Le Château de Versailles: Walking Tour

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Le Château de Versailles: Walking Tour

L'Etat, c'est moi. ("I am the State.")
-attributed to Louis XIV

 
Après nous le déluge. ("When we are gone, the floodgates will open.")
-Madame de Pompadour

 
Qu'ils mangent de la brioche. ("Let them eat cake.")
-attributed to Marie-Antoinette

 
Louis XVI: C'est une révolte? ("Is it a revolt?")
La Rochefoucauld: Non Sire, c'est une révolution. ("No Sire, it's a revolution.")

 
Fils de Saint Louis, montez au ciel! ("Son of St. Louis, rise up to heaven!")
-Louis XVI's last words before the guillotine

 
Men who are subjects would be very poor rulers; it is far easier to obey a superior than to command one's own self; and when we can do anything we want it is difficult to want only what is right.
-King Louis XIV, le Roi-Soleil

 

In the 700 rooms of the Château de Versailles there are: 551,219 square feet of floor space, 67 staircases, 6,000 paintings, 2,100 sculptures, 5,000 items of furniture and 2,153 windows. You won't be visiting them all. Take the stairs up to the chapel to begin your passports Walking Tour.

1) La Chapelle Royale: The Royal Chapel  This great Baroque chapel was the last major part of the château to be completed, in 1710. It is dedicated to St-Louis, the great medieval French crusader king. Louis XIV and his successors celebrated Mass here every day at 10:00am. The royal family was upstairs, the courtiers were downstairs and the women were in the gallery side-chapels. The choir and the musicians stood around the organ. The future Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were married here in 1770. (You look down at the chapel from above; you cannot go in.)

Did you know...? You can still attend Mass in this chapel at 5:30pm on the second or third Sunday of each month.

2) Le Salon d'Hercule: The Hercules Room  The second-largest room in the château, after the Hall of Mirrors. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays it served as a ballroom for parties presided over by Louis between 6:00pm and 10:00pm. The room was specially built to house the painting by Veronese that hangs on the wall, 'Christ's Supper at the House of Simon.' This was given to Louis XIV as a present by the Republic of Venice. The ceiling picture is of Hercules being received into the company of the Olympian gods. The artist worked on this painting for three years, after which, in exhaustion and despair, he committed suicide. Hercules' face also appears on the fireplace. The Hercules Room was the entrance to the State Apartments. The Swiss Guard were posted here to prevent any undesirables from entering.

Did you know...? In general, Versailles was freely open to the public during the Ancien Régime. Some people, though, were simply unacceptable. They included the poorly dressed (though you could always hire a hat and a sword at the door to gain entry); those suffering from smallpox; dogs, and monks.

Les Grands Appartements du Roi: The State Apartments  These six rooms were originally intended for the king's private use, equivalent to the Grands Appartements de la Reine which you'll see later, but they soon came to be dedicated for state functions.

3) Le Salon d'Abondance: The Room of Plenty  The figure of abundance personified, with her overflowing Horn of Plenty, graces the ceiling. On party nights, known as Soirées d'Appartement, refreshments were served here from three buffets laid with gold and silver vessels. One was for hot drinks, one was for fruit juices and sherberts, and one for wines and liqueurs. In winter, the walls of this room were hung with green velvet, in summer with silk.

Did you know...? After a catastrophic dental operation in which Louis XIV's upper teeth were badly removed, he suffered from the discomfort and embarrassment by which every time he drank anything, the liquid went straight up his nose and out like a leaking tap into the open air.

4) Le Salon de Vénus: The Venus Room  The ceiling painting shows Venus "subjugating the divinities and the powers." The main statue is of Louis XIV dressed as a Roman emperor. Look out for the other 'statues' between the windows and the paintings. The effect is to make the room seem bigger than it actually is. It is a style typical of the French Baroque known as trompe l'oeil or 'deceive the eye.' These statues are nothing more than paintings in deceptive shades of grey. On party nights (Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays) this was where you would come for a light snack.

