A win­ter’s tale at the palace

The plea­sures of Ver­sailles with­out the madding crowds

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe - CHRIS­TINE McCABE

ON a late Novem­ber day, with win­ter knock­ing on its grand, re­cently regilded gates, Ver­sailles is al­most de­serted.

Gar­den­ers pre­pare for the cold months ahead, wrap­ping stat­ues and urns against frost and stash­ing more than 1000 fruit trees in the glo­ri­ous Orangery, the world’s most elab­o­rate gar­den shed, where ser­ried ranks of Ver­sailles planter boxes await re­pair.

The day­time ther­mome­ter may have dipped be­low 4C, but the trees of Ver­sailles seem re­luc­tant to dis­pense with the last of their leaves, ren­der­ing 17th-cen­tury gar­den de­signer An­dre Le Notre’s fa­mous and sur­re­ally long vis­tas a bur­nished bronze, while his bosquets, or for­mal plan­ta­tions, shim­mer like boxes of coins.

Our pri­vate guide Mar­jorie rubs her hands in glee when we spy the palace’s largely de­serted fore­court. On a sum­mer day it teems with thou­sands of visi­tors but we are treated to the unimag­in­able plea­sure of an al­most empty Hall of Mir­rors.

Stand­ing at a tall win­dow to con­tem­plate the gar­den, I imag­ine Louis XIV do­ing the same ev­ery morn­ing on his way to the chapel. Who knows, a whole new colour scheme may have been planted out overnight in the South Parterre or, with any luck, the tuberoses could have ar­rived from Provence.

The Sun King was a keen gar­dener, in­sist­ing on colour year round, and his favourite gar­den de­signer, and life­long friend, Le Notre, was happy to oblige. He be­gan work on Ver­sailles in 1661 (France has just fin­ished cel­e­brat­ing the 400th an­niver­sary of his birth), di­rect­ing thou­sands of men, some­times whole reg­i­ments armed with picks and shov­els, to com­pletely re­fash­ion the land­scape, dig­ging vast canals and lakes, and lev­el­ling fields as though with a laser.

The scale of the palace and 800ha gar­den is over­whelm­ing, al­most alien­at­ing, but thank­fully we have Mar­jorie by our side to peo­ple the grand sa­lons and se­cret gar­den groves with facts and fab­u­lous frocks, tall tales and big wigs.

She is one of a team of ex­pert guides (chefs, per­sonal shop­pers, wine mas­ters and art his­to­ri­ans) em­ployed by Paris-based Lo­calers, a com­pany spe­cial­is­ing in be­spoke, half-day tours in and around the city. It’s cer­tainly the best way to see Ver­sailles; Mar­jorie has or­gan­ised our train and VIP en­try tick­ets and knows her way around the state apart­ments like a 17th-cen­tury courtier.

She is well versed in the com­pli­cated mores of life at court when, liv­ing in fear of ban­ish­ment to so­cial Siberia, noble folk jos­tled and vied to hold the king’s can­dle, tuck him into bed or in­spect his stools.

‘‘Louis XIV hosted a party three times a week dur­ing win­ter,’’ Mar­jorie says, ‘‘cof­fee and tea [the lux­ury bev­er­ages of the day] were served in one room, crys­talised fruit in another and bil­liards was played in the third.’’

Wigs, which might weigh up to 1kg, were changed five

De­signer An­dre Le Notre used reg­i­ments of gar­den­ers to build his 800ha gar­den at the Palace of Ver­sailles

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