As you approach the gates of Versailles you inescapably have the feeling of entering not a palace but an entire city. The impression is justified given the massive scale of the building and the even larger grounds.
Beginning as a modest château of stone and slate to serve as a hunting lodge for Louis XIII (13th), Versailles blossomed – figuratively and literally – during the reign of his son. By 1682, after 20 years of work, the ‘Sun King’ took up residence… and then building really began.
At its height the grounds covered 1,800 acres and housed over 1,500 fountains besides the enormous palace. Around 300 remain today. Around the grounds are several distinct gardens. Watered by a system only part of which were 150km (90mi) of canals, the gardens and fountains are themselves a show on Sundays.
Covering 250 acres, the gardens were designed mostly between 1661 and 1700 and continue to amaze visitors. Be sure not to miss the large Fountain of Apollo, with the sun god driving a chariot of horses out of the surface.
Also on the grounds are huge stables. Closed to the public for almost 200 years, they were originally home to 600 horses owned by Louis XIV (14th). Now home to 20 Portuguese Lusitanian horses, the indoor arena is decorated with a sculpture and drawings of which the Sun King himself would have been proud.
Visitors can enjoy a directed tour of the stables and watch a morning dressage with costumed riders. (‘Dressage’, French for ‘training’, is a standard equestrian term. It means, roughly: training horses to move in complex patterns similar to a dance.)
But, of course, it is the château itself that forms the (literal and symbolic) center of the place. With 700 rooms no single visit could encompass more than a small percentage of the total.
Thousands of nobles and their servants lived here in the late 17th century, as Louis managed his government with tight reins within the palace gates. Which were always left open, interestingly, in order to give a sense that the palace was ‘owned by the people of France’.
Throughout the château are paintings, sculptures, wall hangings and structural elements drawn from all over Europe.
One of the main attractions, justly so, is the 73m (239ft) long La Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors). Bearing no resemblance to a fun-house, the high mirrors line the walls on one side with seventy windows open to the gardens on the other. Still impressive, the mirrors were the latest technology of the time and awed even jaded visitors. Set off by Corinthian pillars of green marble, the room (which once hosted many a formal dance) still dazzles.
Viewed by thousands of visitors daily, the château can be quite hot and stuffy in the summer, even outdoors. Dress appropriately. The grounds and palace are open year round and can be reached via the RER line C: Versailles – Rive Gauche.