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.
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?
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!