For the glory
The French seem to be very proud of Versailles, which I find curious. It’s the palace and gardens that housed the French monarchy for a little over a hundred years, up until the King and Queen were kicked out in 1789 and got their heads placed on the guillotine at the Place de la Concorde. The palace came to represent, and still represents, the ancien régime—a regime dominated by extravagance and absolute, corrupt (and pretty useless) power. And yet less than 50 years later after Marie Antoinette hit the grave, it was declared that Versailles would become a museum to show “all the glories of France.” Oh, that allure of power and wealth! But hey, it is really pretty:
I finally got around to visiting the grounds last Sunday, after already being in Paris for 10 months. Things are like that though—I finally went to the Louvre last month, and only after I was basically forced to because I got a free tour and a zero-wait time out of it. But really, do I want to spend the entirety of my Saturday or Sunday around swarms of Americans, waiting in line to see stuff that in and of itself isn’t really as interesting as a whole lot of other things that have zero swarms and zero wait time? (More on this type of opportunity cost later, if I ever get around to writing some version of a Paris guide on this blog). So I’ve been putting Versailles off, “until the spring when things are pretty and nice again.”
I ended up having very similar feelings to the place as I did to that of the Louvre: happy I went, happy to have it over with. I wasn’t so impressed with the actual palace itself (“it’s really just room after room” “the French really like their gold—they’re not very good with moderation, are they?” “Really, they should’ve just put in hallways, would’ve made it easier than having to walk through every single room”) but the gardens were actually seriously cool. The “backyard” is a view of fountains and a long, rectangular lake set on a slow decline that make it look majestic and calming at the same time. Statue after statue of ancient greek gods with some classical music playing in the background helped things, too. And guys, these “gardens” are immense—I think I walked somewhere around 6 or 7 miles that day by the time I left the Versailles grounds.
The north-east corner of the gardens, dedicated to Marie Antoinette’s “Hamlet” as well as the weirdly-shaped pink marble Trianon buildings that housed Marie Antoinette and later Napoleon I in the 1800s, was probably my favorite part. It was cool to imagine that Austrian lady prancing around, hiding from her husband and who knows what other real-world responsibilities that waited for her in the main palace (this is not intended to have a self-righteous, reproachful tone to it—after all, I think the type of person that goes off to Paris to become an au pair for a year knows a thing or two about escaping reality).
It seems to be well agreed upon that she and her husband Louis XVI were pretty worthless rulers, but hey, we have to at least credit them for setting that fire under the French people to have the confidence to completely gut their government and start afresh with nothing but the ideals of égalité, fraternité and liberté to back them. And, for what it’s worth, it’s often said that it was Antoinette who brought croissants to France from her home in Vienna. Which is really just so fitting—Marie Antoinette, once loved and hated and now loved again for everything she helps France represent.
“For all the glories of France” — France, the country who has as an intense fascination for all things gilded in gold as it does for holding strikes in the street to protest inequality. It might have served just as well to write up there on that entrance to Versailles a line from Rousseau: “Man is born free, and everywhere in chains.”