Sunday was Versailles day: a grand tour of the palace and grounds just south of Paris, which Louis XIV used fully half of France’s GDP to make. There’s no place like home, at least not his home some 300 years ago. The excess doesn’t seem as outlandish today, when there are over 1,000 billionaires, some of whom spend half the GDP of a country on a single wedding event and the other half on the foreordained divorce.
We walked to the Musee D’Orsay train station but couldn’t get tickets. There were no attendants working, the machines would not take our credit cards, and you can’t buy tickets on the train. Turns out, in Paris and perhaps all of Europe, you need to use your PIN with a credit card at a machine. We’d never needed to know our PIN at home so didn’t have it memorized. Travel tip—known your credit card PIN when in Europe. So we needed cash, coins it seemed. Michael dashed back to Eric Keyser’s, our favorite Boulanger, where they kindly changed bills for him, but we’d lost about 45 minutes in this process, about the length of the train ride itself. The trip was pleasant with an accordion player serenading us through the suburbs, many seemingly quite quaint.
At the palace gate, the line was insanely long and like lemmings, we hopped on the end. Michael went to the info booth where they were, well, informative. The line we were in was to tour the palace. If we bought tickets at the info booth and visited the garden first, there would be no line, and then later, the palace line would be small. Voila—TripAdvisor in the flesh! The gardens were gorgeous and gianormous, cool and ideal for strolling. A top hat or bonnet would not have seemed out of place. Our vacations are almost always camping, hiking, beaching, snorkeling or all of the above so by the fifth day of being in a city, even as pretty a place as Paris, we were desperate for greenery, even if the manicured Versailles grounds couldn’t quite be considered “nature”.
On weekends, the garden fountains are activated, accompanied by classical music and according to a schedule. They were designed to use gravity to force the flow and amazingly work that way even today. The fountains at Versailles were my very FAVORITE part of the entire trip! There were a few dozen and all spectacular. It was the mirror fountain, artfully synchronized to the score, that truly mesmerized me. When the flutes came in, a new pattern of spray echoed the motif, to be replaced by a swaying of the jets when the violins took over and so on and on and on. Like Disney’s dancing waters, if you remember that, only more sophisticated.
At another fountain was a boy about 6 years old, kicking small stones from the perfectly groomed pebble pathway. His parents and what appeared to be grandparents did not object, in fact, seemed oblivious of his existence. Then he picked up a stone and tossed it at the sculpture in the center of the pool, hitting it. Again he did that. And repeated it repeatedly. His family was also oblivious to the fountain they were purportedly there to see or they’d have noticed the plunks cast upon it. After a few minutes, they pulled him along to the next target, never having noticed him vandalizing a centuries old priceless object d’art. Ironically, a few minutes later, a palace worker walked by and loudly blew her whistle at us because my kid’s toes were gracing the edge of the grass. As the mirror fountain so beautifully conveys, timing is everything.
The size of the estate, 17 acres, allowed for a long, open view of the palace, not unlike Paris’s wide vistas. After glimpsing all the fountains slated for the morning showing, we moved to the wooded park that surrounded the gated garden. A sign thoughtfully reminded us we’d need our tickets upon returning and when Michael checked, discovered he’d lost his. No worries, the worker said, and wrote on his ticket that he could return that day. People at the palace were indeed princely!
We picnicked on the lawn along the canal, feasting on our leftover Eric Kayser breakfast bread. Then, because the park was so big and our legs so small, we rented bikes. This is the only time in Paris that I felt something might have been a tad overpriced. Most of the rental time, the bikes sat idle as we toured other buildings on the property. Regardless, it was so worth it. No genteel princess, Kamala abused her bell in that royal setting, but I remembered the tactic of allowing kids to have some kid fun in historic places in order to keep them going. At least she was merely emitting harmless sound waves, not tossing rocks at historic statues.
We stopped at the “peasant” hamlet Marie Antoinette had built for herself. It was idyllic, complete with a grotto water feature. We also toured one of the queen’s smaller homes—some people take separate bedrooms to a whole new level. Up and down the pathways we pedaled, so pleasant I didn’t want to stop. At the furthest end of the property, we felt like royalty ourselves, looking off at our home on the hill a half mile away. By that point, we needed real food and had a lovely lunch in a forest cafe. The afternoon fountain schedule beckoned, so sadly, we couldn’t linger.
The P.M. fountains surpassed their A.M. brethren. And there were many more of them, but so little time left. To me, the most awesome was the fountain of the giant Encelade, constructed from stone that was or resembled lava and intriguingly provided glimpses of the angry behemoth beneath. It was impressionistic—practically modern—a couple hundred years ahead of its time—portraying power in many senses of the word. Another series of fountains featured seashells, painstakingly inlaid over every inch.
