Saturday, April 12, 2008

Euro Day 12: High Society

It's Thursday, July 19, 2007 - so it must be time for a trip to Versailles! As we boarded the shuttle bus at 9am, we were warned that the 18km trip to this fabled chateau could last up to 45 minutes due to Paris' notoriously heavy morning traffic. As luck would have it, most Parisians must have slept late and we were able to reach our destination in a blistering 20 minutes.

Upon arrival in the chi-chi town of Versailles, Sylvie and Alec narrated as the coach did a quick spin by some local sites. The main theme: Versailles is a fairly wealthy and exclusive place to reside, and still bears the echoes of France's great aristocratic families. We soon departed the coach and spent a little while strolling through the (seemingly deserted) town center - pausing for awhile at Louis XIV's Notre-Dame 'cathedra'. My impression was that the town is picturesque enough, but lacks anything particularly distinctive. I was to be proven wrong, of course.

Sylvie led The Gang on the short stroll to Chateau Versailles. As we entered through its ornate main gate, my jaw nearly hit the ground. The entrance square is a massive field of something akin to cobblestone and guarded on 3 sides by the Chateau, itself. The right words are elusive, but panoramic and awe-inspiring probably come close. If King Louis was looking for a way to impress his visitors (and he was), then he had succeeded in spades.

Mere mortals line up in the square, hoping
to get inside the Chateau someday soon

We had a few minutes to kill as The Gang waited to enter the Chateau at the reserved time. I - along with Dee and JediBoy - strolled through through a nearby archway and suddenly found ourselves in the 'backyard' - the entrance to Versailles famed gardens. While we could see the canals and manicured greenery, we could not fully comprehend the massive scale of the gardens from this vantage. All we knew was that the garden's precise geometry extended into the horizon and into forever.

First glimpse of the gardens

We hurried back to The Gang and found ourselves in tour-mode (after yet another half-hearted security check) inside the Chateau's State Apartments. With Alec as our guide and professor, we saw the Throne Room, various salons named for Roman gods, and - of course - the newly-restored Hall of Mirrors. It's interesting to note that the Hall of Mirrors - much like the Chateau's grand entrance - was designed by Louis to impress and intimidate his visitors. With the entrance at one end of the Hall, and the King seated at the other end, visitors would have to traverse a long corridor full of (then-expensive) mirrors and windows all designed to reflect candlelight and sunlight. Louis was, indeed, the Sun King.

Marie Antoinette slept here

It's also interesting to note that the extreme ornateness and opulence of the Apartments soon became rather ordinary. Perhaps it was sensory overload, or perhaps I was channeling my Inner Aristocrat. But it was a wonder that anyone ever lived here. Sadly, many of the Chateau's furnishings - the things that people leave behind to say they stopped somewhere for awhile - have long been dispersed by descendants of the Revolution.

It was nearing lunch by this time, and we would be sitting down to our dejeuner at a small restaurant named La Flottille, a jewel hidden in the Chateau's gardens. We hopped aboard a tram for a bumpy tour of the gardens on our way to lunch. It was here that the scale of the gardens started to become apparent. We spied many lane-ways, paths, outbuildings, and fountains - all surrounded by geometrically manicured greenery. I marveled that so many large trees could be kept to such precise shapes and I imagined the Dr. Seuss-inspired devices employed for this purpose.

At La Flottille we sat outdoors at long tables under a large awning. In true French style, the meal was elegant, enjoyable, and lasted 2 hours. Lunch was also quite filling. A bike ride would be just the thing to burn off those French calories. And that's just what some of us did!

I should point out that a Very Large Pond, known as the Grand Canal, is the focal-point of the gardens - and it is around one end of this pond where various amenities such as La Flotille, bike rentals, boat rentals, and snack kiosks are located. All of these amenities exist not just for tourists - for the Chateau is also maintained as a public park for the local residents. As a result, we saw people with picnics, people rowing across the pond in little wooden boats, and people just generally enjoying the gardens.

Looking back to the Chateau

And so, Dee, JediBoy, BandGeek, and myself were fitted with bikes and set off on a 1-hour tour of the garden's byways. We opted to follow the tree-lined lane that skirts the pond and its various canals that, together, form a sort of large cross. The scale of the place became apparent again. One bike-lap around the pond is approximately 7km and requires about 30 minutes of peddling! We were able to complete 2 full laps before returning our bikes.

This marked the end of our Versailles experience and, before long, the coach collected The Gang and brought us all back to our hotel. At this point we had a couple of hours to kill before a planned farewell dinner that would mark the official end of the Disney tour. We made the most of this break: JediBoy and I dozed in front of a TV while the ladies made one last, desperate shopping run down the Champs Elysees.

Dinner would also be served along the Champs Elysees at an elegant restaurant known as Laduree - famous for its delicious macaroons. We were given a private dining room upstairs furnished in French antiques. Essentially, the establishment seemed like a toned-down version of Chateau Versailles. I won't spoil too many surprises for those Gentle Readers who are intending to experience this tour on their own. That said, there were gifts to be had and a remarkable video presentation of our tour highlights - obviously the fruits of the Double-A's constant camera-clicking throughout the week. We were even serenaded by a beret-clad musician, who was only too glad to give accordion lessons to JediBoy.

Our entertainment

As an extra-special surprise, Alex and Andrew presented Dee and myself with a very thoughtful anniversary card and pin. It seems that 2 kids we know intimated to our hosts that Dee and I were celebrating such an occasion the following day. It was just kind of Disney touch we've come to expect over the years.

After a fabulously decedent meal, a coach was waiting out front to bring us the few blocks back to our hotel. Many of us lingered on the street in front of the Hilton saying our goodbyes. We made a point of saying so long to a mother/daughter couple with whom we shared a number of mealtime tables. We also bid our fond farewells to the Double-A's, who had worked so hard to make the tour so memorable. There were others I wanted to seek out, but JediBoy was asleep on his feet by this point and I elected to finish my goodbyes at breakfast the next morning.

While this was the formal end of the Disney tour, we four had one more day of fun between this evening and the long plane ride home. Tomorrow: Disneyland Paris!


David said...

Which was more surreal, Versailles, or Disneyland?

Crazylegs said...

Hmmmmm. I'd have to say that Versailles was more surreal. It was built on blood and ego to achieve (mostly) political goals. It's massive. It's beyond opulent. And now it's this weird echo of it's former glory. I found it so odd, so sadly human, so 'meta'.

Disneyland, however, knows exactly what it is and ever shall be.

They're both quite beautiful places, actually. But people go to Disneyland for a good time. People go to Versailles to hear the echoes of other people who used to go there for a good time.

All that aside, in their respective heydays, you need (and needed) to be rich enough to be at either place.

I'm sensing an unwritten Star Trek episode here.

Anonymous said...