Situated on an elevated plateau surrounded by wooded hills, Versailles has long played the role as the unofficial capital of France ever since King Louis XIV moved his royal court to the city in 1682 to escape the Paris he dreaded. Today, Versailles is famous worldwide for its main attraction, the Château de Versailles – one of the most unforgettable sights found anywhere and one of the guiltiest displays of lavishness and extravagance the world has ever witnessed. Over three million tourists each year visit this royal palace, the crown jewel of France. Versailles, however, is also the perfect gateway to visit southwestern Ile-de-France, a region that includes Chartres and Dreux among its storied destinations.
Versailles started out as a feudal settlement in the early 11th century run by lords who were directly under the King of France. The settlement’s fertile farmlands and its location on the road from Paris to Normandy brought prosperity to it. Like other European communities, Versailles was hit hard by the Black Plague in the 14th century, which was followed soon after by the Hundred Years’ War; the two events nearly wiped out the village.
In the 16th century, the seigneury of Versailles was purchased by the Gondi family. Gondi invited King Louis XIII many times in the early 1600s to hunt in the forests of Versailles. Eventually, the king purchased the seigneury from Gondi altogether and built a castle there. His son, Louis XIV inherited the plot and decided to move his royal court there after his experience as a captive in the Fronde civil war made him weary of Paris and Parisians. The king drew up plans to transform the castle he inherited from his father into a grand palace. After it was completed, Louis XIV moved his court permanently to Versailles and many who were close to political power followed suit. In fact, he forced nobility to spend time at his palace to prevent them from gaining too much regional power. The village of Versailles soon transformed into a major suburban city at the forefront of leading architectural and design trends. In 1789, a mob from Paris invaded the Palace of Versailles and forced King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, to move back to Paris, signaling the end of the city’s reign as capital.
In the 19th century, Versailles’ population dwindled and only regained a breath of life in the 1870s when the Paris Commune forced the French government and parliament to move back to Versailles temporarily. In 1919, the city was the setting for the treaties negotiated and signed to end WWI. Since then, Versailles has transformed into a major suburb of Paris, absorbing the latter’s population overflow.
Almost everyone who visits Versailles comes to lay feast on one of the most luxurious palaces in the world – the Château de Versailles. This magnificent complex once served as the home of Louis XIV, Louis XV, Louis XVI and his ill-fated Marie Antoinette. This feature attraction is open daily except on Mondays. Be prepared to experience a strange mixture of amazement yet disgust upon realizing the sheer obscene opulence indulged in by the monarchical residents of its day.
Not too far from the Château de Versailles are the Gardens of Versailles, covering a stretch of 250 acres. This French formal park was designed by the landscape artist, André Le Nôtre, and you’ll find its 1,400 fountains seem to accompany so matrimonially with the canals, lakes, statues, and flower beds that have been calculatingly located throughout.
If you travel a mile and half ahead, you’ll find the long Grand Canal and Petit Canal that Louis XV used to take gondola rides up and down with his many lovers. The Grand Canal leads to the Petit Canal which streams its way to the Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon; these two confines used to serve as retreats for the king and queen, whenever they longed nothing more than to escape the uptight manners and etiquettes that were part and parcel with life in the royal palace.
Further out from the Trianons is Hameau, the hamlet created by Marie Antoinette. This refuge that she built somehow holds a curious door into the beheaded queen’s psyche. While criticized in her day for her mindless indulgence in luxury, this retreat appears to be compelling evidence of her desire for nothing more than a simpler and more modest life – if true, a tragedy Shakespeare might appreciate.
The place to shop in Versailles is the secret Passage de la Geôle, a cobbled alley that is lined with antique shops and also leads to the Place du Marché-Notre-Dame. This is a regionally-renowned open air market that sets up shop in the mornings on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. Its 19th century halls sell meats and spices of all kinds.
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