Sunday, May 4, 2014


The whole purpose of adding France to our Spring Break itinerary was to see Versailles. Eldest Daughter studied it and the French Revolution in school this year and it was high up on her bucket list.

And so on Thursday morning we took an early Eurostar train between London and Paris in preparation for having all of Friday to spend at Versailles. We had just part of an afternoon and evening in Paris proper and during that time we checked into our adorable hotel in the Latin Quarter and then walked, shopped and ate our way across the city to the Eiffel Tower for the required Eldest Daughter in Paris photograph. (This is especially sweet if you know her name, which she has asked me not to publish here.) My big find was a dress for the youngest Pinks' B'not Mitzvah party, which is in September. Eldest Daughter scored a Sorbonne sweatshirt. For the record, in contrast to college bookstores in the US, the store where official Sorbonne logo wear was sold was tiny, as in the size of our kitchen.

This is a good time for me to reiterate what many people think about Paris. It's just a special place. There is just something about it. Maybe it's the high ceilings and design in the Gare du Nord that seduces you. Maybe it's the smells. Or the shop windows. Or the well-dressed women. Maybe it's the distinct architecture. Maybe it's the indifference of the Parisians. I never stop being romanced by this city. Even Eldest Daughter commented on its allure.

In an effort to make sure we saw every last room and tree that Eldest Daughter found interesting, I booked a private tour guide through Context Travel. Sandra Lavalle was a perfect match for us. I'd guess she was in her early 30s. She's Canadian by birth and has lived in Seville, Rome and now Paris, where she is completing her PhD at the Sorbonne. We found her approachable and super sweet. Smart but not snooty or aloof. For those of you considering a tour, you can actually rent a golf cart and cover more ground. There are also bicycle tours and those people looked like they were having a blast! On this day, however, it was Eldest Daughter, Sandra and myself on foot.

I got up a few minutes earlier than Eldest Daughter that morning and ran out for some fresh croissants. We then took the metro to the Musee d'Orsay, met Sandra, and hopped the RER to Versailles, about 30 minutes southwest of the city. Until we arrived, I had no idea that Versailles was a city as well as a palace. It's a cute little town, actually. Eldest Daughter and I had a very good late lunch on its main drag. On the train ride Sandra pulled out some books and gave us an overview. I asked a lot of questions.

We took the short walk front the RER station to the palace, where, upon seeing the palace from the outside, Eldest Daughter gasped and then flashed us a million-watt smile. Sandra picked up our reserved tickets, we hopped the line and entered the enormity of the place. By enormity I mean that the palace itself is 721,000 square feet. Sandra told us that at times, up 4,000 people lived at the palace.

Here's a quick history review: The original Versailles was built as a hunting lodge by Louis XIII in 1624. His successor, Louis XIV, expanded it and in 1678, the court gradually began to move there. When the French Revolution began in 1789, the royal family left Versailles and moved to the Tuilleries Palace in Paris. This next part isn't specific to Versailles but I find it fascinating, nonetheless. Fast forward to 1793 when subsequent resident Marie Antoinette was beheaded in Paris at what is known as now as the Place de la Concorde. Her husband, Louis XVI, was subject to the guillotine that year, a much more humane way to die. Our time with Sandra included a refresher on beheading (that's using an ax, often times held by a person with less than desirable aim or strength), death by guillotine and being drawn and quartered.

Sandra told us all about life at Versailles and the way the daily routines for the royal family were on display. We toured the king and queen's bedchambers and the Hall of Mirrors, which was an architectural feat. The French stole the method of creating mirrored glass from the Venetians. In the queen's bedchamber were small doors leading to her children's rooms. We saw the salons where the queen and her chambermaids and ladies in waiting (paid friends) spent their time. We saw the dining rooms and the coronation room and multiple sets of antechambers. Opulent does not even begin to describe the decor.

The grounds and gardens, where we spent even more time than we did in the palace, are vast. East-west and north-south axis dissect them. A Grand Canal took 11 years to build and is where visitors today can rent boats. In its day it had two gondolas and four gondoliers, a gift from the Republic of Venice, who apparently had not yet figured out that France had offed with its mirror-making secrets.

The grounds are made up of a series of smaller gardens and groves. We spent time in the Ballroom Grove, where, starting in the 1680s, musicians played and people danced on a marble island in the middle of a fountain. The spectators would view this from grass-covered terraces in the amphitheater. The king was a big dancer, too, thus his motivation for this grove. Think chamber music. We also saw the King's Garden, the Grove of Domes and the Grove of the Arc de Triumph.

Halfway through our tour we stopped for a bite in the palace restaurant. One of the best things about having your own tour guide is that she knows where all the hidden bathrooms are and the best places to eat!

Today Versailles is a museum and only a few of the furnishings are original. Most of the art is in the Louvre now. Those there are authentic to the period. We were fortunate enough to be there on one of the two days each month that music plays in the gardens and that all of the fountains are on. It's hard not to picture an exquisite garden party or wedding in the yard. Part of the gardens are open to the public without fee. On nice days many people bring picnic lunches there. I'd like to do that someday.

On our way back to the train we wandered around the city of Versailles until we found the tennis courts (which aren't tennis courts in the hit balls back and forth over a net sort of way), which was where the vote to start the French Revolution began.

Eldest Daughter was so happy that we went that she bought a book in the gift shop. They sold Laduree macarons there, too.

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