an afternoon at the royal court
Paris’s numerous charms notwithstanding, two weeks seemed like a long time to stay in one place. So when our instructor proposed an excursion, we jumped at her suggestion. She floated a weekend group trip to Normandy as a possibility, but we all had our own agendas for the one free weekend we’d have in France. Instead, we settled on an outing to Versailles.
After a week full of meetings and classes, we eased into the weekend by spending Friday at what was once the royal court of Europe’s most powerful monarchy. To give the visit a patina of seriousness, we booked a guided tour of the king’s private chambers.
We’re not sure how much any of us got from the guide’s long-winded explanations, which were peppered with more dates and names than we cared to commit to memory. The only factoid that really sticks out is how relatively little time the French royalty spent at Versailles. Barely a century after Louis XIV had converted a simple countryside hunting lodge into the center of French political power, the royal family was forced to flee back to Paris as the French Revolution erupted.
The main benefit of the guided tour is the access it allows to rooms that are otherwise off limits. Whereas the public sections of the palace were meant to overwhelm visitors with high ceilings and an avalanche of artwork, the private chambers are where the royal family spent most of its time, and where they chose to place their most prized and delicate possessions. The rooms are smaller, making up with tasteful decoration what they lack in over-the-top grandeur.
Although the king slept in his private rooms, there is also an ornately decorated bedchamber among Versailles’s public rooms. Every evening, the French monarch held a bedtime ceremony, with the nobles who lived at Versailles taking turns bidding him a good night. After the last of the visitors had departed, the king would sneak out to sleep in his private chambers.
The guided tour ends in the chapel, which can be glimpsed but not entered from the public rooms. As she led us into the chapel, our guide made a snide comment about the masses we had escaped by going on the private tour — the hordes of other visitors, whom we would rejoin as soon as our tour ended. Afterwards, we grabbed audioguides and jostled our way through the public rooms en route to the royal gardens.
Our group dispersed, and the two of us were halfway to the small chateau that had been occupied by Marie Antoinette when we received a series of frantic texts from our teacher. Turns out she had hoped to supplement our morning activity with some textbook exercises. We were obliged to turn back, but as luck would have it, the weather turned sour just as we reconvened. The downpour did not bode well for the weekend, but at least it made it much more bearable to have class in lieu of strolling through the royal gardens.