Le Château de Versailles




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Most of central Paris is within walking distance. And on the afternoon we arrived, we did just that, walked around the old city – from the Eiffel Tower to the Arc de Triomphe, down the Champs Elysées to the Louvre, and back along the Seine to the Eiffel Tower again. Many other attractions are within easy reach.

But the next day, our first full day, we ventured out of the city center to see the fabulous Château de Versailles. This palace and its surrounding gardens are about twenty kilometres from the city center and easily reached by train.

Leaving the train station we walked a block and turned the corner and there it was.

The front of the palace features lot of gilt work.

What started out as a hunting lodge built by Louis XIII in 1624 was greatly expanded by the Sun King, Louis XIV from 1661 to 1678. It was expanded again from 1678 to 1715 when two large wings were added to flank the Royal Courtyard. This phase also saw the replacement of the west facing terrace with what is now the Hall of Mirrors, the most famous and most popular room in the palace.

Versailles became the seat of power in pre-revolutionary France when Louis XIV moved the royal court there in 1682. It wasn’t until the French Revolution of 1789 that the seat of government was moved back to Paris.

Janis and I at the Apollo Fountain with the palace in the background. All the windows facing the gardens are from the Hall of Mirrors and its flanking salons.

Louis XIV liked to do things big and Versailles is probably his crowning achievement. The palace has 2300 rooms. The cost to build it was staggering. Wikipedia gives this description:

“One of the most costly elements in the furnishing of the grands appartements during the early years of the personal reign of Louis XIV was the silver furniture, which can be taken as a standard – with other criteria – for determining a plausible cost for Versailles. The Comptes meticulously list the expenditures on the silver furniture – disbursements to artists, final payments, delivery – as well as descriptions and weight of items purchased. Entries for 1681 and 1682 concerning the silver balustrade used in the salon de Mercure serve as an example:

  • Year 1681
    II. 5 In anticipation: For the silver balustrade for the king’s bedroom: 90,000 livres
  • II. 7 18 November to Sieur du Metz, 43,475 livres 5 sols for delivery to Sr. Lois and to Sr. de Villers for payment of 142,196 livres for the silver balustrade that they are making for the king’s bedroom and 404 livres for tax: 48,861 livres 5 sol.
  • II. 15 16 June 1681 – 23 January 1682 to Sr. Lois and Sr. de Villers silversmiths on account for the silver balustrade that they are making for the king’s use (four payments): 88,457 livres 5 sols.
  • II. 111 25 March – 18 April to Sr. Lois and Sr. de Villers silversmiths who are working on a silver balustrade for the king, for continued work (two payments): 40,000 livres”

Additional figures are given for 1682. There was over a ton of silver in the balustrade alone notes Wikipedia, a “cost in excess of 560,000 livres”. And that was just the silver. All told, one estimate has the expenditures during Louis’s reign at over US $2 billion! So crippling was this expense that in 1689, Louis had all the silver in the palace sent to the mint to be melted down.

Today the palace is a museum, a grand edifice filled with art and historical artifacts.

Tourist map of the Chateau

We started our tour at the southern end of the North Wing. Walking along a vast corridor  we quickly we came across a chapel complete with marble columns, a large pipe organ and a magnificently painted ceiling mural.

The chapel in the North Wing

Continuing along the corridor, we came across numerous works of art including a statue of Joan of Arc. At the end of the wing, we ascended a staircase to the second floor and walked back again. One of the more interesting pieces of statuary was a monkey riding a goat.

Statue of a monkey riding a goat in the 17th Century Galleries at Versailles

The long corridor was flanked by various paintings and sculptures on the left and tall windows on the right. It was through these windows that we caught our first glimpse of the magnificent gardens behind the palace. The garden we saw, the North Parterre, is just a small fraction of the overall gardens.

The North Parterre seen from the North Wing of the Chateau de Versailles

At the end of the passage we came to large room, a corner room that marks the transition into the original Château. The room is called the Salon d’Hercule or Salon of Hercules. It is the first of a series of such Salons that we encounter on our way to the Hall of Mirrors. The size of the room is immense – huge vaulted ceilings all covered in elaborate and colorful murals. The pillars are solid marble. And at one end hangs a huge painting. The video below captures the sheer size and majesty of the room.

