Foreign travel is off this year’s agenda. I have been doing a little armchair travel to France using my old photos. I spent two days in Versailles in late June 2017. As I had visited the Château’s interior on a number of occasions, I decided to concentrate on the grounds. I visited the Trianons and Marie Antoinette’s Hamlet. The Versailles estate is absolutely enormous.
I had frequently read about the extravagance of the French monarchy and opulence of the estate. The scale of it all still proved overwhelming on my own two feet over a two-day period. I hired a bike to ride around to the various entry points (you cannot ride inside the grounds). Versailles is regarded as the symbol of absolute monarchy. The Sun King’s statue dominates the approach to the Château. I am frequently struck by the formality of French planting and importance attached to classical statues within gardens. Hard landscaping dominates with courtyards, fountains and terraces. It seems the very opposite of a more naturalistic style of gardening that we are working towards for the future. Where nature is present, it is generally controlled and manicured into trimmed hedges and formal planting.
The Queen’s Hamlet was undergoing some renovation work during my visit. I was staggered by the unreality of it all. Can you imagine anyone building a full-scale, idyllic hamlet in their garden today? Everyone stood open-mouthed on hearing the equivalent expenditure in today’s terms.
The atmosphere during my Versailles stay was fantastic. There was a week-long musical festival with free concerts and street performances across the town. My final evening was marked by a spectacular evening fountain and firework show in the palace grounds. It was a perfect sunny evening as everyone waited at the palace gates for the event’s entry time. A number of the guests were also going to attend an expensive, masked costume ball at the palace after the fireworks. The 21st century mingled with the Sun King’s courtiers. Cardinal Richelieu in his long, red flowing robes rushed past tourists dressed in torn, denim shorts. It was incongruous to see costumed figures in powdered wigs talking on mobile phones and taking selfies.
A botanical note: I discovered the French common name for Cotinus in the Anacardiaceae family while wandering in the grounds. It is commonly called the Smoke Bush or Tree in English. The flowers make the bush look as if it is covered in a wispy cloud of smoke. The French call it an Arbre à perruque, i.e. a Wig Tree. It evidently looks like a powdered wig to the French. It was an apt discovery to make while at Versailles.
The musical fountain display was spectacular. The fountains use a phenomenal amount of water. They are not all kept operational now. The fountains only sprang into life as the king and his courtiers approached even in the past. The evening ended for me with a firework display, while others made their way into the costumed ball in the magnificent Palace setting.
It was a spectacular evening. The event gave today’s visitors a taster of an extravagant period in history. That world seems even more unreal now in the midst of a global health and economic crisis.
All photos and copy © Karen Netto (Andrews)