The history of Versailles in six significant events – and how to experience it today
How do you manage a site – and a view – as large as Versailles? The palace alone has 2,300 rooms. And there are two other châteaux – the Petit and the Grand Trianon – in the park. Add to that two operas, the model village of Marie Antoinette, acre after acre of parks and formal gardens and, on summer weekends, spectacular fireworks and fountains, and you begin to realize the magnitude of the tourism challenge.
You need time, but you also need access. And a new hotel that has opened within the palace grounds gives you just that: a 24-hour park pass and after-hours interior tours. So you can see everything from Marie-Antoinette’s bathroom to the famous long gallery – the Hall of Mirrors – devoid of crowds, and many additional rooms that are rarely open to the public.
I spent three days there a few weeks ago, quietly putting myself in the shoes of the place. And I came out not so much in awe of the architecture or in dismay at the madness of grandeur, but curious about the bizarre cast of characters who created and inhabited this extraordinary place and used it to fulfill their even more extraordinary fantasies – from Sun King, Louis XIV, who was the main driving force behind the palace and the party, Louis XV and his mistress Madame de Pompadour, and the tragically naive Marie-Antoinette.
For me, Versailles was like a theater after a performance. The silent fountains, the empty chambers, the echoing halls, the chapel and the opera house were full of ghosts: the revelers of the great festivities of the past. Six events in particular stand out. Times when the great scenography of Versailles kept its promises.
The Feast of Delights of the Enchanted Island (1664)
When Louis XIV ascended the throne, Versailles was nothing more than a simple royal hunting lodge. It took 50 years, from the 1660s to the 1710s, to transform it into a vast palace set in the landscape we see today. But the 21-year-old king saw his potential from the start. Work on the gardens began in 1662, and he organized his first big party in 1664.