Paris: Side Trips
A crowning achievement of civilization, or proof of the excess of unchecked monarchs? Few who visit the Château de Versailles leave ambivalent on this question. The transformation of the chateau from hunting lodge to ostentatious summer palace was only the start. The Bourbons, the royals who ruled France from the mid-16th century, built successively more surreal retreats at Versailles, from the private mini-palace of the Grand Trianon, to the Petit Trianon, which was built for Louis XIV's consort, Madame de Pompadour, to the rustic fantasy of Marie-Antoinette's estate. Your visit to Paris would be incomplete without an opportunity to marvel here.
The interior of the main palace is all flourish and festoonery, epitomizing a high Baroque showiness. Among the blockbuster attractions are La Grande Galerie, or Hall of Mirrors, recently restored to its full glory, and the apartments of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette her explosively floral bedroom contains the door to the concealed corridor through which the beleaguered Queen escaped from the mob in 1789. The grounds descend in a stately series of formal gardens to a cross-shaped canal, beyond which lie the Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon and an idealized farming hamlet created by the royals. Look out for the giant sequoia trees of an age and girth rarely seen outside California and the corpulent carp jostling for food beneath the footbridge.
To get to Versailles, take an RER line C5 train to Versailles-Rive Gauche station (about 40 mins.). The round trip costs €5.60; for €21 you can buy train fare plus a Château entrance ticket from the RER station. Entry to the Château costs €20 on weekdays and €25 on weekends and public holidays, in high season (July 4 to October 31). In low season, entry is €16; in winter, the Château has limited access and is closed Monday and holidays. Check for closures (as well as fireworks and fountain shows) before you go. Most visitors make Versailles a day trip, but an overnight stay offers a much more leisurely excursion. Either way, be ready for tourist hordes, especially on weekends, and wear walking shoes doing justice to the improbably vast estate can be tiring. There are several eateries on premises, but you can self-cater a picnic at the market at Place du Marché Notre-Dame nearby; the market is open Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.