Did you know...? Louis XIV was not famous for light snacks. His dinners, though theoretically private, were almost always public and impressive, with 324 people involved in the creation and delivery of la viande du roi. Here is an actual menu. Remember that this was just for one man:

Soup, 3 partridges in their juice, 2 capons, 6 pies, 4 partridges with cabbage, 2 grilled turkeys, Soup, 3 fattened chickens with truffles, 6 farm-bred baby pigeons, 2 fattened capons, Selection of vol-au-vents, 9 chickens, 2 small soups, 9 pigeons, 1 side of veal (28 pounds), 2 cornish hens, 1 pigeon pie (12 pigeons), 6 partridges, 6 fried chickens, 4 pies, 2 minced partridges. Selection of sweets and desserts.

A 'grand couvert' like this was so efficiently served that it would last only about an hour. History doesn't record whether or not Louis finished this particular meal. Presumably he must have left some. Presumably also this meal was served during the partridge season.

5) Le Salon de Diane: The Diana Room  This was the billiards room. The table was draped with crimson velvet fringed with gold. The treasure of this room is the flamboyant bust of Louis XIV with flowing locks and his eyes gazing upwards. It was sculpted in 1665 by Bernini, the man whose fountains and sculptures adorn the city of Rome. Look out for the royal French motif of the fleur de lys in this room.

Did you know...? Billiards was invented in France (probably) as an indoor version of croquet for rainy days. It was one of Louis XIV's favorite pastimes and a game at which he excelled. It was said that Louis liked it so much because he always won and could show himself to be le maître du monde, 'the master of the world.'

6) Le Salon de Mars: The Mars Room  Mars is the ruler of this room, riding victoriously across the ceiling in his chariot. This was the main room for music and dancing. A concert was held here every night. There were two stages either side of the fireplace for musicians. The beautiful Gobelin tapestries depict the foundation of the Hôtel des Invalides and the baptism of the Dauphin. The portraits on the far wall are of Louis XV and his Polish wife Maria Leszczynska.

Did you know...? The court composer under Louis XIV was Jean-Baptiste Lully, the 'inventor' of French Opera. He wrote much of the incidental music to Molière's plays. He died in his fifties at the height of his success when he contracted gangrene after accidentally stabbing himself in the foot with his conductor's baton. That little tragedy happened in this very room.

7) Le Salon de Mercure: The Mercury Room  This room was used generally for card games and gambling. Sometimes lotteries were also drawn here, by the King himself on one famous occasion. Gambling was a massive activity in Versailles. Madame de Montespan, one of Louis XIV's mistresses, was an inveterate gambler who, on Christmas Day one year, lost 40,000 gold francs. In 1699 four courtiers killed themselves in despair at the huge size of their losses here.

Did you know...? In 1715 Louis XIV lay in state in this room for a week after his death, to allow the public to view his body and indulge in mourning. It seems likely that in his old age the king had begun to develop diabetes. Though he retained his appetite he could barely eat and began to lose weight rapidly. He complained of pains in his right leg. It was the onset of gangrene. Within three weeks the gangrene had reached up to his thigh. He could no longer support the pain and spent his last days falling in and out of consciousness. He went into a coma and died at 8:15 am on the first of September 1715. He was 77. After a total of 72 years spent on the throne, Louis XIV had completed the longest ever reign in the history of mankind.

8) Le Salon d'Apollon: The Apollo Room  Appropriately, since Apollo was the god of the sun, this was the throne room of the Sun King. His silver throne, covered in gold-embroidered velvet, stood on a raised platform beneath a canopy in the center of the room. You can still see three gilded hooks in the ceiling from which the canopy was hung. Ambassadors to the French court were received in this room. During the Soirées d'Appartement this room was used, like the Mars Room, as an alternative concert hall. Don't miss the famous full-length portrait of Louis XIV and those legs of which he was so proud. The painting was originally meant as a present for his grandson, the King of Spain, but Louis liked it so much he decided to keep it for himself. He gave his grandson a copy.

