves before! I was looking into the exact same mirrors as someone from centuries before had, where they saw themselves for the first time ever. I thought that was one of the coolest things I’d seen within the palace.
A Stamp in Time
What was so bizarre to me about the palace is that there were places that were dripping with wealth: gold encasements, draperies, ceiling murals, extensive artwork, expensive furniture, and more. Then, there were places that seemed like any other old building. What was strange about the palace is that it was divided into public and private faces. The public saw the lavishly decorated side of the palace, while the family lived on the side that was almost plain. The walls were white and undecorated. The rooms were largely empty. It seemed like any other old house, not the Palace of Versailles. Learning about the history of the building and the almost double-life the family lived was fascinating.
After we finished the tour, we explored the area a bit, hoping to catch a bite to eat before heading back to Paris. We wound up in a tiny restaurant off of an alleyway, where our group was ushered to take up the entirety of the upstairs dining area. After a wonderful home-cooked French dinner, we made our way to the train, which was (thank god!) empty. I settled into the chair and napped the rest of the train ride.
Be sure to check out my next installment of our trip up the Eiffel Tower and exploring the Louvre.