Versailles Private Tour…by Marie Z. Johnston

More than 70 million people visit Paris each year. That’s a lot of people.  Of that, only 3 million venture out to the Chateau of Versailles (one million in July alone!) making the odds of sharing the Hall of Mirrors or the Queens Bed Chamber with 1000 strangers highly likely.

Versailles Jump

So, of course we said “YES!” when Elissa, who happens to be an 18th century historian called and asked if D and I wanted to go on a private tour of the Mistress’s apartments. Just how private?  We were 4, plusMonsieur P (our bilingual guide) and ‘the guy with the keys’. Plus, we were going in a private car… who says no to that?

Versailles Guide

You can’t even imagine how many times I’ve been through the Chateau of Versailles– not only in the last 3 years with visiting friends and family, but over my life time. In part because my Oncle Jacques worked on the restoration; Gold leafing the molding in Marie Antoinette’s bedroom among other things  (You know the one, with the gate that kept those 200+ curious ‘nobles’ away from the bed while she gave birth) and, because it’s a fabulous (and very easy) escape from Paris by RER. (the RER is a train that runs daily to the town of Versailles every 30 minutes or sofrom various locations in Paris)

It was raining at 8am when Aladdin (I know, I know) whisked us off in his brand new mini van to the palace and dropped us at the ‘Tour Privée‘ entrance where we waited for our guide, Monsieur P. Then, we all followed the ‘man with the keys’ who led us through passageways, up staircases and down long hallways while unlocking dozens of doors in front of us and carefully locking each of them behind us. (BTW, all the light in these photos is natural as I was not allowed to use flash, and there are no electrical lights in these apartments).

versailles guide tour of mistress apartments


hidden versailles stairs

Initially I wondered what a person could possibly see to make a private tour worthwhile… it didn’t take long to find out.  The first and perhaps most striking difference is your guide.  Monsieur P is, to say the least, passionate about his work.  He first visited Versailles at the age of 11 and from that moment on, all he ever wanted to do was be a historian at the Chateau.  When Monsieur P is not giving private tours, he’s in ‘the stacks’: researching for scholars and others.  He gets to read people’s journals and private correspondence; literally snooping though reams and volumes of private papers and books saved from revolutionary fires,hidden, rediscovered, collected over time then donated or sold to the Versailleslibrary much to the delight of men and women like him.

Library book Madame du Barry Versailles

Because of his ‘all access pass’ into the intimate details of everyday chateau life beyond the public eye, Monsieur P was able to share many stories and minor scandals as only an insider can.  He knew the origins of this chair and that desk, the rather juicy gossip surrounding various portraits hanging in the private apartments, and who used the secret staircases to Mme de Pompadour‘s inner sanctum.  All of this was fuel for Elissa’s questions, which of course opened doors to places we normally wouldn’t have seen, and allowed us to look under furniture for makers marks; Monsieur P was happily on the floor with us.

Versailles furniture

What struck me the most about our visit was glimpsing the very private life of these very public people.  The personal apartments were not at all like the immense visitors rooms on the lower floors.  The rooms themselves are more intimate in size and the decor, while very beautiful, reflects personal taste not intentional displays of great wealth and luxury intended to impress foreign dignitaries.

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Another interesting point is that the all of these private rooms are on the upper floors, under the roof tops where one would expect to find servants quarters.  The views are spectacular, over courtyards, gardens and rooftops.

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Every stick of furniture, every painting, wood paneling and artifact is original. Pretty much all of the pieces have been donated to the Chateau of Versailles by private collectors or foreign countries.  Many have not been restored and are in remarkably good, if a bit threadbare condition.  I was impressed to learn that when a set of chairs is reupholstered or curtains replaced it is the original maker of fabrics, using the original dye formulas and patterns,who provides the replacement cloth!

The rooms which made the greatest impression on me were the places Louis XVI frequented:  The bookshelf lined, very spacious Private Council Room and the very personal Lock Making Room.  It was in the Council Room that Louis XVI decided to fund the American Revolution which ultimately bankrupt France and brought an end to the French Monarchy.  No one knows what happened to the thousands of books which lined the walls of this great room; Burned most likely.  The huge carpet covering the parquet floor is the actual one that Louis XV and XVI (and probablyGeneral LaFayette, among others) paced.  It is a recent acquisition and we were among the first to actually see it – but not walk on it.