Though it was cloudy, Freeman needed his sunglasses due to glare from the gold everywhere. Louis and his heirs had succeeded spectacularly: centuries after its construction, with people having been to the moon, building towers nearly half a mile high, and fabricating an entire island chain constructed to look like a latte topping when viewed from space, his legacy still leaves one breathless. Mind you, I haven’t (yet) been to those other places, but the point still stands…
There were a few modern touches that added interest. One was a temporary exhibit—a giant misting field. On this day, the sky was gray and there was already precipitation floating about. You entered a large ring in the middle of a field and were dusted with an extremely fine spray. What I loved about it was you felt the water you’d been seeing all day, noted its ability to be delicate and random relative to the forceful, directed pumping of the fountains. And being covered with it was a bit like becoming a cloud yourself, as your skin didn’t seem separated from the mist around you. What would Louis and his guests have thought of it? Perhaps it was too far ahead of the times.
We had to miss the grand finale at the fountain of Zeus, which was shown in a ten-minute timeslot at the end of the day, in order to get to the palace itself before closing. No line for the palace, as predicted. Freeman still had to keep his sunglasses on for the gold, gold, gold, gold, gold, gold gold galore. The place was beyond enormous and there was nothing subtle about it. “Less is more” was definitely way ahead of Louis’s time in that way. But in another, he led the way: the Sun King had his own logo everywhere. Today’s French fashion icons like the other Louis, Vitton that is, have nothing on the XIVth—the king invented personal branding. Ah the hubris, outdone today, but there seems to have been a great deal of benefit from Louis the XIV’s, though I confess to a near complete lack of historical understanding of him and the era. I was there for the show he put on. ‘Twas a waterful day.
The famed Hall of Mirrors was indeed cool. Photography-addicted tourists had a field day there. Overall, I was less blown away by the palace. “Too many notes” comes to mind. Interestingly, that quote from “Amadeus” is proclaimed by Emperor Joseph II, who is Marie Antoinette’s brother. Perhaps that taste ran in the family, leading her to desire the the peasant enclave. I prefer the Zen look to the artful but gaudy style, which Versailles is the very definition of. To be fair, we had rushed through it and my eyes were numb to start with, having overdosed on fountains all day and museums and dazzling wonders of the world all week.
Two days at the palace would be well spent, especially considering there is also a fireworks show after dark, but alas, we had but a short one. After 6:00 p.m., the gates were practically closed on our backsides as we were hurried out. It seemed like a good idea to get dinner in town rather than wait until we returned to Paris. But it was not meant to be, as we found nothing suitable that was open. And because we stopped looking once we spotted a special bakery. I had the best dessert of the trip, to die for, a caramelized caramel tort (no, that’s not redundant), which they most likely serve at the pearly gates, hence making it worth dying for. The shop was take-out only and by then, it was drizzling steadily. So we got lattes at Starbucks and ate outside under an umbrella table that also had a heater, which only Kamala appreciated. Crazy kid—all summer she wears fleece footsy pajamas and uses a blanket. That tort was so good we went back to the shop for seconds, through the rain! Alas, it had closed, perhaps granting my teeth and pancreas a wee bit more longevity.
Back in Paris, the skies were clear. Michael went out to rent one of those bikes by the hour while I did laundry. We had done one load a few days earlier and had to creatively dry it throughout the apartment. Stray socks and shirts and shorts were strewn about for days, as we kept the windows open to catch a breeze. I guiltily made use of the heated towel racks too, rotating items onto it for the few hours we were in the apartment. I didn’t relish a repeat of that scene. Just as with the first load we’d done, the washer wouldn’t go into a spin cycle when it finished the rinse. That first time, I’d looked at the instruction book, which was in French, turned to Google to find the French word for “spin”, and from that manually set it to cycle L. It had taken a little finagling, but worked. This night, it didn’t. So I searched for and found the English version of the instruction book online. Nothing it advised succeeded and I couldn’t see where I’d done anything wrong. I figured I’d have to just take out the wet clothes and find a laundromat—I pictured us parading pounds of dripping clothes through gay Paris instead of strolling through the gardens at Giverny. But then the machine’s door wouldn’t open, most likely because there was still water in there. Michael got home in time to hear me wriggling the latch, followed by a “pop”; probably not a good sound. By then it was well past midnight, as I Googled troubleshooting tips from friendly plumbers. From their advice, we made a sort of bow to try to unlatch the door. No luck, despite about an hour of trying various techniques. We’d have to call the apartment agent in the morning.
Ironic that at Versailles 350 years ago they could make millions of gallons of water splendidly dance using nothing but gravity but in our current technological age, this washing machine couldn’t even drain a few lousy ounces.