Often imitated but never equaled, the ornate palace of King Louis XIV (the "Sun King") is a feast for the eyes and resonates with history. Within magnificent halls of Versailles, empires were founded, kingdoms collapsed and a world war ended.
The palace, known throughout the world as the epitome of extravagance, was built to be big enough to house the king and his court—more than 3,000 people—within a single building. No expense was too great: It was filled with marble sculptures, crystal chandeliers, gilded carvings and marquetry made of rare woods—whatever exalted the king by its beauty.
It fell into disrepair after the French Revolution, when it was looted and ransacked. The building was completely restored to its original grandeur only in the 20th century, with the help of a long list of donors (including John D. Rockefeller and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis). Linger a while in the historic—and huge—Hall of Mirrors (more than 230 ft/70 m long). It was there that Louis XIV entertained lavishly, Kaiser Wilhelm I was crowned Emperor of Germany after the Franco-Prussian War, and where the Treaty of Versailles was signed, ending World War I.
After seeing the interior of the palace, be sure to spend some time in the formal gardens, which are among the best in France. You'll see hidden groves, elaborately sculpted fountains and a small lake called the Grand Canal, where the royal gondolas were kept. (Nowadays, you can rent a rather plebeian rowboat there.) From the gardens, walk into the surrounding woods to visit the Grand Trianon (home to Louis XIV's favorite mistress, Madame de Maintenon) and the Petit Trianon (home-away-from-home for Queen Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI). The Trianons, much less crowded with tourists than Versailles, are just as ornate.
On the grounds of the Petit Trianon is Marie Antoinette's "hamlet," Hameau, a tiny enclave of thatched cottages complete with waterwheel, pond, stables and flocks of sheep. When the pressures of court life became unbearable, the queen and her entourage would escape to Hameau where they pretended to be simple country folk, dressing in peasant costume and tending the sheep.
The Grandes Eaux Musicales, the king's fountains, put on a lovely show, complete with accompanying music, on Saturday, Sunday and local holidays between April and October. Times vary, so check a local schedule. Versailles is only 15 mi/25 km west of the center of Paris and is easy to reach on a guided excursion, by rented car or by suburban train. (The trains go to the town of Versailles, where you transfer to buses for the trip to the palace.)
Although it's possible to visit Versailles in half a day, we suggest you spend the entire day there so that you'll have more time to enjoy what you're seeing. A note of warning: Versailles is one of the most visited sites in France and can be very crowded in the summer, especially on Tuesday when many museums in Paris are closed.
The chateau is open daily except Monday 9 am-5:30 pm (winter), 9 am-6:30 pm (summer), last admission 30 minutes before closing. Gardens, Marie Antoinette's Estate and Grand Trianon open daily. Entry fees vary depending on season, buildings visited and length of visit—ask about combined admission fees. Phone 01-3083-7800. http://www.chateauversailles.fr.
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