Day breaks early in France. Right at the beginning of the morning, just as it starts to get light. So early that itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s still yesterday at home in Seattle. And so with the breaking of dawn (who fixes that every day?) we got up, drank our worldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s best fresh orange juice, and went down to the lobby to meet with the rest of the group. Today we were also asked to bring our pin lanyards.
What? I havenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t talked about the pin lanyards yet? Well IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m still not going to. You need to wait for lunch. And itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s still just after breakfast.
Out front of the hotel our motor coach was triple parked and waiting for us in the center of the street. We all piled in (since we only take up about half the coach itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not much of a pile) and headed off for Versailles. On the way there we ran into another special Parisian traffic situation where a construction team had parked their truck on the non-parking side of the street and started to unload into the sidewalk, totally blocking our progress about 500 meters down a very long one way street. There was some brief polite negotiation, some slightly louder and (IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m guessing) less polite negotiation, a short bit of shouting, and then to everybodyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s surprise on the bus the construction guys moved their truck out of the way. My guess is that they were hourly workers, and figured that the act of moving the truck would take longer than the act of arguing until we backed up, so they opted for profit instead of victory, and moved. But IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m a cynic.
Back on our way, it wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t long until we were on the French version of a highway and started seeing signs for Versailles. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not just a gigantic palace. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a lovely little town on the outskirts of Paris; only about 25 kilometers drive from the center of the city. It has lovely tree lined streets and the sort of buildings you would expect extremely rich hangers-on would build as close to the royal palace as possible.
As you pull into the City of Versailles you drive down an easy hill on Avenue de Paris. About two kilometers from the Palace you make a gentle right turn and there, in the distance is a gigantic palace sitting in front of you. Only at this point you can still only see just the smallest portion of the original center palace.
When we pulled up to the street that crosses in front of the palace (the interestingly named Avenue de Rockefeller Ã¢â‚¬â€œ apparently theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve always been that rich) our bus stopped a bit early and let us out before it crossed the street and went into the car-park.
Instead of going with the bus, we stayed on our side of the street and went up to one of two gigantic buildings across the street (and let me point out that Ã¢â‚¬Å“Across the streetÃ¢â‚¬Â is still between 300 and 400 meters away). This, we were told, is a special treat; we will be going in to a dressage academe. Indeed, the gigantic building in whose courtyard we were standing was the royal stables. The identical building on the other side of the street was the petite stable. They are identical except for name.
Inside we were able to watch three extremely fit young equestrians training their horses to do things that horses donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t normally do, like walk sideways, prance, and high-step like a running back about to win the big game.
You can get a nice top view of the stables, the car park, and perhaps the palace off to the left, from Google maps here.
The inside of the Palace is lovely. Unfortunately theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re not wild about flash photography, and while everybody else seemed to be flashing away, our group was nice and took non-flash photos only, so our pictures are a bit on the dark side. The furniture – or what there is of it in the palace – is all recreations. During the revolution everything that wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t firmly attached was stolen, sold, or destroyed. Most of the palace was shut up for years, and only the very center portion has been restored. Our tour took us thru the KingÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s quarters, the central palace where official functions and parties would be held, and the QueenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s quarters. Finally we made it to what most people had been looking forward to, the hall of mirrors.
Down one side of La Galerie des Glaces are 17 magnificent arched windows that look out onto the Parterre d’Eau. Literally the Ã¢â‚¬Å“Water FloorÃ¢â‚¬Â, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s actually some of the most intricate fountain and garden work on the grounds. Across from each of the 17 windows are 17 identically sized mirrors that were made by a factory created in Paris to do just this job. At that time, silver nitrate and ammonia mirrors would have been fairly new technology, and evenly heating glass and spreading silver nitrate on it smoothly to create a perfect mirror would have been amazingly expensive, and astonishingly difficult. The effect of the hall on foreign dignitaries must have been spectacular.
The Hall of Mirrors ended our tour of the Palace, but not the grounds. We proceeded outside (Ã¢â‚¬Å“into the back yardÃ¢â‚¬Â, one of our group quipped) for lunch, and a tour of gardens. We walked thru the Petit Parc (only one kilometer Ã¢â‚¬â€œ hardly worth calling a parc at all!) to the edge of the Grand Parc to a wonderful little restaurant where we had lunch and were given our final pin.
This is where we show you the pins. Our lanyard started with one pin already on it, and we were given one pin each day, depicting the theme of the day:
- The Royal Treatment
- Jolly Holiday
- Crumpets to Croissants
- Drawn to Bohemia
- Parisian Palette
- High Society
Once lunch was finished, we were given free reign to tour the Parc. We could walk, or we could take bikes. Nearly everybody opted for the bikes. I was quite surprised at how much fun we had blasting around Louis the XVs gardens on a mountain bike. Beci and I had more fun than we ever expected. If you go, donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t pass up the bikes.
Being contrarians, we headed North, away from the lake, and toward the private domain of Marie Antoinette Ã¢â‚¬â€œ Le Petit Trianon and Le Petit Hameau, or the little hamlet (sometimes called Le Hameau de la Reine). Originally built by Louis XV, his son gave it to Marie Antoinette for a refuge from the pressure of court, and nobody, not even the king, was allowed to visit without an invitation. It is said that Marie liked to play at collecting eggs from the chickens and performing other mundane tasks in her little hamlet, and so every morning her staff would go out to the coops of le hameau and collect all the eggs, clean them all, and replace them in the nests, so that Marie would be able to collect fresh clean eggs when she arose in the late morning.
Note that there is an additional entry fee for Le Petit Trianon of about 12 Euro.
Once we finished with MarieÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s little playground, we rode past Le Grand Trianon and down to the lake. Short on time we sped around lake and handed our bikes back in. We had no worry about missing our bus though, as we had one of our tour guides with us. Beci is always thinking, she is.
The bus back to the hotel was relaxed, and we spent some time wandering around before we got back onto the bus and drove across the river into the Latin Quarter for our final dinner together. We had another fantastic private meal, this time in the premises of a chocolatier.
After dinner while we were all trading email addresses our Disney guides surprised us with a slide show of our trip. They had been taking pictures on their nifty little Kodak digital cameras the entire time, but I had no idea that they had put together a spiffy slide show for us that afternoon after we returned Versailles. Just one more bit of white glove treatment by two of the most wonderful guides that we have ever had the pleasure of traveling with.
And so our trip came to an end. Or the official part at least, because the next morning we are heading 45 kilometers east, to Disneyland Paris. I mean really, what else would we do?