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Visit Versailles Hassle-Free

Giving over a full day for a visit to Versailles is recommended but it is possible to see it all in about five hours if you are a brisk walker.

Most people come early in the morning to visit Versailles and recently a guide told me that Chinese tourists line up outside the chateau as early as 7am − that’s two hours before its 9am opening! I was also warned that during August the queues were at least 3-hours long.

Getting to Versailles From Paris

With that in mind I decided I would put off taking the RER line C from Invalides to Versailles Rive-Gauche until late morning (€8,20 return).

I am preparing a French Revolution tour for September and I was so deeply engrossed in my research: a biography of Lucie Dillon, the Marquise du Tour de la Pin, that I was delighted to find the 20mins journey on the RER (Parisian Suburban Train System) had passed by in a flash of unpleasant urban sprawl by my window.

I happened to be on the chapter about the follies of Marie Antoinette at the court of Versailles and the intriguing accounts of the mania for lavish hair-dos (or coiffures as they are known) that had swept Versailles. The author tells how many of the aristocrats tried to outdo each other in terms of height, theme, and scale. One such coiffure, worn by the Duchesse de Lauzun during an evening reception at the palace, caused a huge intake of breath by those assembled. Contemporary accounts said that the Duchess arrived sporting an entire landscape on her head, replete with stormy sea, ducks swimming near the shore, and a man with a gun sprouting from her head. Suffice to say − as the French are fond of saying: “c’était too much”.

Where to Eat

Upon arrival at Versailles Rive Gauche station, I decided to have an early lunch at a restaurant on the beautiful square that encloses the Marché Notre-Dame found just 10 minuets walk from the entrance to the Chateau. The market is closed in August, but the terraces overflowing onto the square from the restaurants surrounding it, were filled with contented-looking visitors tucking into traditional French fare. Alternatively, one can eat at restaurants found in the grounds of the chateau. After a quick lunch and toilet stop (lines for the toilets are very long at Versailles) I was now ready to do battle.

Tips for Avoiding the Queue

“The queue is three and a half hours long to get into the Chateau”, the woman at the information desk informed me flatly. “If you wish to see the Trianon and the Petit Trianon go there first, then see the chateau afterwards”. This was very good advice.

I bought my pass for the day (€25), which covers everything: the chateau with audio guide, the gardens, the fountain show and Marie Antoinette’s farmhouses, and I made my way briskly past the gargantuan queue.

The Gardens and the Fountains

I quickly entered the gardens (no queue), and as I took the steps down onto the principal avenue that forms a stunning perspective, leading the eye past the marble statue-lined hedgerows to a canal with bobbing boats in the distance − I could hear baroque music emanating from some unseen source in the hedgerows. The experience was moving in a way I hadn’t expected. Visits to the chateaux, although breathtaking in their own way, did not succeed in producing the same response.

I was fortunate enough to see the fountains turned on, gushing with great displays of water. The fountain show is restricted to weekends and public holidays from March 30 till 27 October. They are activated during the day from 11am to 12am and then from 3:30pm to 5pm.

Alternatively, the musical fountain night show takes place every Saturday night from the 20th July to the 14th of September. The night ends with a spectacular fireworks show over the Grand Canal.

A Tour of The Trianon

After a long walk down tree-lined avenues, I found my way to the Trianon (open from 12am until 18:30). Originally built by Louis XIV as a place where the family could retire from the court at Versailles, this fine palace in pink marble became the summer residence of Napoléon Bonaparte and the empress Marie-Louise. Napoléon considerably renovated the interior. After a brisk stroll, taking in the fine details and the considerable splendour of this palace, I was ready for something a bit different.

A Tour of The Petit Trianon

Built for Louis XV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, the Petit Trianon is evidence of the elegance and refinement for which Pompadour was so celebrated. It has, however, become synonymous as the retreat of Marie Antoinette, after Louis XVI gave it to her when he became king. She famously built a farm and Normandy-style village in the grounds of the Petit Trianon, known as Le Hameau. This is well worth a look to get an idea of how removed from reality the queen really was.

Seeing The Chateau in Record Time

I was watching the time as I rushed though Marie Antoinette's artificial country village, I knew the Chateau closes at 6:30pm and it was fast approaching 4:30pm. I quickened the pace and headed out of the Petit Trianon and back down the avenue towards the Chateau. I had time to take a different route through the gardens, to see parts that I hadn’t yet explored. Sadly, I would have had liked more time to properly explore. I arrived at the chateau and joined the queue, which had considerably diminished in size from a few hours before. It still took 30mins of waiting in the unpleasant hot evening sun. The palace does not disappoint, but being part of the last group to enter meant that we were unable to linger long — we were moved along by the overzealous security guards, anxious to empty the palace so they could go home.

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