The "City of light" is undoubtedly one of the world's most beautiful and fascinating cities - you could spend a lifetime here and not see everything that Paris
has to offer. An easy day trip from Paris is to the Palace of Versailles, one of Europe
's most spectacular and largest royal homes. Versailles is about a 30 minute train ride from the center of the city.
King Louis XIV – the "Sun King" - commissioned the palace in 1668 as well as the spacious and beautiful gardens. At one time, almost 2200 men were employed on its construction, which took almost fifty years. The small town of Versailles became the unofficial capital city of the Kingdom of France
in 1682, when Louis XIV decided to transfer his court to Versailles. All subsequent French monarchs lived there until the revolution.
At the height of its power, the Palace at Versailles was well known for its lavish banquets, parties and entertainment. It's estimated that around 3000 people lived at Versailles, which was perhaps necessary as one of the many duties of the servants was to hold the ermine robe of the king!
Versailles remained a royal residence until 1789 when a mob marched on the palace and forced the king and queen - Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette - to return to Paris. The turbulent events that followed became known as the French revolution. There were even calls to demolish Versailles - fortunately, this was prevented by then king Louis-Philippe, who turned it into a museum, using much of his own money.
To visit Versailles today is to enter a world of splendor and excess - the entire palace is decorated with marble, stone, gold leaf and wood carvings. The first floor of Versailles contained the elegant main bedrooms and other rooms; while the private rooms of the king and queen overlooked the inner courtyard, known as the Marble Courtyard.
There are some highlights of Versailles that shouldn't be missed – a good place to start any visit is the six bedroom suites known as the Grands Appartements. As with everything else at Versailles - each bedroom is magnificently decorated and each one is named after a painting on the ceilings.
The state rooms were dedicated to Olympian figures and in one of these rooms - the Hercules Salon - you can see the largest and most ornate fireplace in the entire palace, carved from a single slab of marble. The body of Louis XIV was put on display in the Hercules Salon after his death in 1715.
The famous Hall of Mirrors recently underwent a huge restoration project in 2006 – the largest cultural sponsorship program ever undertaken in France. The hall, with its 17 great mirrors facing the windows, is probably the best known room in Versailles, and measures an impressive 236 feet from end to end.
The Hall of Mirrors was designed by Mansart in 1678 and was originally designed to be used as a conference room. It's also seen more than its fair share of history – this is where the treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, after the end of World War I. And the German Empire was proclaimed there in 1871.
The clock room at Versailles contains a famous astronomical clock, which took 20 years to construct. It's a good opportunity to set your watch – the clock is supposedly designed to accurately keep time until the year 9999! Mozart performed in this room for the royal family on several occasions, while he was only 7 years old.
There are two separate smaller buildings in the grounds, known as the Grand and Petit Trianons. The Petit Trianon boasts some ornately decorated woodwork, while in contrast, the Grand Trianon is constructed from lovely pink and white marble. Guests visiting Versailles would often use the buildings as lodging houses.
Marie Antoinette also supposedly used them as a peaceful retreat from the somewhat hectic palace life. And more recently, other important people have enjoyed the lavishly furnished houses - President Nixon once slept in the Grand Trianon on a state visit to France.
The gardens at Versailles, designed by the Royal gardener Andre le Notre are almost as spectacular as the palace and are so large they can be toured by train or horse-drawn carriage. The gardens make a great place for a picnic lunch – and to escape the crowds of visitors. Look for the delightful fountains – a reminder of the more than 1000 fountains that could be found during the palace's heyday.
One of the highlights is a mile long Grand Canal - oriented to catch the rays of the setting sun, where King Louis would enjoy gondola rides. And the Royal Stables have been recently renovated and are once again open to the public. The huge stables once were home to 600 of the king's horses – today they are home to 20 beautiful Lusitanian horses from Portugal.
One thing that strikes visitors is the total symmetry of the gardens – everything was carefully designed and laid out along a main axis. Trees were carefully pruned for effect and flower beds close to the palace were placed so as to be visible from the upper floors. Completing the overall effect are two ornamental pools surrounded by sculptures representing French rivers.
Frequent programs of classical music take place in the gardens during the summer. But a spectacle not to be missed is the event called the "Dreams of the Sun" which occurs occasionally. These festive presentations feature fireworks and music, as well as 200 actors dressed in period costume. And as a memorable finale to your visit, be sure to linger at Versailles until around dusk when the palace is beautifully floodlit.
Versailles remains one of the most popular attractions in Europe. During the 18th century, its style influenced many other European homes and palaces. A visit here will transport you back to the days of Louis XIV and give you a unique insight into French history.