From the Hercules Salon we head west, passing through the Abundance Salon, Venus Salon, Diana Salon, Mars Salon, Mercury Salon and Apollo Salon before arriving at the Salon of War which bookends the Hall of Mirrors. These rooms are referred to as the King’s State Apartments and were antechambers to the royal residence where gatherings, parties and amusements were held. Each of these rooms is filled with art and very elaborate decorative work. And each has giant ceiling frescoes as well.

 

The Salon of Mars was originally a bedchamber.

The Hall of Mirrors is one of the main attractions at Versailles. When it was built, mirrors were an expensive commodity and Venice had the monopoly on production. Louis’s Finance Minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert lured a number of Venetian workers to Paris to work in the Royal Glass and Mirror Works. The Venetian government retaliated by sending assassins to kill these workers to protect Venice’s trade secrets.

Nevertheless, the Hall was built. The great corridor runs 239.5 feet from one end to the other and is flanked by the Salon of War and the Salon of Peace. Its width is 34.4 feet and the vaulted ceiling soars 40.4 feet above the floor.

The space occupied by the hall used to be a terrace overlooking the magnificent gardens stretching behind the château. Today large windows overlook the gardens. On the interior wall are seventeen mirror-clad arches.

The Hall of Mirrors

Many fine pieces of sculpture line the hall and it is flanked on both sides by giant candleabras.

One of the many candleabras in the Hall of Mirrors

From the Salon of Peace we made our way to the royal bed chambers. The king himself had a large canopy bed and had a separate room from the queen. Her bedroom had a larger bed than the king.

The Queen’s Bed

Near the King’s Room were several antechambers where the King and his aides could meet to discuss affairs of state. Central to them all is the Bull’s Eye Room or as it is called in French, the Salon l’Oeil de Bouef. This room had exits to the King’s bedroom, the Queen’s Apartments and the Hall of Mirrors. It also had a staircase leading to the Dauphin’s apartments below.

The large window known as the l’oiel de bouef

After passing through various other rooms including the Guard’s Room, we descended to the ground floor where staff and guests stayed, as well as the Dauphin. These guest rooms themselves were very lavish. Paintings and sculptures abound as well as a grand piano and an organ.

A pipe organ in one of the ground floor apartments

The Palace at Versailles is magnificent. It cost an unbelievable amount of money to build and included many pieces of furniture made of solid silver. Many later had to be melted down to pay some of the royal bills. But the grandeur and elegance of the period remains evident today. In my opinion, this is one of the wonders of the modern world, a must-see if you are ever in Paris.

But if you think the Palace is magnificent, prepare to be blown away by our next installment – Les Jardins de Versailles. The entire estate covers over 800 hectares or close to 2000 acres. This includes the Palace, the Gardens, the Park (which is a free public park), and the Trianon Estate (Marie Antoinette’s private estate). The gardens are a work of art – carefully landscaped and tended and abounding with sculptures and fountains, it is as much an attraction as the Palace itself.

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Port of Call: Kuala Lumpur




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My wife and I are currently on a seven day Southeast Asia Cruise aboard the Mariner of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. On Jan. 23rd we docked at Port Klang, the port city that serves much of the province of Selangor in Malaysia including the capital city of Kuala Lumpur.

As is usually the case with cruises and their ports of call, various excursions were offered and we took one that took us to Kuala Lumpur itself, an hour and a half drive by bus. Here’s how our day went.

All those taking shore excursions met in the theatre at 8:15 and were assigned to various buses. We boarded and set off on our journey. Our guide was a chatty Malay fellow, not always easy to understand with his heavily accented English, but we could pick up most of it.

We passed development after development of relatively new row housing. Our guide told us that many of these developments were designed to provide housing for poorer people. They all were a minimum of three bedrooms and could be bought for 42,000 ringgits, the Malaysian currency. A ringgit is about a third of a Canadian dollar. So if you’re below a certain income level in Malaysia, you can buy a modern three bedroom apartment for around CDN$14,000. These developments went on for mile after mile.

We also passed a large plant manufacturing the Proton car, a Malaysian built car. The Proton company was a government operation at first but was later privatized. Cars, in fact, are plentiful in the country.

The highways are all tolled and our bus passed several on our trip. We also saw many motorbikes on the road and our guide told us that motorbikes under 100 cc are exempt from the tolls, so those small motorbikes are very popular there.

We finally arrived at Kuala Lumpur, a vibrant, modern city, lush with greenery at every turn. Its main industry, according to our guide, is computer parts. It is a high tech hub.

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Part of vibrant Kuala Lumpur seen from the Observation Deck of the KL Tower

Our first stop was a Chinese buddhist temple in the middle of the city. Its up on a hill and our bus navigated some windy roads getting there.