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Louis XVI forge

Versailles hidden stairs and halls

versailles door  to Hall of Mirrors

Three hours goes by very quickly when you are lost in a time capsule and all too soon it was time to rejoin the real world below.  We had passed through what had once been royal bathrooms – the tubs long gone…We had traveled back in time through passageways and up/down stairways never seen by the general public.  We eventually returned to the ground floor, the final door unlocked as we were ushered back out to the main hall then locked tight behind us; No longer sheltered from modern life in an 18th century cocoon… We were free to wander the rest of Versailles, to mingle with visitors from all over the world, gathered here to experience what once had been beyond reach for the ‘common person’.  Talk about a harsh return to reality!  We headed toward the garden canal for lunch and a glass of wine at La Flotille to soften the shock.

La Flotilla Versailles

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By the time 4:30 arrived, Aladdin was waiting at our pre-arranged rendez-vousoutside of Le Petit Trianon. He whisked us home to Paris with no fuss or muss after our long day of time travel.

In case you are wondering, yes, Elissa is available to assist with private tours ofVersailles.  Trust me, Elissa is a fabulous font of 18th century knowledge and while the private tour is pricey, it’s worth every centime in her company!

A bientot mes amis,
MarieZ
Originally posted to the French Market Maven September 24, 2012
Photos: Marie Z. Johnston

Madeleine’s Chase

Here’s a mostly photographic blog post about our Chase around Paris with 18th century French history blogger, Madeleine, from Important to Madeleine Blog.

It was a blistery cold March day, so cold I had to buy a new pair of boots just to keep my feet from turning into blocks of ice.

Day 1 was about chasing just random places…from the old Cour du Dragon passage on rue de Rennes to the Temple Prison site.

saint germain des pres

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Designed in 1732 by Pierre de Vigny, the passage (where the aqua door is) became home to a mini-metal works shops.  During the Rev of 1830 the metal objects were taken to be used as weapons during the uprising.  The passage succumbed to urbanism and demolished in the early 1920s.  The winged dragon that sits above the door was dismantled in 1957 and carried off to the Louvre.

Designed in 1732 by  architect Pierre de Vigny, the passage (where the aqua door is) was home to  metal-works shops. During the Rev of 1830 the metal objects were taken to be used as weapons during the uprising…(resourceful nonetheless) The passage succumbed to urbanism and demolished , yet the entry with the dragon stood for 30 years while developers discussed it’s use.   It was finally dismantled in 1957 and carried off to the Louvre–see it in Cour Puget.  A reproduction of the dragon is the only clue to what originally was.  How many Parisians walking past each day know the dragon’s significance?

Cour du Dragon take by Eugène Atget
(1857-1927)  Looks much different today…2013.

We made our way down boulevard Saint Germain des Prés turning corners until we found the Cour du Rohan.   I had ventured here in the summer of 2011, only to find it locked.  Luck was on our side this day.

cour du rohan

A little nervous at first

 

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Cour du Rohan

The significance of the Cour du Rohan besides the fact it’s a comprised of 3 inner courtyards all nicely hidden between rue du Jardinet and Cour du Commerce Saint-Andre (my favorite street in Paris), is that it dates to the 14th century. Inside courtyard #2 was the residence of Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Henri II (1550).  It’s also the courtyard directly behind what was once the 13th century wall of Philip II Augustus.  A tower is still visible insideUn Dimanche a Paris chocolate shop.   This was also the residence of the Bishops of Rouen when they visited Paris.  It’s also where the last pas de mule or step for mounting a horse can be found.  Interesting stuff.

pas de mule

cour du rohan

cour du rohan

From there we ventured down my favorite street and on to Place Saint-Michel

Cour du Commerce Saint Andre

Cour du Commerce Saint Andre

Take on the day we first discovered it....summer of 2008.

Photo taken on the day we discovered Cour du Commerece Saint Andre  summer 2008.

Fountain completed in 1860 and is part of Haussmann's aesthetic of grand boulevards with perspectives--each having an end point.

Fountain completed in 1860 and is part of Haussmann’s aesthetic of grand boulevards with perspectives–each having an end point.

From here we crossed Blvd Saint-Michel and headed over to the oldest tree in Paris.

In Square Viviani is the oldest tree in Paris.  An acacia planted in 1601 and damaged during WWII went it was hit by a shell.

In Square Viviani  is  an acacia tree that was planted in 1601 and damaged during WWII when it was hit by a shell.  The old gal needs a little assistance being held up.  After 412 years of producing oxygen and providing shade she looks quite healthy despite her leaning.

And on a warmer note...summer 2011

And on a warmer note…summer 2011

Across the street is this rather imposing door.  Any time you see an entry such as this, there’s always a pretty good story behind it.

This was once the entrance to the home a a really importance person of the 17th century-- Issac Laffemas.  Chief of Police under Cardinal Richelieu and later executioner for Louis XIV.  The reclining woman with her scales of justice and olive branch are the clue...

