Friday, December 24, 2010

Palace of Versailles Gardens

Image: Plan of the chateau of Versailles and the gardens dating from 1746, by the Abbé Delagrive, geographer of the city of Paris.

The gardens of Versailles cover 800 hectares. I don’t know who has the job of counting them, but according to Wikipedia which uses the official Château de Versailles website as its source, there are 200,000 trees on site, and 210,000 flowers are planted annually, as well as 50 fountains spraying 620 jets of water into the air. The surface area of the Grand Canal covers 23 ha., and if you want to walk the perimeter of the Grand Canal, you should be prepared for a stroll of over 5.5 km.

However, none of these facts and figures really capture the overwhelming size and scope of the grounds surrounding the main Palace building, and as I wrote in my last entry Viva la Revolution, it is while walking around these grounds and gardens that the grandeur of Versailles really overpowers you and hits home.

I spent a couple of hours walking through the grounds on a freezing winter afternoon, with the snow crunching underfoot, and a low mist hanging over the long allies and landscaped gardens. It was hard to believe that the hustle and bustle of metropolitan Paris with its 12 million inhabitants lay sprawling around the site.

The gardens of Versailles occupy part of what was once the Domaine royal de Versailles. Situated to the west of the palace, the gardens cover some 800 hectares of land, much of which is landscaped in the classic French Garden style perfected here by André Le Nôtre. In addition to the meticulous manicured lawns, beds of flowers and sculptures, are the fountains which are located throughout the garden. Dating from the time of Louis XIV and still using much of the same network of hydraulics as was used during the Ancien Régime, the fountains contribute to making the gardens of Versailles unique. In 1979, the gardens along with the château were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, and are one of the most visited public sites in France, receiving more than six million visitors a year. [Source: Wikipedia...]

Where the main building was packed with a constant stream of visitors filing dutifully through grand halls, past royal bedchambers, and room after room filled with a priceless paintings, sculptures and other objects, the gardens were almost devoid of people or the constant presence of security personnel and other staff. I felt as if I had the whole garden complex to myself, and rarely saw or heard anyone else as I wandered down long allies, exploring side paths and small alcoves, while discovering just a small part of this incredible place.

Image: Bosquet de la Salle de Bal, Versailles

The World English Dictionary defines a bosquet as: (noun) a clump of small trees or bushes; thicket

The Salle de Bal (ballroom?) bosquet was designed and built between 1681–1683. It features a semi-circular cascade that forms the backdrop for this ‘green hall’. Interspersed with gilt lead flares, which supported candelabra for illumination, the Salle de Bal was inaugurated in 1683 by Louis XIV’s son, the Grand Dauphin, with a dance party.

Image: The frozen over Bacchus Fountain in the gardens of Versailles


The Bacchus Fountain (also called the Autumn fountain), is one of four fountains dedicated to the seasons and can be found near the Royal Walk. Bacchus, a figure of Roman mythology is said to have taught the cultivation of the vine throughout the world. He is regarded as the god of wine and drunkenness, and in this sculpture he is surrounded by small satyrs, half child and half goat.

It wasn’t until I reached the Grand Canal that I encountered people in numbers, and even then, there were nowhere near the numbers one might expect to see on a warm summer day at the height of the tourist season.

Image: Allie du Roy (the King’s Alley), one of many that crisscross Palace grounds and gardens

Image: The 1,500 metre long Grand Canal disappears into the distance

It was Louis XIII who began the program to layout the gardens of Versailles in the 1630s, and it was Claude Mollet and Hilaire Masson who designed the gardens, which remained relatively unchanged until the expansion ordered under Louis XIV in the 1660s. With the aid of the architect Louis Le Vau, the painter Le Brun, and landscape architect André Le Nôtre, Louis began an embellishment and expansion program at Versailles that would keep him occupied for the remainder of his reign – as it would successive kings and rulers.

Like many of the most famous locations around Paris, you need at least two days – and preferably three – to explore the Palace of Versailles and surrounding gardens with any type of thoroughness. I was there for less than a day and never saw any of The Grand Trianon or anything of Marie-Antoinette’s estate. I missed most of the copses and groves, fountains and open-air salons, the King’s Garden, the Apollo Baths, the Ornamental Lake of The Dragon, and many other locations large and small as well as dozens of sculptures that had been covered over to protect them from the harsh winter elements.

Image: the statue of Apollo (in the Grand Canal) trying to break out of encroaching ice!

One could of course, make a good argument for leveling the whole site and turning the acreage into cheap public housing for those that need it most, but then people might forget the reasons for the French Revolution: the poverty and hunger; the near financial bankruptcy of the Crown following France’s involvement in the Seven Years War and its participation in the American Revolutionary War; and the perception by many French people that the Royal Court at Versailles was isolated from, and indifferent to the hardships they were facing. These are just a few of the reasons behind the upheaval leading to the revolution of 1789.

As I said in my previous entry on Versailles, I can’t think of any modern political leaders who wouldn’t love to be able to bask in the glory and opulence of a Palace like Versailles. Which is why the Palace of Versailles should be maintained and kept open to the public and visitors from all over the world – to remind them that absolute power, corrupts absolutely. And to remind them that if they are not vigilant the power elite will happily create their own versions of Versailles.

You may be thinking: But they are doing that anyway, and it is true, they are. Saddam Hussein had palaces to spare. The former Shah of Iran had his own grand palaces before he was thrown out by the Iranian revolution of 1979. No doubt, Kim Jong-il of North Korea is happily sheltered from the hungry eyes of ordinary North Koreans in one of his many citadels. President Ferdinand Marcos and his shoe fetishist wife Imelda had their own versions of Versailles amongst the poverty and corruption of the Philippines before Corazon ’Corey’ Aquino led the People Power revolution in the 1980s, that finally brought an end to their indulgences. And so it goes on.

But I say again, that is exactly why the Palace of Versailles should stay. To remind the French and the thousands of people who visit the site, that not only should they remain vigilant, but also to give them hope that together they can challenge the power elites that govern them, and that they can make a difference.

More Information

All of the factual historical information used in this and my previous entry about the Palace of Versailles is drawn from two internet sites; the Official Palace of Versailles website… and numerous pages on Wikipedia (that wonderful and indispensable online knowledge base), including the Gardens of Versailles page…

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