No wonder the peasants revolted

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No visit to Paris is complete without a look at Louis XIV’s palace of Versailles. Back on day one of the tour we were given two choices:

  1. The main apartments and a look at the gardens
  2. The main apartments and some of the king’s private rooms

The outlook was for more hot weather so we decided on choice 2. As it turned out, it rained in the morning so many of us took the offered umbrellas. Choice 2 people were herded onto a particular bus and we set off for the hour drive to the palace while the guide told us a little about the palace. Back in the 17th century, Versailles was a small village outside Paris where Louis XIII had a hunting lodge and later a chateau. Louis XIV chose the site to build his enormous palace. Work started in 1661 and was not completed until 1710, just 5 years before Louis XIV’s death.

When our bus arrived in the parking area, our intrepid guide explained that there were 48 of us. We would be split into two groups of 24. This was important because security was tight and guides would only be permitted to escort the number of people for whom they had tickets. And we would have to go through security to enter the palace. We’re off the bus in the drizzle with hawkers trying to sell umbrellas and we’re asked to make two groups. Maybe somebody should have thought of counting people? Meanwhile, there were two other groups from our ship and a crowd of people from everywhere else. All of this could have/should have been done on the ship before we left, or at the very least while we were still on the bus. Fortunately, the rain had gone.

First, our guide hurried off to find the other guides. She seemed to be head honcho for this event. One guide had the wrong tickets which caused a delay. We stood around while other groups went in before us but eventually, we were on our way. Security was a bit like at the airport but not as stringent. I assume they were looking for knives, acid, and the like. Then we waited with a million other people while those who needed to, went to the loo – there are very few toilets on the property.

Eventually, we were ready to see the private apartments.

There were 26 in our group, so presumably 22 in the second group. Oh well. Either way, that was a lot of people in relatively small rooms. We went through antechambers where the king’s visitors waited, the queen’s bedchamber where significant people could witness the birth of a child, a small dining room, the king’s own chapel, and his office. I’m glad it wasn’t a hot day because the rooms were quite stifling. Peter and I remained masked for the duration but as usual, not everyone saw the need.

Mirrors and marble. You can see us (masked) reflected.

The magnificence is unavoidable. Gold leaf is everywhere, as are marble statues. Many ceilings would rival the Sistine Chapel in their decoration. It’s all intended to impress and intimidate – and there’s no doubt it is beautiful. But the cost was horrendous.

Gold leaf and cherubs – a simple ceiling
An intimate dining room – the king sat in the chair with the higher back and the dauphin sat opposite him, also in a chair with a higher back
The queen’s bedchamber
The library with shelves full of books.
The king’s own lav
The king’s desk. It is made of metal and has compartments designed to keep classified documents safe from prying eyes.

After we’d finished our tour of the private apartments we were taken through the public rooms. Most places were very crowded, with a mixture of tour groups and private individuals.

The Hall of Mirrors – packed with people, most bare-faced. It’s hard to keep track of your lollypop in throngs like this.
One lady found a seat in an empty corridor for a break
It looks like a stage set but it’s all real
A chapel complete with organ

I’ve often thought when I walk through these European palaces that it’s no wonder the peasants revolted. Indeed in this place you can see the seeds of the French Revolution.

Louis came to the throne at the age of five and until he reached majority, his mother, Anne of Austria, was regent but the country was actually ruled by Italian Cardinal Mazarin. In 1648 the nobles rose against the crown, and Mazarin moved the royal family out of Paris. It was the beginning of a long civil war that Mazarin won in 1653. Louis took over kingly duties in 1661 when Mazarin died. The cardinal had made sure he was well trained.

Louis never forgot the vicissitudes of his childhood and never forgave the nobles. A part of his grand design of the palace at Versailles was that it should be able to house large numbers of people. Louis insisted the nobility attend him at his court. “Louis lured them to his court, corrupted them with gambling, exhausted them with dissipation, and made their destinies dependent on their capacity to please him. Etiquette became a means of governing. From that time, the nobility ceased to be an important factor in French politics, which in some respects weakened the nation.” [1]

Louis XIV separated the gentry from their properties, making them absentee landlords and alienating them from their workers. Louis himself became an absentee king, removed from Paris and his own people. He had no qualms about destroying the houses of villagers to use the material for his own purposes, which he did to build the fortress at Blaye. [2]

After the Revolution in 1789 the palace remained empty, with the Revolutionary Government selling off many of its assets, such as the king’s desk which used to be housed in the Louvre. These days the government body that administers Versailles does its best to buy back items sold from the property. Napoleon used Versailles as a summer residence but work on restoration was not started until the 1830’s.

Which leads me to modern politics. Personal aggrandizement is not limited to kings or to the past. Take a look at Donald Trump’s New York apartment or Vladimir Putin’s Black Sea holiday shack.

On the way back to the boat Peter said that was the last European palace he would ever go and see. They’re all the same (he said) – mine’s bigger than yours, mine’s got more gold. Which is true. Everybody tried to copy Versailles, with varying degrees of success. Catherine’s Palace in St Petersburg and Schonbrun in Vienna spring to mind. I’m inclined to agree with him – but it’s another tick on the bucket list.

If you’re new to this journey and want to find other parts of the trip, go to France 2022. That page has all the posts.

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