Versailles was on my list of top sites in France. We spent several nights in Paris and then drove east to Normandy. Versailles is roughly a half hour outside of Paris, conveniently located exactly on the way to Normandy. [It’s possible to see Versailles during a stay in Paris, however. You can take the train or you can sign up for a bus tour.] Since we were renting a car and it was on the way, we decided to head directly there the morning we left Paris.
Getting to Versailles
Somehow, our visit to Versailles ending up being about motor vehicles and rudeness more
than anything else – bear with me through my tale to find out why.
Our morning started out with the cab ride (motor vehicle incident #1) from our Paris hotel to the car rental at the airport. Our driver insisted (French rudeness #1) he could not take us to the actual rental lot and wanted to drop us and our mound of luggage at the airport, from where we would have to take a shuttle to the rental lot. Fortunately my husband was able to finally convince him to drive onto the lot (which was no problem – I guess cabbies aren’t used to taking people to car rental lots) and we were able to get our car and go.
Versailles is just outside a town and when you pull up to it you kind of wonder if this is really it, because it looks like city. And it also does not appear all that elegant from the roadside. It’s all stone and there is no lush landscaping anywhere you can see.
There is a parking lot conveniently in front of the palace. In my trip preparation I had read that there have been some break-ins in this lot, so I was sufficiently paranoid about leaving all of our possessions in the van, but we had no choice. My husband parked the van by backing it into a spot right on an aisle, thinking it would make the car very visible and also making it hard for anyone to open the trunk. The lot is also extremely open – just a bare piece of pavement in front of the chateau so nothing is hidden.
Welcome to the Lines
We headed into the front courtyard where we were confronted by a huge mass of people. It
was 9:30 on a Sunday. The place had just opened at 9 am. We had purchased our tickets online so we did not have to go into a building on the left to buy tickets. It appeared most of the world also had pre-purchased tickets )there was no line to buy tickets, only to get in).
The Versailles people need to meet the Disney people. When you go to Disney there are orderly lines that feel very regular and controlled. They also have mastered the trick of having you wait in one line, then letting you move forward tp where there is a second line, so at least you feel like
you’re making progress. At Versailles there is ONE line. And it is a long, long line. It snaked through the courtyard. There are no signs, no ropes, and no guidance for this line. It just forms wherever it wants (French rudeness #2). When you enter the courtyard you have no idea where the end of the actually is and it takes quite a while to figure it out. There is a separate entrance for tour groups, but all of the tour groups remained in the main line and no one used that entrance.
We stood in this line for 2 hours. 2 hours. And somehow we ended up smack in the middle of a group tour from Asia (rudeness #3 – not French but we’re counting it!). The members of this tour group seemed to think we were invisible and leapfrogged back and forth around us, in front of us and behind us, all the while smacking us in the face with the umbrellas they were using to shield themselves from the sun. There was also a woman who was reading a book and felt it to be completely appropriate to simply lean back against whoever was behind her, namely us. There was only one security guard in evidence and he was not interested in organizing or policing the line in
After our two hours in the sun, we finally made it into the palace. Yes, it’s fabulous. Yes, it’s outrageous, but after a two hour wait, I didn’t have much energy to be amazed. The Hall of Mirrors is beautiful and Marie Antoinette’s apartment is stunning. This is opulence times 50. The fabric wallpapers, the draperies, the chandeliers, the furniture, the paintings, the beautiful ceilings all overwhelm. It is breathtaking and you can’t help but wonder how they thought they could get away with living this way (and obviously they didn’t – you can see the hidden door through which Marie Antoinette escaped when she was told of the revolution). It’s hard to fathom how big and crazily over-the-top this place is without seeing it with your own eyes.
However, the place is practically wall to wall tourists. It was hard to see anything at all since there was always someone in front of us – and most of these people will not give an inch. They act like they own the place (rudeness #4 – again generally not French, but we’re counting it). There are virtually no bathrooms to be found. There was one set in a courtyard, with an extremely long line. This bathroom was guarded by a French madame who had decided she was in charge of hygiene. Not only did she direct you to a stall, but I saw her march not one, but two children to the sink and force them to wash their hands. She also had harsh words for anyone who dared to block the doorway (rudeness #5)
We had a quick lunch at the sandwich and salad stand inside the chateau. The only other food option is the Angelica fine dining room (we dined at Angelica at the Galleries Lafayette in Paris, and I will be writing about that). There aren’t many choices, but at 11:30 we beat the crowds nicely.
