This past weekend, I embarked upon one of those bucket list adventures that is sure to land on every tourist’s list of Parisian to-do’s: Versailles. The Palace is rich in history and sits outside the western limits of Paris as a glorious monument to the magnificence of its commissioner, Louis XIV. If you know anything about Louis XIV, the infamous “roi du soleil” (“king of the sun”) who famously declared “L’etat, c’est moi,” (“the state is me”), the man made the construction of Versailles a top priority. Versailles was constructed where an old hunting lodge sat and saw renovations on a large scale with ornate details and expansive architecture. I have never seen so much gold in my entire life.
In the morning, I rolled out of bed a little bit tired. I met my friends at the RER station and, after boarding, quickly fell asleep on the aisle of seats that I had taken for myself. The train ride from the heart of Paris to Versailles is about 40 minutes long, depending on which station you depart from. The RER is difficult to navigate compared to the metro. Different trains on the same tracks will take you to different locations and, if you aren’t careful, you might end up at a stop in an entirely different destination than the one you had in mind. Versailles can get busy. In 2017, the palace received 7,700,000 visitors, making it the second-most visited monument in the Île-de-France region behind the Louvre (Report). With such a high volume of people, its best not to try your luck by showing up later than you intended.
Luckily though, the RER ride went smoothly and my friends and I groggily stepped outside of the train and into the swampy town of Versailles. Immediately, the scale of the town left me stunned. I didn’t know that Versailles was a town, not simply a palace. Louis XIV brilliantly forced the politically important to live near him in Versailles, so he could keep an eye on them and control them more directly. This political strategy for Louis led to the creation of one of the most beautiful (and expensive) neighborhoods I’ve ever seen. The wide boulevard from the train station to the palace is lined with gift shops, cafes and restaurants (though most were closed because I went on Sunday).
Walking into the Palace was another jarring experience. Architecture like Versailles, or really any of the grand structures strewn around Paris, can be seen in a million pictures and still never felt. Walking through the palace, observing the Corinthian orders of the columns extended onto the ceilings and taking in the paintings and sculptures which clothe every room and hallway, I truly felt Versailles. I felt the pompous Louis XIV strutting through the Hall of Mirrors, contemplating the flaws of the members of his court.
Then, I stepped outside and saw the Gardens. Perhaps even more stunning than the palace itself are the expansive and carefully planned gardens outside. The gardens took 40 years to fully complete and are filled with statues and walkways and snack shops (a new addition, I believe). The sun shimmered down in a friendly way, allowing for great lighting and opportunity for Instagram photos. My friends and I had a photoshoot by a large fountain in the center.
As I stood at the top of the stairs, basking in the famous view that I had seen in so many slideshows, history once again gripped me. These were the gardens where attendants of the King would rush in front of him to turn on the fountains, since the palace is too large to have all of them running at once. These were the gardens where Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI would walk, close to Le Petit Trianon where Antoinette would play peasant. These were also the very same gardens that were ransacked during the revolution, and marched on by starving women in the years leading up to it.
The size of the gardens and of the palace make this history seem fitting. Going to some of the quainter historical sites that lack the same grandeur is a different experience. Places like the tombs under the pantheon, where you can stand less than 10 feet away from the corpse of Voltaire and Rousseau at the same time, has a more intimate feeling. It is so personal and close that it nearly ceases to feel real. Versailles doesn’t have this intimacy; instead, Versailles slaps you in the face with an overpowering demand of awe and respect. It is impossible to stand atop the stairs at the gardens or to ogle around in the Hall of Mirrors or to walk up facing the façade of the palace and deny the incredible importance and aesthetic wonder that the structure contains. Versailles is a marvel of architecture and of history, and visiting is the only way to truly understand how surreal the place is.
After the palace, I went with my roommate to KFC. Yeah, that’s right, I went to KFC in Versailles. While in the moment the choice was less my own than it was my stomach’s, I’m glad I went. I was tired from a day of walking around, since Versailles is so large and the day was rather hot. I was famished, too, since I didn’t want to dish out five euros for a candy bar. As I tore into my bucket of fried chicken, I scrolled through my Instagram and realized how incredibly luxurious the moment was. In all of the absolutist dictations of the Bourbon kings, even the most demanding requests and expectations they held, not one of them had the ability to search for any information they could possibly want by twiddling their thumbs. Louis XIV was extremely powerful, but he could not have pressed a button on the wall and illuminated an entire room. Compared to the general population, who mostly had no access to restrooms of their own until the 20th century, my KFC meal for eight bucks would have been unheard of.