In an attempt to finally cross off all the typical tourist attractions from my Paris list, we ventured to Versailles on Tuesday for a stroll through the gardens during their fountain show. I have already been inside the palace on my first trip to Paris, so waiting in the massive line and paying those extra euros fortunately weren’t necessary for me this time around. Versailles was once a country village where Louis XIII enjoyed hunting in the nearby forests. In 1624, he ordered the construction of a hunting lodge in the area. Several augmentations took place until his successor, Louis XIV, had it expanded into one of the largest palaces in the world and gradually began to move the court to Versailles. The court was officially established there on May 6, 1682. I won’t bore you with too much history on the palace and instead will show some pictures from my first visit.
The city of Versailles is a suburb of Paris, about 20 kilometers to the southwest. Where I live, Maisons-Laffitte, is also a suburb of Paris, to the northwest. This would make driving to Versailles a not-all-that-complicated procedure, as you could just stick with the suburban highways and not drive through Paris proper. However, we do not have cars. We are relegated to public transportation exclusively. And this process is not altogether complicated, but it does require extra time and patience as you have to venture directly into the city, just to come back out on the same side you were just on. Versailles is located on the RER C line and we are on the RER A. However, there are no connections between the two lines except for in the middle of Paris, through our arch nemesis, Châtelet. Even then, we had to hop on the RER B for one stop to get from the right bank of the river A line to the left bank and the C line.
Despite the long process, which took about 1.5 hours total, we finally arrived at Versailles just in time for the rain and fountain shows. Having been to the magic fountains show in Barcelona, I had an idea of what these were going to be and was excited for them. They only run the fountains at Versailles on weekends and Tuesdays so that is why we braved the extra crowds to visit on a Tuesday. However, the fountains were not what we expected at all. Unlike Barcelona (where they are free by the way) this was done in the daytime so there were no colored lights illuminating the water. And more disappointing, most of the fountains were just “on” and were not dancing at all! The music was classical, which isn’t my favorite but does fit in with the theme of Versailles. The fountains run for an hour and I’m pretty sure we spent half of that time in line for the restroom anyway.
Covering some 800 hectares of land (sorry I have no idea how much that really is), the gardens of Versailles were designed by André Le Nôtre. He was the principal gardener for Louis XIV and designed many gardens throughout France, most notably the Tuileries just outside of the Louvre in Paris. First time visitors may be intrigued by the typical French garden, with its symmetry, immaculately manicured lawns and pathways. Unlike an English garden where nature is the main focus, a French formal garden focuses on man’s power over nature. Thus, its perfection is supposed to be looked at from afar and not interfered with. This is why, if you attempt to sit on the grass at many of Paris’ gardens, you will be whistled and asked to move. Apparently you can also receive a fine, although I have never seen it get that intense. I do think that not allowing people to sit on grass is a bit uptight, especially in a country where dogs are allowed to shit all over sidewalks with reckless abandon.
The gardens of Versailles took forty years to complete, the same amount as the palace itself. Landscape architect André Le Nôtre saw the gardens as equal importance to the palace and designed them accordingly. Fifty fountains and over 300 sculptures punctuate the green spaces, creating an ideal place for a luxurious stroll. There are over 200,000 trees. Apparently, there are also over 200,000 flowers planted annually, although I was disappointed by what seemed like a lack of flowers. Maybe I was looking in the wrong place or it is not the right time of year. The gardens of Versailles are one of the most visited public sights in France, with over 6 million visitors per year.
If you intend to do a full day trip to Versailles to take in the palace and gardens, then by all means, please become one of those 6 million. But after having visited just the gardens, I would not suggest trekking all the way to Versailles for the outdoor portion. There are excellent outdoor spaces in downtown Paris that offer greater beauty than Versailles if not quite the same size. I am a huge fan of the Tuileries, which is laid out much in the same way as Versailles. Or if lounging on the grass is more your style, head to one of Paris’ laid-back parks instead of a formal garden. Just make sure to watch your step wherever you decide to go!