The first stop on our U by Uniworld river cruise this summer was Conflans-Saint-Honorine. We had boarded our ship, The B, in Paris the previous day and the ship sailed overnight down the Seine to reach this spot. After a late breakfast – the hip folk on this cruise tend not to opt for early starts – and a brief exploration of the little town, we joined our fellow cruisers on a short bus trip to Versailles. This included excursion gave us access to the magnificent gardens plus entrance to the Petit Trianon and its grounds. There is also the option to pay a little extra for a guided tour of the Royal Apartments, if you crave some historic bling.
If you’re in France and only have an afternoon to spare in Versailles, you may well have to decide between seeing inside the palace or having a stroll around the gardens. If the weather is glorious and it’s a weekend when the musical fountains are doing their thing, skipping the palace itself is worth considering. The queue for the gardens is also a lot shorter.
Weekends in the Gardens of Versailles in Spring and Summer are likely to be busy but the area is so vast, there are plenty of places to find your own little sanctuary. Apart from the toilets: there weren’t enough of them so the queues were long, especially for the ladies. The one I visited near the Grand Canal wasn’t particularly pleasant, either.
But that’s my only complaint about the gardens of this incredible chateau, a royal residence from 1682 to the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. The gardens were designed by André Le Nôtre from the early 1660s. He created a Grand Perspective from the palace down through the Great Lawn and the Grand Canal. On either side of this line, hidden groves (bosquets) were formed: small enclosed areas with secret paths, fountains and music. The groves brought surprise and fantasy to the grounds, allowing the King and his court to enjoy open-air theatre, dancing and dining.
In hindsight, we should have worked out a plan to see the ‘unmissable’ parts of the garden, which are all helpfully starred on a free map which is available. Instead, we walked down the middle to the Grand Canal and then failed to allow time to reverse our steps. If I were to return, I’d make sure to see the seashell-studded ballroom grove, the Neptune fountain and the water theatre grove.
Having said that, we did spend some quality moments in a number of the groves, which made up for not seeing some of the top sights.
The orangery was built by Louis Le Vau and extended by Jules Hardouin Mansart. During the winter, orange trees from Portugal, Spain and Italy plus lemon trees, oleander, palm and pomegranate trees, some more than 200 years old, are all housed in the Orangery. In the summer they are spread out across the parterre.
This beautiful grove, surrounded by hedges and ornate trellis, features the titan Enceladus, who was buried under the rocks of Olympus by the gods the titans had planned to dethrone. The sculpture, by Gaspard Marsy, shows Enceladus struggling to survive: if you’re around at the right time you can see the powerful jet of water springing from his mouth like a cry.
Our favourite place in the Gardens of Versailles was the Mirror Pool. As we approached the grove from the Saturn fountain, we could hear the strains of a very memorable tune. Te Deum by Charpentier was playing and the fountains in the large pool were dancing to the music. This piece is very special to Dougie and me as we chose it for my entrance into the church when we were married in 1990. To hear it playing here was magical. There are three tunes which are played on a loop by the pool: this one by Charpentier and two by Lully. We sat in the sunshine for a while until our tune came round again.
The musical fountains perform in a number of groves on Saturdays and Sundays from the end of March to the end of October. Check the website for other dates and times.
Our visit to Versailles included a tour around the Petit Trianon, a villa which was originally built for King Louis XV. However his successor, Louis XVI, gave it to his young bride, Marie Antoinette. She made the place her own, particularly the gardens which she had designed in an English style. That’s probably why we kept spotting shrubs and flowers we have in our own garden at home. Although, unsurprisingly, we don’t yet have a grotto or a belvedere to while away the hours.
The biggest surprise was Le Hameau de la Reine, The Queen’s Hamlet, a rustic retreat built for Marie Antoinette by royal architect, Richard Mique. This extraordinary collection of buildings, including a windmill, barn and working dairy, was designed to replicate villages in Normandy. The Queen used the hamlet as a place for relaxing walks and to host small parties in the Queens house and billiard room. As it was also a functioning farm, it helped educate the royal children.
Thankfully the farm has been recently reconstructed and is the most charming and yet quite surreal part of the whole Versailles experience. It is now home to a variety of animals looked after by the Foundation for Animal Welfare.
Looking back at my photographs from our day in Versailles, I seem to have taken more shots of this small but idyllic hamlet than I did of all the grand bosquets in the main gardens of Versailles. I think I was so surprised to see a little splash of traditional Normandy in the lavish surroundings of this royal palace, I wanted to capture and savour it.
The Gardens of Versailles were one of the highlights of our U by Uniworld river cruise. There is so much to see here that I’d recommend you do some research before you go so you have a plan. But pencil in some down time: to sit quietly in one of the groves, to watch the fountains perform or to take a peek at traditional village life. That’s what the French royal court would have done. Step into their fancy shoes and do the same.