The Main Gallery  The Apollo Room was the last of the State Apartments. Now you have reached the west front of the palace, and Versailles' pièce de résistance begins.

9) Le Salon de la Guerre: The War Room  This was the vestibule to the Hall of Mirrors. It is matched on the other side by the Peace Room. It was dedicated to Louis XIV's military successes. Note the bas-relief medallion showing the king riding roughshod over his defeated enemies and being crowned by the goddess of war. The walls are marble, surrounded by bronze trophies of battle.

10) La Galerie des Glaces: The Hall of Mirrors This is the biggest and most famous room in the palace. It was designed in 1678. It is 240 feet long, 35 feet wide and 40 feet high. Seventeen huge windows reflect from the seventeen mirrors opposite and facing the setting sun. Each of those mirrors is made up of 24 panes of glass of the largest size that it was technically possible to manufacture in those days. The ceiling paintings show events from the previous seventeen years of Louis' reign. He is shown in thirty different compositions painted by Le Brun — as a Roman emperor, as a great lawgiver and as a victor in battle. The pilasters between the arches are made of marble, their capitals of gilded bronze.

The statues along the walls were the finest in the royal collection. Originally the room was decorated with solid-silver furniture (tables, chairs and lampstands). All unfortunately were melted down on Louis' orders to finance his never-ending wars. The candlesticks and candelabras set on the tables are now gone but three rows of chandeliers still exist. You can only imagine the dazzling effect produced on a summer's evening when the room was filled with the great and good of France in all their glorious finery, and all 3,000 light sources were illuminated.

This was a public space open to anybody. You didn't need any kind of authorization to come here. People often came just to catch a glimpse of the king. The greatest royal bals masqués were held here, and the most extravagant ambassadorial receptions. The independence of the United States was first recognized here by the French, English and Spanish in 1783. This was where Benjamin Franklin was received as US ambassador. King William of Prussia was crowned Emperor of the German Reich here in 1871. The Treaty of Versailles ending WWI was also signed in this room. Charles de Gaulle once entertained President Kennedy in this room. Long before, for 120 years under the Ancien Régime, this magnificent Hall of Mirrors was the center of the western world.

11) Le Salon de la Paix: The Peace Room  This is the counterpart to the War Room on the other side of the Hall of Mirrors. The main painting is of France and Louis XV conferring the blessings of peace upon Europe. His wife Maria Leszczynska used to hold small concerts here on Sundays. While Marie-Antoinette was pregnant with her first child she would watch private theatrical performances in this room to while away the time.

Les Appartements de la Reine: The Queen's Apartments  Unlike the Grands Appartements du Roi these apartments continued in use as living quarters throughout the Ancien Régime. The ceiling paintings here represent the virtues of the queens of antiquity.

12) La Chambre de la Reine: The Queen's Bedroom  Three queens - Marie-Thérèse, Maria Leszczynska and Marie-Antoinette - lived in this room. The first two died here. Nineteen royal children, 'enfants de France,' were born here in full view of the adoring public. The same lever and coucher ceremonies were held here as for the king, except on a slightly smaller scale. This room was connected to the King's bedroom by a secret passageway. (It still survives in part.) This was Marie-Antoinette's idea. It was through here that she escaped, though not for long, from the revolutionary hordes who steamed up the marble staircase and overpowered her guards. All the furnishings, including the magnificent four-poster bed, have been restored exactly as they were on that day in 1789 when Marie-Antoinette left here for the last time.

Did you know...? Contemporary opinion was not kind to Marie-Thérèse, Louis XIV's Spanish wife. She was apparently a fool, her French was terrible, she was obsessed with her dogs and also, oddly, with her dwarfs. Her teeth were black from eating too much chocolate and she smelt of garlic. She did, however, have one virtue (to modern eyes) quite rare in Versailles: her favorite activity was taking a long, hot bath. She was deeply in love with her husband; it was not reciprocated. On her death, Louis said: "Madame, this is the first time you bring sorrow to my heart." Whether in a spirit of respect or of sarcasm, who can tell?

