“It is simply, and solely, the abundance of money within a state [which] makes the difference in its grandeur and power.”
– Jean-Baptiste Colbert
One of the best weekends I had when I lived in Paris was when my friend and I decided to venture out of town for the day to visit the magnificent Château de Versailles and its accompanying gardens. I initially harbored little intention of visiting the palace, but when my friend brought it up it struck me that this was one opportunity I should not miss, and to this day I have no regrets about seizing it.
We took the RER C train to the last stop in Versailles-Rive Gauche. When we got to the palace grounds, the queue for tickets to the Château was terrifyingly long with tourists from every corner of the globe looking restless and impatient in the slow-moving line. We decided to let this pass and visit the gardens and the fountains first. Incidentally we arrived at the best time of the year — spring — when there was high chance of sunny weather, the grounds were dry, and all the flowers in bloom. The short trip out of the city was absolutely worth it.
We roamed the gardens and visited nearly all twelve bosquets (fountains), then decided to rent a bicycle to head over to les Châteaux Trianon and la Ferme du Hameau, Marie Antoinette’s private estate which is just a small hamlet located just on the outskirts of Versailles.
We cycled for hours but the warm spring weather made all that cycling truly pleasurable and not at all a burden. While waiting for the fountain show back in the main gardens at five PM sharp, we enjoyed some ice cream by the lake for a most welcome repose. The fountain show was magnificent too and had me spellbound for its entire duration; I was sad to see it end.
Late in the afternoon — we were about to call it a day when we passed by the entrance to the main Château and found that it was virtually empty, yet still open. My friend and I looked at each other for a moment, with the unasked question hanging between us: “Should we?”
No harm in trying our luck, I thought. I went up to the security guard at the entrance and flashed my Sciences Po student card and explained that I was a student enrolled in a local institution. Would this grant me free entry into the Château? The woman looked slightly dubious at first, but then she eventually shrugged and said, “Alors.” She ushered us in and we nearly jumped in joy.
The Château was almost completely empty, save for the leftover tourists from the busy day. We swiftly swept through room after room, only taking a moment to appreciate the impeccable attention for detail dedicated to almost every inch of the marbled floors and gold-painted ceilings. My friend, who has visited the Château with her family before, said not to bother too much with these random rooms and to save my wonder for later — that is, for when we reach the legendary Hall of Mirrors.
When we finally reached the Hall of Mirrors, also known as la Grande Galerie or la Galerie des Glaces, I finally understood why it has been so constantly glamorized since its completion in 1684 after a six-year construction which started in 1678. It was, without a doubt, magnificent; I only wish I had a better camera with which to capture the Hall in all its splendor. In this very room countless births, marriages and embassies were celebrated; the Treaty of Versailles which ended World War I was also signed in the Hall of Mirrors on June 28th, 1919, and to this very day this room still hosts state functions for the Fifth Republic.
The Hall of Mirrors was truly an ostentatious display of wealth and power for the French monarchy. The mirrors were fully intended to be the focal point of the Hall, for these reflected serious money — mirrors were in fact among the most expensive items to have in the 17th century. During this time, the production of mirrors was monopolized by the Venetian Republic. However, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who served as France’s Minister of Finances from 1665 to 1683, imposed a policy of mercantilism which required all the items used in decorating the Palace to be manufactured locally in France. This meant that Colbert had to get a few workers from Venice to manufacture mirrors at France’s very own Manufacture royale de glace de miroirs.
What made our visit to the Hall of Mirrors a little extra special was the fact that we arrived literally at closing time when the palace attendants were ushering visitors out. There was a bit of a congestion in the following room, which meant that while waiting for the crowd to clear up my friend and I, the last two visitors in the room, got to enjoy the Hall of Mirrors all to ourselves for a brief moment.
Relieved finally from the hustle and bustle of tourists and their murmuring voices and flashing cameras, the Hall seemed to finally come to life. The orange of the setting sun was reflected in the mirrors, briefly flooding the room with a soft glow that makes me feel tingly on the inside. Standing in the room by myself near the exit, I realized that being here and this very moment was truly a privilege; , I took a couple of seconds to absorb it all in as I thought to myself: “We’re here. And alone.”
As we left the palace and its impressive golden gate behind and headed back to the train station, I felt very pleased with what we’d done for the day. Through this visit we got to dig deep into a part of France’s history and get up close and personal with it and all its preserved past glory. The mirrors in that Hall have witnessed centuries of activities already, and standing in that very room I actually felt quite insignificant in comparison to the history that has transpired within those walls and mirrors. But this history lesson was valuable nonetheless, because by this time I’d enjoyed too many éclairs au chocolat and profiteroles already, and it was time I got to know France a little bit better — beyond its irresistible pastries and the complicated grammar of its beloved language.
This trip, in short, was all about looking at the ‘Inside’ — of both the gardens and the châteaux of Versailles, as well as the history of the French nation itself.