When bride-to-be Carole and I stepped onto an RER train in central Paris bound for Versailles on a foggy morning in late December (my second day there), we had
no idea that thousands of residents and visitors would be of like mind! This was to be my only excursion to a suburb of Paris, and I was curious to experience a historic site that many people had highly recommended that I see while in the City of Light.
But when we first arrived at the Palace of Versailles, we collectively gasped at the very long line of people patiently waiting their turn to enter ‘the State Apartments’ section of the grand complex. While I held a place in the queue, Carole went off to another line to buy our entrance tickets. We were both thankful that I was wearing my brightly coloured Rasta tam and canary yellow Canadian ski jacket, as it did prove to be highly helpful when she returned to the growing, moving line of darkly attired bodies and easily spotted me in the massive crowd.
While I waited for her, I gazed around me in complete astonishment. Yes, I had previously learned bits and pieces about Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’ (as my former professor at Alliance Française de la Dominique, Carole had introduced me to this memorable monarch!). But I had really no idea of his power, influence, personality or creativity until I ‘set foot’ on the grounds of his palace. Of course, the massive structure was not his doing alone. Obviously, the highly skilled and talented artists, artisans, sculptors, builders and landscapers of that era could design and construct beyond the capabilities of most people, I daresay, even in the 21st century!
After a three-hour wait, we finally approached the entrance way.
But after all that time spent shivering, a bathroom was my first priority, once inside. I trembled with the chill and was thankful that the sun started to shine (appropriately!) as I could not shake the feeling of cold that penetrated my very being. Thankfully, my lovely friend had gone off in search of food a little earlier, and brought back the most delicious sandwich I have ever tasted in my life! It was a warmed soft (tortilla) wrap, containing three types of mild, barely melted cheeses ( I recall Emmenthal as one of them), which were covered in a mildly piquant sauce. That quick meal succeeded in reducing the shivers and hunger pangs for a few hours!
Now that I was comfortable, I concentrated on the massive ‘rooms’ and ‘ornaments’ which were everywhere to be seen: in all directions, as well as above me. I quickly observed that many of the hundreds of people around me had their mouths open. I don’t think they were being intentionally rude: tilting one’s face upwards towards the decorated ceilings and then absorbing the stunning artistry of the paintings overhead
compelled visitors to “drop their jaws” in amazement and awe! I am not well versed in mythology, but anyone who is would truly delight in the depictions of the gods that Louis XIV preferred. It was truly incredible that this long-lived and long-reigned king had turned his father’s hunting lodge into such an opulent abode. It certainly defies the extent of my imagination and I know I am not alone, as evidenced by the thousands who viewed the site along with me that day.
Carole did make every effort to explain so many pertinent details to me. But I was so taken with the grandeur of the place that I could only nod, then gawk and gape some more! I simply marvelled at this structure and its elaborate contents. But I did also naïvely wonder how or if a building of such proportions with its elaborate artistic displays could ever be built in today’s world. The ‘Sun King’ certainly was a creative visionary, and he couldn’t have been worried about the cost of his mansion, even in the 17th century! There is definitely more to that story, so if you’re curious, I am sure you will search for the facts!
After more than an hour, I felt satiated by this artistic feast and was now in need of some fresh air. Carole suggested that we spend a little time in “the Gardens,” and I eagerly agreed. We found a little food hut that offered hot chocolate, so we sat down (finally) for about 20 minutes and sipped the sweetness, while giving our weary legs a much-needed rest from the many hours we had spent standing up!
After that little break, we both felt refreshed and decided to take a walk by the Fountains around the grounds, even though it was the middle of winter! We were not deterred, and as we walked around, I was mesmerized once again by the natural and created beauty: stone sculptures, fountains, the mile-long ‘ Grand Canal’ and perfectly pruned rows of trees. As I breathed in the fresh cool air, I became entranced with the stillness and the silence. It was late in the day,we were almost the only people there. Occasionally, a bird chirped or a runner passed beside us. Sometimes we spoke and other times we retreated to our private thoughts. My mind drifted to an earlier time: I could almost visualize Louis XIV and his court strolling around the grounds in any season to improve health and well-being. Our leisurely saunter took us along the small body of water to its opposite side. At this point, it was quickly becoming dark. When I glanced at my watch, I saw that we had been on the move for over an hour! There were no artificial lights, so we turned around and hastened our steps back to the Palace where we exited the gate and walked a short distance to take the train back to the city.
It had been a very long day and we were both pleasantly exhausted. As I look back on that magical experience, I realize how lucky I was to have had a good look and a new appreciation for the artistry of a fascinating time and place in France’s history!
*This piece is dedicated with gratitude to my dear friend and former French professor, newlywed Carole! XO
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Here is the second installment of Gwendominica’s adventures in Paris.