This was once the entrance to the home of  a really important person in the 17th century– Issac Laffemas. Chief of Police under Cardinal Richelieu and later executioner for Louis XIV. The reclining woman with her scales of justice and olive branch are the clues.

Crossing the street and the Pont au Double we literally had to do a double take.  We spotted this enchanting sistah as she made her way to Notre Dame.  I couldn’t help but follow a little close to snap a few shots.  438

My new interest in medieval France has led me to discover (among many things) the various areas around Paris that the formidable wall, built during the reign of Philippe Augustus II, could still be seen.  Madeleine was eager to see it too.

What I find so interesting is that this wall, which took 20 years to build, was 3 meters thick at ground level, 10 meters high, was to have 33 towers north of the Seine and 34 to the south —can actually still be seen some 800 years later!!!  That’s mind blowing to me, no?  Do the teenagers who play soccer beneath it understand the importance?  Without this wall Paris might not have been…It kept the invading barbarians out but also established an absolute monarchy.  The city itself was free to build peacefully for centuries to come, all nicely protected by these walls.

Paris wall of Philippe Augustus

behind me is what remains of one of those north towers…

what remains of one of those 34 north towers

As we left Medieval Paris and the wall of Philippe Augustus and headed for the 18th century, I suddenly remembered where to find the last remaining pieces of the once beautiful  Palais  des Tuileries that was built by Catherine de Medicis, wife of Henri II, whose mistress’s residence we visited in the Cour du Rohan earlier.  Catherine fled the Marais where she and Henri had their residence after he was accidentally killed in a jousting event in 1559. She moved to the Louvre, but then decided to build her own residence nearby in 1564.  It was actually built on the outside of another wall that surrounded Paris–known as the Charles V wall…built after Philippe’s between the years 1356-1383.  Catherine never lived at the Tuileries and actually left it unfinished.  She was frightened by a prediction that she would die near Saint Germain and well…the Tuileries was in the vicinity of the Saint Germain parish across the river.  She actually ended up dying in the Loire valley while visiting Blois, and was attended to by a priest named Julien de Saint-Germain…go figure!  She could have completed the Tuileries after all! Silly woman.

Tuileries

what little is left of the Palais des Tuileries.  Home to Henri IV, Louis XIV, Louis XV as a child, Louis XVI & Marie Antoinette during the Revolution, Napoleon & Josephine, Bourbons during the Restoration and 2nd Empire.  Set on fire by idiots during the suppression of the Paris commune in 1871.  It stood for 11 years after the fire until it was finally decided that it needed to come down.  Their justification was that it stood for royal power and imperial regimes.  France is awesome at trying to rewrite their history.

What little is left of the Palais des Tuileries…just facades.   Home to Henri IV, Louis XIV, Louis XV as a child, Louis XVI & Marie Antoinette during the Revolution, Napoleon & Josephine, Bourbons during the Restoration and 2nd Empire. Set on fire by idiots during the suppression of the Paris commune in 1871. It stood for 11 years after the fire until it was finally decided that it needed to come down. Their justification was that it stood for royal power and imperial regimes. Sorry but you can’t erase or rewrite history.  Why French revolutionaries couldn’t understand that is beyond me!

File:Tuileries vers 1860.jpgTuileries 1860 on the side facing the Louvre. The LeNotre gardens are to the backside facing the Arc de Triomphe Photo: from the Wikimedia Commons

And so it was fitting that once we left the Tuileries remains we find the site of where Marie Antoinette was imprisoned before her confinement at the Conciergerie.  It was after all where she and Louis XVI, their children and Madame Elisabeth were sent after the Tuileries was stormed in August of 1792.

I'm walking on what would have been one of the 4 towers of the Temple.  The blue outlines on the street are the outlines of where it stood.

I’m walking on what would have been one of the 4 towers of the Temple. The blue outlines on the street are where it stood.

Marie Antoinette and the Temple Prison

The Temple was actually a Medieval fortress of none other than the Knights Templar who built it during the 12th century as their European headquarters.  It was just one part of their compound that also included a church, garden, and various other structures.  Louis XVI brother,the Comte d’Artois had his Paris residence there…however, not in the menacing and foreboding Grand Tower known to history, but in a 17th century palace also on the property.  None of which survives today.  It was from the Grand Tower on September 3, 1792 that Marie Antoinette watched her friend’s head, that of the Princess Lamballe, be paraded around on pike.  During the Napoleon years,  it was used yet again as a prison.  In 1808 however, Napoleon finally had it razed because it had become a place of pilgrimage for royalists.

File:Tour du Temple circa 1795 Ecole Francaise 18th century.jpg

It was by this point in the day that my feet were quickly turning to ice and Madeleine was exhausted so we parted ways., and thus ended day 1 of Madeleine’s “Chasing Paris” adventure.