The temple itself was gorgeous. Because Chinese New Year is coming up on Feb. 8, red paper lanterns were everywhere. In fact, our cruise ship has also been decorated for Chinese New Year.

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Beautiful Chinese Buddhist Temple in Kuala Lumpur

The temple, in pagoda style, is colorful and elaborate. We had to take our shoes off to enter the worship area and we were impressed by the ornate ceiling as well as the three large buddha icons.

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One of three giant buddhas at the temple

After visiting the temple, Janis and I wandered around a bit and came across a lovely garden with wateralls and two ponds filled with turtles. Buddhists release turtles into these ponds for good luck and long life.

Next stop was a short one at the King’s Palace. Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy and the king is the nominal head of state.

After that, it was back on the tour bus for a meandering ride through a working class district of town. Lots of row housing here too, but older and not as pristine as the newer ones we passed on the drive in. What’s interesting is that almost every home has an air conditoner (it is very hot and muggy in this area), most homes have satellite dishes or antennas, and everyone hangs their laundry out to dry on the balconies. Some buildings were awash with laundry.

The trail ended at the Royal Selangor Pewter Company where we stopped for a tour. It is a large modern plant and displays a bit of the history of pewter making in Malaysia. Tin is widely mined in the area and it is the main ingredient of pewter, along with smidgens of copper and antimony.

One wall near the beginning of the tour showed colour slides of notables who have visited the factory, including the Prince of Wales, Bill Clinton and Martha Stewart.

Along the way we saw various artisans at work handcrafting artifacts. One woman spent all her time hammering dimples into the surface of a container shaped like a tin can revolving on a lathe. Bang! Bang! Bang! Just hammering away.

The tour ended at the gift shop, of course, as many such tours do. Many beautiful handicrafts were on display including a Star Wars collection – Princess Leia, Han Solo or Darth Vader stauettes in pewter. They were good sized pieces – six to eight inches long, polished to a nice shine, and going for 1200 ringgits each or about CDN$400. Outside was the world’s largest pewter tankard according to the Guinness Records Book.

Star Wars figures in pewter
Star Wars figures in pewter

We left this district for the center of the city, stopping for a short visit to the Petronas Towers. These world famous 88 story towers were the world’s tallest buildings from 1998 to 2004. They remain the tallest twin towers. (Are there any others?) The towers formed an integral part of the 1999 movie Entrapment starring Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

The mighty Petronas Towers
The mighty Petronas Towers

We had hoped to go up the towers but the tours are booked at least a month in advance so it was a no go. But after a tasty buffet lunch at the Commodore Hotel, we went up the KL Tower, the fourth tallest communications tower in the world. It looks much like the CN Tower in Toronto but is a bit shorter. The observation level offers a terrific panoramic view of the city, including the Petronas Towers.

The tour ended, we took the bus back to our cruise ship for the next leg on our exciting holiday.

A few notes for tourists. Although the city is modern, some older places like the temple often have squat toilets and no toilet paper or paper towels for drying your hands after washing them. Ladies should wear skirts or dresses for this eventuality as pants are awkward. You should also pack a roll of toilet paper. Later in our trip we visited Penang and some of the washrooms had a faucet on the floor attached to a rubber hose beside the squat toilet, the hose be used in place of toilet paper. Ewwww! Be forewarned! Modern buildings have modern bathroom facilities and will usually have at least some western style toilets.

Also, while Malaysia is a multicultural society, it predominant religion is Islam, with large Hindu and Buddhist minorities as well as some Christianity from British colonial days. Our tour guide was, by Western standards, quite politically incorrect, making snide cracks about both the Chinese and the Indians in their society.

There is a strong animosity towards Singapore, which interestingly enough, used to be part of Malaysia. But unlike Quebec separatists in Canada and the Basques in Spain and France who want to secede from their countries, Singapore didn’t secede but was expelled by Malaysia over political differences. The largely ethnic Chinese Singaporeans have been disdained by many Malaysians ever since.

Finally, Malaysia, like Singapore, has very strict drug laws and the death penalty for many drug offences. While there are movements to decriminalize marijuana in Canada and the United States, bringing some into Malaysia could see you at the end of a rope.

But all in all, we loved Kuala Lumpur and would love to visit again for a longer period. It is relatively inexpensive and although we didn’t do any shopping, I’ve heard it is a shopper’s paradise.




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