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Versailles: The greatest palace in Europe?

The great courtyard in front of the palace Photo, Paris, France

Versailles will knock you sideways. The palace is magnificent and so extravagant it will not leave your mind for days afterwards. Without doubt one of the best palaces in Europe, maybe even the best, and despite the crowds and expense probably the best excursion you could choose when needing a day away from Paris. There is such a sense of history here. You can imagine the diplomats and generals stretched over maps in the Hall of Mirrors in 1918 or Louis VIX walking with one of his mistresses in the gardens three hundred years ago. The gardens themselves are mindblowing and truly live up to expectation. You will never look at gardens in the same way again. The place is so elegant and bubbling with luxury you can understand why it caused a revoloution.

. Versailles in the work of one man - one of the most successful monarchs in history - Louis the VIX. It was always a royal hunting lodge but the Sun King always associated Paris with intrigue and violence so moved his glittering court to the countryside. The construction of the chateau took place in 1664 and was still going on in 1715. It was not meant to be homely but to impress on the populace the divine majesty of the monarch and is so grand and large that it occupies two and a half miles. King Louis VIX was meant to be second only to god and his risings, comings and goings were minutely regulated and cloaked in court ritual. At it''s height it was home for 20,000 people most of them aristocrats. After the revoloution it was passed between government and monarchy and only in 1918 was it the centre of the world again with the armistice of World War one. The Palace of Versailles is one of the most historic buildings in the world.

To get there is easy. The best way is using the RER ligne (line) 5 to Versailles Rive Gauche. The most central RER stations in Paris are Chatelet les Halles and St Michel. Both within easy walking distance of the Latin quarter, Le Marais and Beaubourg. The trains themselves are huge double-decker monsters which are very quiet, fast and efficient. Make sure you get on the right train and it will take forty minutes into the countryside and the chateau of Versailles. You will disembark at an elegant wrought iron station and them it is a simple matter of following the crowds to the chateau.

The town of Versailles itself is very posh. Rather like a miniature Paris with wide boulevards and elegant buildings. As with most royal towns it is conservative and priveledged with the aristocracy who gained their titles before the revoloution taking precedence over those who gained them after.But when you turn the corner and see Versailles in all its splendour - your mouth will drop open. Behind gilt gates is a vast cobblestone courtyard the size of a football pitch. In its centre is a 20ft equestrian statue of Louis VIX and two great sand-coloured wings stretch out into the courtyard, enclosing two more smaller wings watched over by the baroque Opera house (see photo). The centre of the courtyard is the main entrance which is incredibly ornate with carved balaustrades, mansard windows and covered in gold filigree.

I thoroughly recommend the guided tour which brings the place alive and are only about 90F. You will be given a time and entrance to meet at and in summer the queues for these tours can stretch all around the courtyard. It might be worth putting any belongings with the conceirge and taking a look at the gardens if you get bored waiting. But the tours are good, we had a very elegant French lady and she took us first the baroque chapel were Louis VXI and Marie Antoinette were married. Next were the state apartments which were full of portraiture and strangely devoid of furniture (most of it vanished in the revoloution). The Kings bedroom was stunning with a small golden wall seperating his bed from the apartment and you can imaging the lines of courtiers waiting to dress their king.

On the marble staircases were bewigged busts of the last Bourbon monarchs to inhabit Versailles. And in a wooden panelled room was a portrait of an aristocratic lady clutching a negro child. I asked whether there were many coloured people in France at that time, and the guide answered, not many but they were in demand for portraits as they made a womans complexion even whiter. A tanned complexion was unfashionable and was associated with peasants working in the fields. The tour ended in the famous Hall of Mirrors which is full of dullish mirrors ending in the royal ballroom. This was where the treaty was signed at the end of world war one and its name was associated in Germany with betrayal, and became one of the causes of World War II 21 years later.

Now the best thing to do is hit the gardens. Everything you have heard about the gardens in Versailles is true and it is a wonderful place for a picnic. Immediately behind the palace is an ornamental lake decorated with statues of Neptune and the tritons (see photo). Flanking this are geometrical gardens dotted with stone sphinxes and nymphs. Over a low stone wall is another garden and hundreds of palm trees stretching to another lake (see photo). But the centrepiece is a baroque fountain of Poseidon complete with scrambling sea-creatures. Nearby is a long lawn dotted with classical statues ending in an immense boating pond in the shape of a cross. And not far away are the Trianons - miniature palaces hidden in the woods. These are made from pink and grey marble and surrounded by lavender and blue coloured gardens.

By this time your feet will be aching and your head spinning. Some people do the gardens one day and come back and do the palace. Whatever you chose you will not forget Versailles for a long time. And every attraction afterwards will be compared with this most beautiful of palaces....

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