Paris day trip: (How not to get to) Versailles

On Thanksgiving, Erik and I went to Versailles. The famous palace is some fifteen miles from the center of Paris, so we ordered tickets online, set our alarms, and set out early. We had spots for a 9:30 tour of the private apartments — which are accessible only by guided tour — and we had plenty of time. So we thought.

At the Saint Michel-Notre Dame station we had to transfer to a RER C train, and when we got to the platform, the train was waiting. Not wanting to miss it, we jumped on, and settled in for the 45-minute journey. I was a little surprised the train was so empty; later, I was also a little surprised to be passing through so many random-looking suburbs. The warning signs were all there, and I even noticed them, but since I expected nothing to go wrong, I didn’t heed them. I’m not sure what ultimately did prompt me to get up and recheck the map posted near the doors, but when I finally did, my heart sank to my heels. I had made a very, very elementary mistake: the train line forked, and we’d taken the train going to the wrong side of the fork. Check out the map below. The pink dot is our transfer point. The green dot is where we were going. And the beige dot… that’s where we were when I figured it out.

Paris metro map, with our starting point and destinations marked

I don’t often get lost, but when I do, I really flub up big (as you might remember from Edinburgh!). As you can see from the map, we’d gone far out of our way, and worst of all, there was no other line we could take. We had to go back to Paris. I was so mad at myself for getting us into this situation, and when we got out at Montigny-Beauchamp station, I was forced to wait around still further, because (a) there were no taxis, (b) the ticket window was closed and the machines wouldn’t take our credit cards, and (c) once we finally did get our onward ticket, the train didn’t come for another fifteen minutes. Oh, I felt horrible. I’d made the dumbest of errors, we had missed our tour, and… just… AUGH!!! I kicked myself all the way back to the city.

When we transferred to the correct train at Champ de Mars, I could see immediately that this was the right train: it was full of tourists, and the ride was much shorter and rather more picturesque. Siiiiiiigh. We got off at Versailles-Rive Gauche station with everyone else, and followed the crowd to the palace. It was just before 11 AM.

Approach to the Palace of Versailles

Our first stop was the tours desk, where I enquired whether our (now forfeited) tour ticket still entitled us to visit the main palace. Yes, they said, so we went there.

Golden entrance gate to Palace of Versailles

But at the palace, the very kind man suggested we return to the tour desk, to see if they could fit us into another group. The website had made it seem like there was only one time option for the tour, so I was doubtful, but we did as he said. To our great relief, it turned out they could offer us spaces in a later tour; in fact, they even gave us options: 2:15 or 2:30? When I told the helpful lady about our train mix-up, she asked, “Did you take the RER C?” I said we had, and mentioned that we’d ended up in Montigny-Beauchamp. She made sympathetic tsking noises, and offered, “It’s much better to take the SNCF train from Montparnasse.” I remembered seeing this option online, but it hadn’t seemed much faster, and as I’d mixed up Montparnasse and Montmartre (another silly mistake), I had thought it was too far from our place. But we told her we’d remember for next time, and said that we also had tickets to see the Trianon and Marie Antoinette’s estates… was there time to go there before our tour? She gave us a map and showed us the route, and off we went.

This time we bypassed the palace, and went directly into the grounds, which are free to enter (at least at this time of year). I knew the grounds were huge. The tour lady told us it would take us half an hour to walk from the palace to the Trianon. But I was not prepared for the visual impact. 
View of the gardens and Grand Canal of Versailles

It was, indeed, a long walk to the Trianon, but it was like wandering an enormous and beautiful park. Near the Bassin d’Apollon we had our fourth French kitty sighting: a small, shy little cat! There was a boy trying to get its attention, and as we passed by I heard him say to his dad in mixed English and French: “I wish we had some jambon!”

Cat at Versailles gardens

The Grand and Petit Trianons, and Marie Antoinette’s hamlet, constitute their own separate corner of the Versailles grounds, and served as a retreat for the king and his family. Though still, of course, of regal proportions and décor, they are far smaller and less fancy than the main palace. And the Grand Trianon is pink!



We were able to go through the public rooms of the Grand Trianon in a short time, and soon moved on to the Petit Trianon, where we found a lovely Vigée-Lebrun portrait of Marie Antoinette tucked away in a billiard room!




But my favorite part of this section of Versailles — indeed, my favorite thing about Versailles as whole — was the grounds, not the buildings. There are gardens next to both Grand and Petit Trianons, and the one next to the latter was particularly pleasing.





From the gardens, we could walk to the Queen’s Hamlet. As I said, it was like being in a park — we saw several different kinds of mushrooms, and some truly breathtaking old trees.





As for the hamlet itself, it was just ridiculously cute. It was designed to be that way — a perfect rustic working farm — and I couldn’t get over how adorable it was.





We even spotted a muskrat in the water!



I would have liked to stay in the gardens forever, but we had to get back to the main palace for our tour. We bought some snacks to fortify ourselves (macarons and a financier, dainty treats of course!) and then took a different route back to the palace. There were sheep!


And here’s the palace:


The tour proved very interesting. The guide, an elegant Frenchwoman who spoke fluent accented English, told us that the private apartments were the Louis’ (XV and XVI, especially) refuge from the unceasingly public life of the court. At this point, we hadn’t yet seen the rest of the palace, so we raised our eyebrows to hear these rooms described as “simpler,” but they were (you’ll see the public rooms later in the post). They were also apparently better heated than the rest of the palace, so they were more comfortable for that reason as well.









After seeing the private apartments, our tour concluded with a visit to the palace opera house. That’s our guide in the photo below, in her fabulous red coat.


The opera house was fantastically gorgeous, circular, and all of wood (some of it painted to look like marble). They still do shows here.


From then it was up to us to explore the palace as we liked, so we went to see these fancy state rooms we’d heard so much about. Mais oui, they were ridiculously more majestic. Marble all over the walls, gilding and painting all over the ceilings, vast proportions, everything designed to impress.








Even the views were splendid. In the private apartments, many of the rooms had looked out onto the (relatively humble) courtyard, but here the vistas were also for public consumption.



Perhaps the most famous room of the palace is the Hall of Mirrors. It is certainly the shiniest room I have ever been in. It photographs marvelously, but I didn’t find it all that rewarding to walk through. It was full of people, and there’s nothing to do in it, nor even all that much to see. It’s a place to be seen in, I suppose, but we were tired and didn’t want to take pictures of ourselves.



Just as they would have been in the eighteenth century, the state rooms were far more crowded than the private apartments, so we were glad to leave them and get back into the gardens.




Alas, after such a long day, we were very weary by this point, and just wanted to go home. I had brought watercolor pencils and paper for sketching, but I just couldn’t do it. So we left the gardens and the palace, and walked into town. At a boulangerie we tried the peculiar hot dogs we’d seen around Paris, in split baguettes with cheese melted over. Delicious. (I never expected to eat so many hot dogs on our trip! I don’t eat them at home!) Then we walked to Versailles-Chantier station to try out this train to Montparnasse.

Friends, after the morning’s avoidable nearly-two-hour rigmarole, this return train was possibly the most amazing thing we saw in Versailles. Although there are normal SNCF trains that go between Montparnasse and Versailles, there is also an express. It took us from Versailles-Chantier to Gare Montparnasse in 12 minutes, no stops. TWELVE MINUTES. For cheaper than the regular train. And we accidentally sat in the first-class section instead of second class, so it was even more comfortable than it should have been — with little tables, and lamps, and extremely cushy seats. We spent the entire ride flipping out that this option existed and we hadn’t known.

And that was our Versailles adventure.