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Tony Grist

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Versailles [Jul. 6th, 2007|10:33 am]
Tony Grist
Thank you for your godspeeds. It's been a hard-grinding five days: into the coach, out of the coach- in out, in out- dodging tremendous rainstorms, not always succeeding.

I've lots of things to say and the first is how much I hate Versailles. If that's uppermost it's because Versailles was the last place we visited. Ailz agrees. Versailles is detestable. Louis XIV wasn't a bad man, none of the Louis were, which is why- though they had it coming- the downfall of the French monarchy was a tragedy. But he was an absolute monarch and we all know what absolute power does to a person. Versailles is billions of francs worth of tribute to the glory of a single man- le roi soleil-  and from my first glimpse of it I understood why all that guillotining was necessary. It's unfeasibly huge. It's de trop. You could assemble an army in its sloping front courtyard and have room to spare. The English monarchy never waxed anything like this extravagant (and out of touch with the people) and when it  showed signs of wanting to (with Charles I) we gave it a severe pruning and thereafter kept it well clipped.  Apparently you could fit the whole of Buckingham Palace into the Versailles stableblock.  And the place is vulgar too- spectacular but crass. For all the acres of painted canvas and carved marble there's not a single masterpiece on show. 

The hall of mirrors must be the grandest thing of its kind anywhere.  17th century glass is imperfect.  Very imperfect. The mirrors warp what they reflect. The chandeliers don't sparkle but have a leaden shine. This is where the victorious allies chose to hold the Peace Conference that concluded (ha!) the 1st World War.

Napoleon had the right idea. He converted Versailles into a people's palace- a monument to the glories of the nation. So there's a corridor lined with statues of famous Frenchmen and a gallery (post-Napoleonic) full of specially commissioned paintings of famous French victories, from the 5th century through to the 19th ( how I'd have loved it if I'd have come here as a boy) by artists like Vernet and Delacroix. What a scrappy nation the French are!  I'd thought we Brits were bad, but the French leave us standing when it comes to le gloire militaire. Paris is full of roads and squares named after generals.  It's to do with geography I think- in particular that wide open border with Germany. We Brits are lucky; we've got sea all round us and the last proper battle on English soil was in the 17th century. We export our wars. Paris, on the other hand, is ringed with battlefields. As you approach it through Normany and Picardy every name of every town and every village is the name of a battle- medieval, 19th century, 20th century.  

Did I say there are no masterpieces? I was wrong. There are two. But they're Napoleonic and therefore don't count.  They are David's huge pictures of the Coronation of Napoleon and the Distribution of the Eagles. Ailz was thrilled. They featured in her OU course and they were one of the reasons we took this holiday- but we'd thought they were in the Louvre and we'd missed them. David was the greatest political propagandist of any age. You can't love him, but you are compelled to admire.

We didn't see the gardens or the grounds or Marie Antoinette's toy farm or any of that. It wasn't that we didn't want to but there wasn't the time and the distances are huge and- remember- it was intermittently raining like fuck. I don't get sentimental about Marie Antoinette. I think she was a clueless little twit. My sympathies are wholly with the revolution.

I wandered into the town.  The town of Versailles is very nice. There's a statue of General Hoche in the square. I was hoping for something gothic or renaissance to cleanse my palate with but the church was built by Louis XIV and is in the classical taste and heavy and stony and repellent.  Louis still holds the record for the longest reign of any European monarch- 74 years- a lifetime. In that and for his building mania he reminds me of Rameses II.  And, as with Rameses, I get a sense of there being nothing behind the eyes. I remember fragments from Nancy Mitford's book about him. He did everything- including getting dressed and undressed- in public. He never took a bath. There are no toilets at Versailles and so courtiers who got caught short would have to sneak out of the audience chamber or the ballroom or whatever and relieve themselves on the magnificent marble stairs....

It was sunny in town. On the way back the clouds came over again and I ran the last hundred yards to the coach through a bouncing downpour.

[User Picture]From: karenkay
2007-07-06 12:08 pm (UTC)
I went to Versailles in the winter--in January. I remember loving the carpets, and some of the ceramics (I asked a lot of questions, I remember, and was a huge pain.)

But in general, my reaction was like yours, that I instantly understood the Revolution. It was interesting to read someone else having the same response.

I liked watching the movie "Marie Antoinette" just because it was nice to watch Versailles in use.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-07-06 12:23 pm (UTC)
I want to see "Marie Antoinette". Maybe even more so now I've visited her old haunts.
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[User Picture]From: halfmoon_mollie
2007-07-06 12:48 pm (UTC)
The mirrors warp what they reflect.

True about most mirrors, not just the ones at Versailles.

I'd love to visit, but only if I could have the place all to myself.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-07-06 12:53 pm (UTC)
"but only if I could have the place all to myself."

Unlikely. There were thousands of people there with us- but it's such a huge place it pretty much absorbs them.

A man had had a stroke or a heart attack in one of the main chambers and was lying on the floor with his feet up and paramedics feeding him oxygen and the rest of us just milled around and pretended we hadn't seen.
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[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2007-07-06 01:27 pm (UTC)
The reason there is no medieval town at Versailles is that the place was marshland, so it was never settled. The palace started out as the king's hunting lodge. This is why the gardens - and it's a pity you didn't have time to explore them, but you're right, it involves serious distances - are designed around so many pools and fountains.

I spent a year in Versailles as foreign language assistant at the lycée: it was part of my undergraduate degree course. I did not love the place, for a variety of reasons, and having visited the château once felt that duty was done. But you could go into the gardens for free and I did, frequently.

(Your big photo of the Place d'Armes is somewhere I used to pass most days on my way to the school).
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-07-06 02:11 pm (UTC)
I regret not seeing the gardens- if only because of all the stories of ghostly encounters- but this was a compressed and highly concentrated tour- two locations per day with a lot of driving in between.
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[User Picture]From: oakmouse
2007-07-06 03:48 pm (UTC)
I think you've about summed up Versailles. I've never been, only seen slides of it in art history classes, but how much too much can you get? My reaction was the same as yours. Oh, so THIS is why heads rolled.

As far as the restaurant goes, that's appalling --- but somehow very French. It goes with the lack of bathrooms. :-)
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-07-06 04:41 pm (UTC)
We ate very well all through the holiday- nothing spectacular- just good, decent, basic French cuisine. It makes sense that the one place I detested was the one place that was unable to serve us a decent meal.
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[User Picture]From: pondhopper
2007-07-08 08:23 pm (UTC)
I have not visited Versailles but in Spain, there is a palace near Segovia which was patterned after it, especially the spectacular gardens and fountains (which you mention not seeing). This is la Granja de San Ildefonso near Segovia..
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-07-08 09:53 pm (UTC)
That looks rather charming. Considerably more so than Versailles itself.
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[User Picture]From: pondhopper
2007-07-08 10:08 pm (UTC)
It actually IS quite charming and on a smaller scale so it stays charming. The gardens are quite extensive and spectacular, even more so then the palace.They are set against the mountains which gives them a very unique beauty.
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