As the sunshine glistened on the magnificence of the Palace of Versailles and its iconic gardens, I drank in the breathtaking and spellbinding beauty of its majesty.
Spanning 2,014 acres - which makes it the World’s Largest Royal Domain - it was the start of an exquisite love affair with France and its heritage in the truest sense of ‘l’amour toujours’.
A truly sensual feast, the extensive gardens captivate and enchant the modern-day visitor three and a half centuries after being commissioned by the all-powerful Louis XIV - known as the ‘Sun King’ because he chose the sun as his personal symbol.With 372 statues, 55 water features, 600 fountains and 35km of canals, the gardens embody the opulence of the Palace of Versailles - the seat of the French government reflecting a glorious reign.
Escape the Maddening Crowd
With 5 million visitors descending upon the Palace and 10 million meandering through the gardens each year from far-flung corners of the globe, managing expectations regarding volumes of crowds is important.
We discovered the best way to enjoy the gardens without feeling you are in the middle of a scrum is to head for them first while virtually everyone else joins the never-ending queues for the Palace.
When planning your timetable, bypass suggestions of allocating just one hour for the gardens - because an ‘Affaire de Coeur’ can never be rushed!
The scale of the gardens is mind-blowing and the all-pervasive water theme of canals, fountains and water features never ceases to fascinate and enthral.
One of the most stunning centrepieces, The Neptune Fountain, has 99 jets and dominates the lavish landscape of the historic gardens designed by French landscape architect André Le Nôtre, the King’s principal gardener.
We savoured every moment of the experience as we explored the well trodden paths and following in the footsteps of royalty at this spectacular chateau created on the site of a former hunting lodge.
Musical fountains strike right chord
When we thought nothing could surpass the experience so far, we came upon musical fountains.
Here the beautiful strains of baroque composers transport visitors to an era where up to 10,000 people a day including courtiers bustled around the Palace and gardens in the reign of Louis XIV which was hailed as ‘Grand Siecle’.
Evoking days of a hedonistic monarch and entourage resplendent in lavish gowns and wigs, visitors are mesmerised by the magical chords.
Almost 50 gardeners are needed to maintain the 800,000 plants in the garden which took 40 years to create and is replanted every 100 years. In 1674 its opulence extended to two gondolas and four gondoliers bestriding the canal thanks to a gift from the Republic of Venice.
When viewing the Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the piece de résistance is undoubtedly The Hall of Mirrors - arguably the most famous room in the world.
Playing host to celebrities worldwide, Victoria and David Beckham were pictured celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary in the Hall of Mirrors just two days before our visit.
Spanning 240 feet, the Hall - the epitome of opulence - honours France’s wide-ranging achievements in the political, artistic and economic arenas.
Proud and resplendent, it features 357 mirrors - the most expensive items to possess in the 17th century which were primarily produced in Venice - along with 17 glass doors, marble walls, chandeliers and ceiling paintings - not to mention the stunning statues and chandeliers.
The magnificent arched ceiling features a series of paintings by Charles Le Brun illustrating the glorious reign of Louis XIV, who hailed his court painter as ‘the greatest French artist of all time’.
After moving the French seat of government to Versailles in 1682, the royal family lived at the Palace for over a hundred years - returning to Paris when the Palace was attacked by a mob during the French Revolution in October 1789.
Fast forward 230 years - and the Palace and gardens continue to be a hypnotic magnet for those seeking to glean an insight into the past.
Leaving this treasure for the next tens of millions to learn about and enjoy, nothing has been quite the same after being steeped in such a sensual and sumptuous experience.
The depth of feeling the beautiful gardens evoked has prompted me to encourage readers to follow their passion, make time to fill their lives with new experiences - and avoid ‘wish lists’ dissipating into inertia.
The official website of the Palace and Gardens of Versailles
Visiting the gardens
On arriving at the Palace, avoid the crowds for the Palace and go directly to the gardens by the top left-hand side of the Cour d'Honneur and through the gate of the courtyard of the Princes. Access to the gardens is free of charge, except for Fountain Show and Musical Gardens days (from April to October).
On these days buy a Passport ticket at the Ticket Office in the South Ministers Wing or a Fountain Show or Musical Gardens ticket at the entrance to the gardens.
The gardens are open every day from 8 am to 8.30 pm during high season (April to October), and from 8 am to 6 pm during low season (November to March) except for exceptional events and when the Fountains Night Show is on (closes 5.30 pm).
Visiting the Palace
The Palace is open from 9:00 am to 5:30 pm (6:30 pm April to October); last admission 5:00 pm (6:00 pm November to March), from Tuesday to Sunday. It is closed on a Monday
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We spent at least three hours - and could have stayed days - in the palatial park of the Château de Versailles which encompasses the wider lake and gardens and is spread over 800 hectares