Thursday, September 11, 2014

Fancy France

I can understand why the French monarchy pissed off its citizens.

I'm a simple man. I like simple things. I'm not one for ornate designs and extravagance.

When I think of castles, I think of Medieval castles: fortresses with tall towers and big wooden gates. When I see palaces, I think, "Meh, needs fewer windows, more stone."

I love ruins.

So I wasn't overly enthusiastic when my family made the decision to spend a day at the Palace of Versailles. I mean, I knew we had to do it: it is a place that everybody who visits France must see, must experience it up close. It's a piece of history that has been preserved, even if the monarchy itself has been abolished.

Access to the palace and the gardens, including the Petit Trianon—Marie-Antoinette's private palace and pastoral gardens—were covered with our Paris Museum Pass (without the pass, we would have had to pay for the palace and gardens separately). And the kids' admission, of course, was free.

Because August is a busy month, we caught an early train to Versailles, to beat the major crowds, but it was still packed when we arrived. Lineups to the palace meandered through the front courtyard to the gates and beyond. And Versailles is one of those places where the Paris Museum Pass does not let you cut the line.

We chose to go to the Petit Trianon first. We rented a golf cart to drive to the far end of the gardens—we were travelling with a friend, so it took two trips to get all of us to the pond. My wife dropped the kids and our friend off, returned for me, dropped me off, returned the cart (it's rented by the hour), and then jogged back to join us. We picnicked by the pond and then made the short walk to Marie-Antoinette's retreat.

I have to say, I enjoyed the Petit Trianon far more than I did the palace. Sure, it was still bigger than my house, but as far as a queen's residence goes, it was fairly modest. The gardens were impressive, but it's the queen's hamlet that makes it. Sort of like the Upper Canada Village of the 18th century, the grounds hold farms, farm houses, ponds, and other structures that depict Marie-Antoinette's idea of pastoral life.

For a photographer, it's a great place to snap the day away.

We spent a couple of hours at the Petit Trianon and then took one of the mini trains back to the palace. The lineups for the trains are long and you can wait a long time, because you are at the mercy of someone getting off at your stop and making room for you. We waited about 45 minutes to get on, but once we were on it only took about 10 minutes to return to the palace.

By mid-afternoon, the line to the palace was shorter. No doubt, most of the crowds had already been through and were enjoying the gardens. We were inside in less than 15 minutes.

Despite the shorter line, the inside of the palace was still packed. The kids, while they liked what they saw—especially the Hall of Mirrors and the Battles Gallery—they didn't like being in the crush of people. (I think they liked the Battles Gallery because it was the only place where there was room to move.)

Our tour of the palace took us to within about 15 minutes of the grounds closing, so by then the crowds had largely disappeared. We had no trouble getting on the train back to Paris.

So, the kids liked the Petit Trianon and the hamlet (especially the rabbits and roosters—my wife says she'll never forget the rooster in the tree) and a couple of places in the main palaces where they couldn't see anything because of the crush of adults.

I, too, liked Marie-Antoinette's retreat. I like simple. I don't care for overly ornate furniture, paintings on ceilings, and glitter. I like castles rather than palaces.

But Versailles is a must-see attraction for any trip to France.

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