Outside the Palace
Then there are the outlying areas of the estate. There is a tram (motor vehicle #2) that takes you there for a separate price. Of course there is a long line for it. And the tram itself drives amazingly slowly, however the people who were walking looked at it, clearly realizing that no matter how slow it was, it was faster than walking because it is a LONG way back to the other areas. The tram was not only torturously slow, but it was cramped and we ended up near an American who felt the need to sit in front of us and discuss our shoes (“THOSE are cute, but they look like they would hurt. I wish I could get Scott to wear shoes like THOSE.” – rudeness #6, not French, but still annoying). She also talked incessantly and loudly so we knew every single detail about her entire family by the time we escaped the tram.
We headed back to the Petit Trianon, a small home and garden where Marie Antoinette spent most of her time since she found Versailles to be too much like a city. Honestly it was nothing worth seeing – a few rooms and an unkempt garden with a small Roman-style shrine. And it definitely was not worth the slow tram ride and the 45 minute wait to catch the interminable tram back to the palace.
There is a pretty fantastic man-made grand canal (1670 meters long) that runs through the property. The king used to have naval spectacles and gondolas on it. Now there are rowboats you can rent.
There are several gift shops scattered throughout the palace. I didn’t find anything amazing
to buy. I grabbed a few bookmarks and a magnet. My daughter got a pencil case. It was disappointing to be in a place so beautiful and to find nothing equally beautiful to bring home.
The Real Story
You’ve read this far and wondered why I titled this piece as I did. Even though our visit to the chateau was complete, our time there was not. We left the palace around 2 pm, completely exhausted and looking forward to a leisurely drive to Giverny, our next stop. I was still slightly worried about break-ins. We got to our van to find it had not been broken into. Instead, it had been completely parked in on all sides. Several cars (including a BMW directly in front of us – motor vehicle #3) had decided to create a new row directly in front of our car, so there were three rows of cars with ours being in the middle row. Someone had parked on the aisle side of our car as well and people had parked in front and behind of them. We were completely surrounded by cars on all four sides. [This and what follows is rudeness #6-#453] These cars arrived after we did and we had no way of knowing then they arrived or when they would be leaving. Versailles was open for several more hours and we were faced with the prospect of a long, hot wait in the parking lot, as our available time to spend in Giverny ticked away.
My husband found one of the parking attendants. He shrugged the ubiquitous French shrug and raised his palms to the sky. Not my fault, not my problem. When pressed, he said it happens nearly every day. He can do nothing. Two more attendants came over. Although they initially seemed to find it funny, they agreed with my husband about the ridiculousness and tried to look for solutions. My husband walked back to the chateau entrance and the people working there told him the lot was not owned by the chateau and was a private lot. Not their problem. <shrug> They had no PA system over which they could ask someone to move a car (handy to know – if Versailles is burning, no one is going to tell you).
There was a group of police vans gathered outside the lot. My husband walked over to them to ask for help. “Parlez-vous Anglais?” “Non”. Clearly they did though because when he asked where to get help (en Anglais) they told him to walk 10 blocks to the police station. And they shrugged. Not our problem. They laughed as he walked away.
By this point, the two helpful attendants had started trying to push a small car diagonal to us out of the way while my husband spoke loudly, heatedly, and with great emotion to the head attendant. As this happened, a French couple in the illegal third row (several cars down the row from ours) came out and got in their car and laughed at our predicament. I am pretty sure they shrugged a few times for good measure.
At this point, my husband may have suggested getting a jack and using it to move the BMW in front of us (that had purposely, without caring at all parked us in – and most likely shrugged as they did so). He may have suggested using our car to push the BMW out of the way. He may have wondered how the owner would feel to find his car keyed, with tires deflated or a very detailed note about what we thought of them left under their wipers. I may have made a show of crying in frustration. My children may have appeared hungry, hot, thirsty, emotionally disturbed, and cranky. I may have appeared to feel faint in the heat and from the stress. My husband may have acted Italian with flailing of arms and many hand gestures. People in the lot may have looked (and shrugged). The words we will always remember this day by are when my husband told the attendant he was going to cause “an international incident” if this wasn’t solved.
We were in luck however. The people from the car directly next to us came out and left (shrugging). We were able to execute a 30 point turn and squeeze our van out. My husband explained to the attendant that the least he could do was waive the parking fee (he did) and suggested that perhaps in the future he ought to police his own lot or at least paint some lines on the pavement so people would not feel they could park anywhere they wanted (Ah, mais non <shrug>). In the end, there was no international incident, just a family that will never, ever return to Versailles ever again no matter what. <shrug>
Versailles was on my list of top sites in France. We spent several nights in Paris and then drove east to Normandy. Versailles is roughly a half hour outside of Paris, conveniently located exactly on the way to Normandy. [It’s possible to see Versailles during a stay in Paris, however. You can take the train … Read more