A Garden of Eden at Versailles

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by marif on April 20, 2012

Touring the magnificent interior of the palace for hours has left me breathless for two reasons. There are so many works of art to see and so many historical facts to grasp that a complete tour of the palace is a real feat of endurance. In addition to this, I was physically exhausted after a three-hour walk along extensive passageways between rows of exhibits in the midst of a constant flow of visitors.

The redeeming factor is the vast chateau gardens, hundreds of hectares of leafy grounds, ornamental lakes and water canals on which you would probably have looked through one of the windows of the Hall of Mirrors. The view from here stretches out as far as the horizon but lacks the exceptional details that make the chateau gardens at Versailles an exquisite place to revitalise your weary bones and recharge your mind.

To do justice to this meticulous green landscape of stately avenues, manicured lawns and patterned beds of blooming flowers, one needs at least two days or possibly three. To explore exhaustively and at leisure all the tempting nooks and hideaways that characterize this extensive space of natural topography, one needs to come here more than once.

As expected, my first visit followed immediately after the tour of the palace. Exiting from a back door, I found myself on an elevated stone-paved platform from where I could figure out the whole stretch of waterways that break up the main avenue into two wide gravel-covered walkways. A veritable portrait-pretty scene that invigorates your senses and pushes you to commence your tour.

I knew from the start that I couldn’t walk around and explore the gardens in their totality in just a couple of hours. So I decided to get a good orientation today and then come again tomorrow. The domineering French-style landscaped gardens sit on an elevated zone that progressively slopes down towards the Grand Canal. This exquisite Garden of Eden is unquestionably one of the major attractions at Versailles. Divided by elegant gravel passageways that run between rows of geometrically designed flower beds, bushes of roses trimmed to the finest detail and ornamental hedging plants, it is a perfect garden layout that reflects the skill and artistic capability of Andre Le Notre, the designer responsible for the set-up in the days of Louis XIV. To enhance this colourful display of flowers and greenery, elegant marble statues on pedestals were introduced here and there as a symbolic expression of beauty and splendour.

Taking the imposing stairway bordered by rows of more marble statues, I climbed down to a lower level that is distinguished by two wide avenues, separated from each other by the Grand Canal, a sixty-two-metres wide waterway that extends westwards towards the Grand Parc. These slightly sloping avenues are bordered with rows of manicured trees and dotted with hand-sculpted marble statues, most of which represent personalities from Greek or Roman mythology. It is not advisable to examine each and every statue although every one is an artistic monument worthy of note in its own right. But to look into the details of each takes time and it is impossible to do so in one or two visits.

Walking westwards, one soon comes across an exceptional water pond named after Apollo, the sun god and the main personality in the monumental cluster of statues that embellish the centre of the fountain. Apollo’s chariot pulled by four rearing horses and surrounded by Tritons emerging triumphantly out of the water is a monumental focus of attraction. The persistent throngs of people and tourist groups watching and poring over the details bear evidence to the beautiful artistic composition of this fountain.

Almost 800 metres further west from the Apollo fountain, the Grand Canal and its bordering avenues are interrupted by the Petit Canal, another waterway that crosses the Grand Canal at right angles and stretches out 500 metres on each side. The wide walkways that circumscribe the point of intersection are adorned with collections of statues that are among the most imposing and inspiring within the entire gardens of Versailles.

Walking along one arm of the Petit Canal for about 20 minutes, I was greeted by a miniature palace, a single-storey pink marble structure located within a graceful garden setting filled in with fragrant flowering plants and thousands of hardy perennials. By now I was running for time and I decided to revisit this place tomorrow. So I decided to walk back along the other side pathway of the Petit Canal towards the Grand Canal. Resuming my walk westwards, I finally reached the westernmost end of the main axis of the park where I came across a hive of activity. It was a warm summer’s day in September and so groups of people were getting ready to board a rented paddleboat for a ride over the water. Tens of paddleboats were geared up to start their journey along the Grand Canal and its transversal branches. Likewise, Louis XIV and his favourite ‘madame’ sailed in gilded gondolas on the waters of the Grand Canal joined by preferred court officials.

After a quick glance at the decorative features of the octagonal fountain that dominates the end section of the Grand Canal, I embarked on my way back wandering down the long grand avenue on the other side of the waterway. By now, most visitors were walking back towards the palace and most side paths and hidden alcoves within sight were almost devoid of people. On reaching the Apollo fountain, it was almost dark and so I made my way with haste towards the grand stairway that leads to the landscaped garden from where I found my way out. Conscious of many hidden groves, fountains, ornamental lakes and sculptures I missed, I was adamant to come again tomorrow.

I started early as soon as the gates to the gardens were opened. Admission is free and visitors can go into the gardens without buying an entry ticket for the palace. However, to set your eyes on the sumptuous interior furnishings of the three main palatial outbuildings that are scattered apart along different spots of the gardens, one needs an entry ticket. Combination tickets that allow entry to the palace and the outbuildings are sold on line from the chateau’s website. However, for 10 euro, one can also buy a separate ‘Trianon ticket’ that allows admission to the outbuildings only. Such tickets are also available on line or at entrance A or conveniently at the ticket office adjacent to the Grand Trianon.

The souvenir shop on the ground floor of the palace sells clear-cut plans of the gardens and it is advisable to lay your hands on a copy before you start your tour. With plan in hand, I took the north pathway towards Neptune’s fountain, a gigantic artificial pool whose beautiful centrepiece depicts the sea god Neptune upheld by his wife and other surrounding mythological personalities amidst waves of sea creatures and twisting plants.

One of the pathways that emerges from here is bordered with lime trees and leads to an arboretum of exotic plantations. Before long, I reached the Bosquet du Dauphin, a forested hideaway that embraces a graceful fountain embellished with a central dolphin-like creature gushing forth jets of water. A maze of unadorned secondary pathways took me to the Bosquet des Bains d’Apollon, another secret out-of-sight romantic cave-like setting that houses clusters of statues related in some way or another to the sun god Apollo. Not to be missed is the grand group of statues that depicts six posing sea nymphs nurturing Apollo.

I soon reached the delightful gardens of the Grand Trianon. This pink marble colonnaded structure standing between a magnificent courtyard and French-style gardens has a wonderful interior, its architecture influenced by the Italian style that was predominant in Italy in the last two decades of the seventeenth century. The furniture however does not date back to the times of Louis XIV, although the king frequently used the palace as a refuge from the rigid etiquette of the royal court. Most of the furnishings and decorations were recreated during the lifetime of Napoleon I and reflects his Empire style.

Further west, I came across a much smaller palace located in the middle of a classic landscaped garden. Several wandering pathways, bubbling streams and rustic bridges impart an air of serenity and romanticism to the complex. This is the Petit Trianon, a small refined palace where Queen Marie-Antoinette often returned to escape the rigours of the royal court.

Further away from the Petit Trianon and tucked away amidst wooded areas, the Hameau de la Reine stands in the middle of an English-style garden laid out for Marie-Antoinette. This pastoral building where Marie-Antoinette pursued the simple pleasures of life consists of several thatched cottages and includes a mill complete with rotating blades and a fully equipped dairy farm.

Opening times for chateau gardens:
April to October: 9:00am to sunset
November to March: 8:00am to 6:30pm

Gardens of Versailles
West of the Palace
Versailles, France


©Travelocity.com LP 2000-2009