A winter’s tale at the palace
The pleasures of Versailles without the madding crowds
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