Our reporter ventured a glimpse behind the glittering facades of Versailles
According to the history books, one positive outcome of the French Revolution was class equality, and so the Palace of Versailles now belongs to the people. The result: Every year, seven million stream into its immaculate gardens, disturbing the majestic serenity of the place with their selfie sticks. Liberty, equality and fraternity reign supreme in the perfect symmetry of the orangery. I sigh graciously and let my gaze drift over the palace gardens. Still deserted, Versailles belongs to me. I will be staying here for the next few days and suspect that there’s far more to see behind its golden gate than the Marble Courtyard, the Hall of Mirrors, and the King’s upholstered commode.
The name Versailles stands for megalomania and perfection The 51 000-square-meter palace with its summer residence, annexes and gardens once demonstrated the power of the Sun King, Louis XVI. He threw sumptuous parties here to keep his nobles from rebelling. Some monarchs impress with saber rattling, others with mirrors. The heads of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette may have rolled from the platform 223 years ago, but at Versailles, the show goes on – at least for the common folk. Today, as then, the staff are devoted to preserving pomp and circumstance. I want to visit them all: the restoration and conservation experts, the fountain masters, the gardeners and the opera director.
From the window of the Trianon Palace hotel, I survey the outlying palace grounds; the meadows are still silver with morning dew. The grazing sheep are among the estate’s permanent residents. They stand with their wooly posteriors turned to the wind. I have an appointment with Alain Baraton near the Grand Trianon, which once served Louis XIV as a retreat.
Baraton, 58, is head gardener here. He watches over the flora of Versailles, the English Garden and the French, the Orangery, the vegetable beds and the fruit trees. He lives in the grounds of Versailles, in a house of pale stone that belongs to a small farm. We meet in his office. He has flower prints on his walls and laugh lines on his face. “A garden is like a love story,” he tells me in his rich baritone, “living without one is a possibility, but a sad one.” He has mused much on the relationship between the human and plant worlds, and in the past 40 years has written a dozen books about the gardens here.
Baraton takes me to the kitchen gardens, which also supply vegetables to the Plaza Athénée in Paris, the restaurant of illustrious chef Alain Ducasse. For him, five of the 45 gardeners employed at Versailles cultivate pak choi, peas, tomatoes and blackberries, which arrive a the three-star restaurant’s kitchen no more than two hours after they are picked. In a greenhouse, we walk past fresh herbs, rosemary and chives, and tender scallions. “Our plants have time to grow. Nature decides when they are ready to harvest. We respect the plants,” says this man who knows the 815 hectares of this park like the back of his hand and regularly walks its many paths. His favorite creatures are the ducks. “But none of this exists for my pleasure,” he says, “the garden belongs to the visitors.” On his walks, he encounters tourists dressed as princesses, young Japanese men proposing to their girlfriends, and elegant women stealing his flowers.
Living without a garden is a possibility, but a sad one
It’s always quiet at the Fountain of Apollo, says Baraton, despite the crowds of visitors. More than 50 fountains grace the gardens of Versailles, and all are fed by a good 30-kilometer-long closed system of pipes. The water reaches the many pools and fountains thanks to the skillful use of gradient and gravity. The truly amazing thing is that 90 percent of the pipes date from when the system was installed.
“The system is so well conceived that it has never been changed, only repaired,” says Guillaume Acarregui. He is one of 12 fountain masters, whose job is to keep Versailles’ water features in good working order. In the summer months, they turn the fountains on and off, and in winter they deal with blocked nozzles and leaky pipes. We are standing in the catacombs, puddles collecting in the clay beneath my feet as this morning’s rainwater seeps through the ground above us. Acarregui, 36, points to a nut that’s not the usual hexagonal shape, but trapezoidal. “That’s how you recognize the original 18th-century parts. You’re unlikely to see a nut like that anywhere else!” I stare at the rusty nut and the old lead pipes. “Isn’t lead poisonous?” I ask.
It is, but the philosophy here is to preserve the old Versailles as authentically as possible. So when Acarregui repairs the lead pipes the traditional way, he dons a breathing mask and protective clothing. Down in the tunnel, headquarters contacts him via radio. We have to go back because the other fountain masters need him to help operate the Neptune Fountain.
