To enjoy the best of Versailles Palace and Gardens, you must spend the day at the estate. There’s so much to see and wander through outside the palace, I have to liken the garden to a deck of playing cards: each grove is a face card, replete with unique features, attitude, and responsibility; the paths are the numbered cards, grouped as runs, pairs, or triplets.
The towering Dutch elms you see above in sepia tones captures the Old World austerity of the estate. Yes, the palace and chateau are models of grand tastes and kingly ostentation. (The ultimate reason the people rose up to take control of their destiny, perhaps?) The gardens, though, have a military air to them, divisions of symmetrical groves, shaped into geometrical symmetry. You can stand in a grove and sense that at any moment a troop of soldiers can come charging past on maneuvers, everything fixed but their bayonets.
The Versailles palace and estate are in the Parisian suburb of Versailles. The train from Paris takes only 25 minutes, then a five-minute walk leads you right through the front gates. The palace tour will take you through using an audioguide in about an hour and a half. It’s worth the extra money to buy a ticket from the website, through your hotel or hostel, or from a broker just outside the train station. This ticket will let you bypass the lines snaking out towards the parking lot. When you’re on vacation, time isn’t money, but time is time, and we all have little enough of that these days to waste it on holiday by standing in lines.
So…the palace: filled with paintings, original furniture, lots of silk & gold embroidered curtains, scenes from mythology painted on the ceilings, tons (literally) of statues celebrating French kings and queens, and—oh, yeah—that Hall of Mirrors is … reflective. Now lets get some fresh air and wander the gardens.
The estate is so vast that the French tourist industry will rent you an electric golf cart to get around. It’s a great idea for disabled people, and to beat the heat. I think it defeats the purpose of a garden, though. But the idea of how King Louis XVI or Marie Antoinette might find tourists buzzing around their private playground makes seeing a cart whiz by worth a smile.
The formal flower gardens sit right behind the palace, as a top level to greater estate and gardens that unfold north nearly a mile. They spread left and right, bordered by the huge Swiss reflecting pond and Neptune’s Basin. I think this is the garden at its most resplendent: colors galore, topiary, winding boxwood borders, giant goblet planters, fountains, pools, and a view north across the Grand Canal that really gives visual punch behind anyone’s idea of “palace estate.” You can (and probably will) walk through these eight groves for an hour, and you’ve only scratched the surface of this “park.”
When you walk down to the lower level, you come upon the geometric groves that, like the palace interior, use Greek mythology in their decoration (statues, mostly). I like this left side (as you walk toward the canal) of the gardens much more than groves along the right half because they tell more of a story and have more photogenic qualities—statues, pools, colonnades, manicured hedges. The Jardin du Roi (King’s Garden) is a particularly impressive grove that opens onto a huge oval lawn facing the Mirror Basin.
What I found disappointing was the lack of chairs or benches. There are miles of crushed stone paths to walk, and no places to rest or, more importantly, immerse yourself in this beautiful theater. Perhaps the Versailles tourist board (or whomever) thought seats would upset the historical design. That doesn’t do anything for my legs or added appreciation of the estate—nor for the other few thousand people wandering through the gardens. To be fair, all the fountains have raised stone pools that you can rest your butt on for a bit.
(read more about Versailles Gardens highlights here)