Le Château de Versailles was originally built as a royal country escape from the malodorous conditions of 17th century Paris. The gardens span several hundred acres and contain 55 diverse and beautifully sculpted fountains. With its proximity to Paris and famous reputation, Versailles is visited by over 4 million people every year; however, the gardens are so extensive that even on busy days it’s possible to explore for a long time without encountering large crowds. A place of breathtaking, almost overwhelming, architectural and horticultural beauty, Versailles is certain to stand out in your memory long after your travels to France are completed.
The palace entrance is guarded by dazzling golden gates originally built to overawe the general populace and impress visiting aristocrats. They are also a reminder of just what can occur when a four year old succeeds to the throne and inherits absolute, deity-like power. At least that was the case of Louis XIV, also known as the Sun King or Louis Dieudonné (Louis, the God-given). His large-scale expansion of the opulent (and bankrupting) Versailles was a significant contributing factor in the long build-up to the French Revolution. But before those revolutionary days of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ there was the divine right of kings and the stunning residences they created.
As mentioned previously the gardens contain 55 fountains. The intrepid visitor can see them all, but the following are certainly the ones that you don’t want to miss. Note that the gardens are open all year round, but the fountains only operate during specific days and times from the beginning of April to the end of October. I’ve visited Versailles when the fountains were on and when they were off and, although the gardens will always be impressive, it’s really the water features that create such a special and memorable experience.
The Rocaille Grove
This circular enclosure of waterfalls is also known as Salle de Bal (Ballroom) for the dances and concerts that took place there during the reign of Louis XIV. If you examine the structure under the cascading water, you’ll notice that the whole base is made of seashells that were brought back from Africa by French explorers.
The Musical Mirror Fountain
The Mirror Fountain is located across from the peaceful English-style ‘King’s Garden’. At first glance, the Mirror Fountain appears to be just a small-scale version of the many ornamental pools created by Louis XIV to reflect his image (the sun). However, during operating hours the Mirror Fountain transforms from a reflecting pool into an enjoyable water display timed to classical music
The Apollo Fountain
This impressive fountain is centrally located at the lowest level of the terraced garden. A sculpture of the sun god, Apollo, with his chariot and horses, positioned as if they’re leaping right out of the water, are the central feature of the display. When combined with the surging water jetting high into the sky, the whole fountain conveys an image of explosive energy and power.
The Grove of the Three Fountains
The grove consists of three levels, each with a different style of fountain. All three fountains are beautiful on their own, but form a striking image when viewed together, either from the top or the bottom of the tiers. Aficionados of French culture will note that the jets of water in the lower fountain form a fleur-de-lis, the symbol of France.
The only downside of Versailles is the shortage of amenities (cafés, public toilets, an ice cream cart or two). There is a café in the palace ground floor as well as in the middle of the gardens, but the wait times are often prohibitively long. I did manage to obtain a sandwich from the little café in the palace, but it was quite the challenge with so many visitors converging at once (and all with differing cultural rules about ‘how to wait in a line’). A trip to Versailles is easily an all-day event, so you may want to bring your own snacks to avoid the hassle of overcrowded venues. On the other hand, there are several restaurants within short walking distance of the palace, including those serving traditional French cuisine for reasonable prices.
With the perfectly manicured vegetation, dancing fountains, soaring Vivaldi played over loudspeakers, and general sense of well-being, the modern palace administrators have exquisitely preserved the escapist and carefree attitude of the former royal residents. As stated by Victor Hugo in his series of essays, Choses Vues: Versailles is the magnificent binding of the magnificent book of French history (C’est avoir donné à ce livre magnifique qu’on appelle l’histoire de France cette magnifique reliure qu’on appelle Versailles)
To experience the Versailles gardens at their best, plan your visit for a day when the fountains will be operating during the spring, summer, or early autumn months.
Le Château de Versailles is located in the small town of Versailles, just twenty kilometres southwest of Paris. To get there: Take the suburban “RER C” train, which is accessible from the Paris Metro system.
Chateau de Versailles
Tel: 33 1 30 84 74 00
Written by and photos by Erin Connelly for EuropeUpClose.com