The spectacle begins every weekend from April to October at 8:05 pm. For seven minutes, water leaps upward to strains of Baroque music. “Techno would make a welcome change; I can’t stand this music anymore, but everything in Versailles is old, old, old,” says Acarregui with exaggerated despair, laughing. In October, when the weather discourages most people from coming here, the 12 fountain masters frequently find themselves quite alone in front of the huge fountain, patiently awaiting the final note so they can switch off the water supply once more: diversions for the people, whether they come to see them or not.
I find myself wishing for a horse (paths are long at Versailles) as I head to the rowing club beside the cross-shaped Grand Canal where the Cercle Nautique de Versailles has been training for over a century. Thomas Baroukh, 28, grew up on the palace doorstep in the town of Versailles. He started rowing here when he was eleven. He has to row around the pool three times to achieve his training target of 20 kilometers, he explains, and these days he’s preparing for his second shot at an Olympic medal. Baroukh waits almost every day for the tourists to return their rental boats so he can row.
Back in the 18th century, the palace estate was home to some 10 000 people. The royal family shared the 1800 rooms inside the palace with their kin and servants. Ministers, nobles and personnel were allotted the more cramped quarters of the annexes, where apartments often lacked a kitchen and walls were black with soot from hearths and candles. The invention of the water closet had come to England but not yet made it to France. The privies in the stairwells of Versailles befouled the air and, as contemporary witnesses reported, liquid secretions would persistently trickle through the walls. Such unhealthy and malodorous conditions notwithstanding, a noble would deem being furnished with an apartment in town an insult to his honor and tantamount to banishment, the palace being the political and cultural center of France.
“Save my poor Versailles,” Louis XVI reportedly said, when an angry mob drove him from his palace at the start of the French Revolution. His French descendants are still trying. Wind and rain erode its stones, worms eat through its ancient timbers, and visitors scratch their names into the looking glasses in the Hall of Mirrors. The Royal Opera House reopened in 2009 after a 12-million-euro restoration. It was originally built for the wedding of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI in 1770 and in the following 20 years, was used for performances only 16 times.
Laurent Brunner, 51, head of the entertainment program at Versailles, makes far more use of the stage. In 2015, there were 250 performances at the Royal Opera House spanning a repertoire of modern ballet, theater and classical concerts. “There are so many possibilities,” says Brunner, perched comfortably on a turquoise plush stool in the waiting room outside the entrance to the opera house. Today he is welcoming guests to the premiere of the ballet Piaf. The Baroque period is famous for its extravagance, but when it comes to entertainment, Brunner is a match for it. He stages water displays, children’s parties and masked balls, and this summer, pianist Lang Lang and artist Ólafur Elíasson will be coming to Versailles. The people would appear to take great pleasure in such spectacles: The entertainment boss recorded 1.5 million visitors for last year’s events.
In the days of Louis XVI, the Versailles household devoured six percent of France’s gross domestic product. Today, two thirds of the palace upkeep comes from admission fees, says Hélène Dalifard, who is in charge of PR. The rest? State subsidies and donations. Versailles still stands for luxury and tradition, which brings the palace some pretty exclusive partners: Hermès, for example, donated the saddles for the equestrian academy, while perfumer Guerlain designed a limited-edition Versailles fragrance and donates a portion of the proceeds of its sale towards the palace’s restoration. Ducasse felt drawn even closer to the kitchen garden and is opening a restaurant inside the palace this summer.
The ballet will begin soon, but Brunner asks Dalifard to guide me through the deserted palace corridors to see one last thing. I follow her through chambers hung with brocade, lush with velvet and glittering gold, to the Hall of Mirrors – 73 meters long, mirrors to the left, the windows overlooking the palace grounds to the right. The chandeliers, golden in the evening glow, twinkle in all 357 mirrors. We stand at the windows and look out onto the Grand Canal, which carries our gaze all the way to the horizon, creating an impression of endless expanse. There’s no one to be seen in the park at this time. “Looking out from here,” says Dalifard, “there’s nothing to indicate the age in which we live – it looks exactly like it did 300 years ago.”
Four insider tips
Watch the riders from the equestrian academy train from 10 am to 12 noon – opposite the palace.
The fountains play on Tuesdays and on the weekends, when admission is charged for the park.
Take a stroll among the hens at Hameau de la Reine, Marie Antoinette’s rustic retreat at Versailles.
The royal chambers may only be visited on a guided tour. Make sure to book in advance.