13) Le Salon des Nobles: The Room of the Nobles  This was where the queen would receive ambassadors and ladies-in-waiting. The coffins of queens and dauphins were displayed here for public mourning in the days immediately following their death.

Did you know...? The second queen to grace these apartments was Maria Leszczynska, daughter of the deposed king of Poland and wife of Louis XV. Somewhat scandalously she was seven years older than the king. She was much criticized at court for the damning sin of being boring. She nevertheless entertained the king long enough to be the mother of ten of his innumerable children.

14) L'Antichambre de la Reine: The Queen's Antechamber  Look above the fireplace at the portrait of Marie-Antoinette and her children. The story of her family is desperately sad. The Queen herself was guillotined in Paris in 1793. The little boy on the right died of natural causes in 1789. He is pointing to an empty cradle, symbolising his baby sister who died just before the portrait was painted. The other boy, Louis, charmingly nicknamed 'chou d'amour,**' was taken from his mother's side and died in prison in 1795. Only the eldest girl, Madame Elisabeth, survived the Revolution.

Did you know...? After a great French naval victory over the British in the American War of Independence, Marie-Antoinette had a wig made in tribute to the famous schooner La Belle Poule which had done particularly distinguished service. The wig was so large that a model of the ship could fit on top of its specially strengthened wire frame. It stood over three feet high and engendered delight and admiration among her courtiers.

**Literally translated, this means "love cabbage." It sounds better in French.

15) La Salle des Gardes de la Reine: The Room of the Queen's Bodyguards  This room is difficult to visualize as it would once have been. The walls were covered with racks holding the weapons of the guardsmen, and half the room was separated by a screen hiding the camp-beds where the guardsmen slept. These were the same Swiss guards who were killed on 6 October 1789 trying bravely but unsuccessfully to prevent the revolutionaries from storming the palace and arresting Marie-Antoinette.

16) Le Salon du Couronnement: The Coronation Room  This room is dedicated to Napoleon. (Napoleon was not much of a fan of Versailles. When he was here he tended to stay at the Grand Trianon. Otherwise, he preferred Fontainebleau.) There are several pictures with Napoleonic themes but the one that stands out is the gigantic painting of Napoleon's Coronation by the artist David, a second version of the one in the Louvre. The two are exactly the same except for one thing: Napoleon's sisters on the left were originally all dressed in white, whereas here one of them is in pink. Why the change? Did David fall in love with her between paintings? Or was it that Napoleon's brother-in-law, her husband and probably the man who commissioned the painting, just wanted her to stand out from the crowd?

Did you know...? Every year on Holy Thursday (otherwise known as Maundy Thursday) the king would wash the feet of thirteen poor children here, feed them and give them each thirteen small denomination coins called écus.

17) L'Escalier de la Reine: The Queen's Staircase  This is also known as l'Escalier de Marbre or the Marble Staircase. It was built by Jules Hardouin-Mansart from multi-colored marble. This was the normal entrance to the château for anybody visiting the king's or queen's apartments. It was through here on 6 October 1789 that the mob stormed into the palace to attack the Queen's Guard and arrest Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI. In the words of a contemporary revolutionary newspaper:

The people scattered out into the streets. They saw one of the bodyguards at a window...of the château, they provoked him and taunted him; he, like a madman, loaded his musket, fired and killed the son of a Parisian saddler, a soldier of the National Guard. Immediately the people burst into the château and searched for the culprit... One of the bodyguards was dragged to the foot of the staircase in the marble courtyard; his head was cut off...
 

Just before the very long (and not particularly interesting) Galerie des Batailles is the Escalier des Princes or Princes' Staircase which takes you down to the exit. There is a gift shop at the foot of the stairs and there are restrooms opposite the door.

Your passports courier is waiting downstairs to escort you through the gardens to the Trianon palaces and the Hameau of Marie-Antoinette, as you continue your parade through the history of France.

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