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When Louis XIV was pondering over how to create the most magnificent palace the world had ever seen, one that truly showed off his glory and absolute power, he can’t have had any idea just how many people would tread in his footsteps and gaze in wonder at his legacy. The Chateau of Versailles is world famous but I promise you, nothing you see on the TV or in photos prepares you for the sheer absolute golden glitz and glamour of the real thing. It’s been on my bucket list for years, decades even, so when I got the chance to visit on a four-day guided tour, spending three days at Versailles and ending with a day at the chateau of Vaux le Vicomte, the inspiration for Versailles, I was over the moon. I went with The Cultural Travel Company, an offshoot of Martin Randall Tours well known for their gifted guides, and it was without a doubt everything I’d hoped for and more. Three days is just about enough to get a really in depth, insider view of the palace, gardens and town - and with this tour you get access to areas that the general public don’t. The best bit though for me, was having a guide who really knew the history and details of Versailles so well. In this case it was Tony Spawforth, the editor of a fascinating book about Versailles, TV presenter, historian and terrific storyteller. His anecdotes of life at the castle and knowledge of history married to day to day life, the ordinary things that people did during extraordinary times, made the visit come to life in a truly special way. The Chateau of Versailles 700 rooms, 1250 chimneys, 67 staircases and 2000 windows – the chateau of Versailles is monumental, a colossus of a building. It was originally six storeys high, but the top layers were levelled off in the 19th century.
Versailles has two facades - the Paris side and the garden side. The Paris side is approached by three wide avenues. They converge on Places des Armes which, once a parade ground, was paved over in the 19th century. We all know it for its shimmering view of the castle through golden gates, but in Louis XIV’s time it was an important military palace and he loved to review troops here. Underneath the courtyard are the barracks where the guards lived in a whole other underground world. It was said that the smell from the soldiers latrines was so bad that a layer of mastic was smothered under the cobble stones - it was apparently only partially successful. The whole place was bristling with troops, this was the seat of government and monarchy, security was paramount. Though, as we all know, it wasn’t up to the job. During the French Revolution the famous golden gates were ripped down. It might surprise you to know that they were only replaced with accurate reconstructions in the 1980s. You can see an original gate still though - at the Potager du Roi, the king’s vegetable garden, which is a short walk from the palace and a must see if you’re in Versailles. Read more about it here on The Good Life France website. The gates were important, they defined different areas, administration, residential and the inner court. “If you didn’t have the right clothes on, you didn’t get in, though you could rent outfits at the palace” says Tony. Guards as fashion police – forward thinking Versailles style. If you’re lucky you’ll get to see the guts of the castle in rooms where there is ongoing work, the brick walls and ancient beams behind the glitzy facade. It’s a reminder of the reality of this place and how what you see is a façade. The beautiful wood panelling on the walls is detachable, during WWII it was removed and hidden in a coal mine in the Pyrénées.
Photo copyright Patrick Aventurier
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