For King Louis XIV of France, size mattered. There is nothing small about the Palace of Versailles and its gardens. Along with size, there is also lots of bling. He built it purposely to impress and overwhelm, feelings that are as much a pat of a visit today as they were 350 years ago when the palace was built.
The palace and grounds are so large that trying to see it all in one day will be a whirlwind blur. But besides the vast size of the building and the gardens, it’s the extensive details of the artistry and craftsmanship inside and out, that make this such an amazing creation.
If first impressions are everything, then Louis XIV did it right with the blindingly bright, gold plated gates at the entrance to the main courtyard in front of the palace.
The decorations on the gate made it very clear who was in charge. Everyone who passed under the gates, also passes under a large gold plated crown, symbolic of the absolute monarchy that was, as Louis XIV believed, his by divine right.
Louis XIV adopted the symbol of Apollo the sun god as his personal symbol representing himself as the sun king. The symbol can be seen in the decor detail both inside and out.
Inside the palace, there are numerous painting and statues of Louis XIV. This bas-releif in the War Drawing Room is titled Louis XIV on Horseback Riding in Triumph over his Enemies. On either side are gold reliefs of prisoners in chains, leaving no doubt as to what happened to those he conquered.
As the sun god, gold was clearly the color of his monarchy. Not only did it show off wealth, but it also reflected light, brightening the space around him. Gold leaf on the walls and woodwork and gold thread in the fabrics are present in all the major rooms on view. When you enter the King’s bedchamber, there is no doubt about who slept there.
The most famous and undoubtedly the most breathtaking room in the palace, is the Hall of Mirrors. It is impressive not just for the mirrors that reflect the daylight from the windows which they parallel, but also for all the chandeliers which would have generated an impressive amount of light with all the candles burning in them at once. The chandeliers hang from a ceiling covered in murals that depict Louis XIV’s various military victories.
The Hall of Mirrors also has rows of large gold and crystal statues lining both sides of the room, adding to the reflective light.
Gold and mirrors are not dedicated just to the Hall of Mirrors. The Queens’s bedchamber has its share along with a flowery elaborate bed fit for a queen.
As big as the palace is, the gardens are even more extensive, covering an area of about 3 square miles of orderly, symmetric formal gardens, sculptures, ponds, a canal, and many, many fountains. The gold theme continues in the garden, with many of the fountains gleaming brilliantly in the sunshine.
The most impressive fountain has to be the gilded Fountain of Apollo where the horses look as if they are about to spring out of the water and gallop away.
Louis XIV ruled France for 72 years and left a far reaching legacy, even to the Americas. In the French colonies in America, the Mississippi River was discovered and followed to the Gulf, and the lands of the Mississippi basin were claimed in his name and called Louisiane. But 300+ years after his death, his most lasting and famous legacy remains the Palace of Versailles.
Versailles is an easy train station ride from Paris. The most straight forward way to get there is to take the RER line 5 from central Paris to the Versailles-Rive Gauche station, and then walk five minutes to the palace. Buy a round trip ticket in Paris to avoid the line for purchasing train tickets at Versailles. While I have visited Versilles as day trips from Paris, one day I hope to have the time to stay in town near the palace so that I can explore the vast gardens at leisure and also take advantage of performances and evening events.
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