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Mirror, mirror on the wall...

© By Mike Keenan
















  Some take the simple adage, "a man's home is his castle" a bit to the extreme, but Louis XIV, the "Sun King," migrated far beyond the extreme when he set about to convert a small hunting lodge near a marsh into the most lavish embodiment of privilege that has ever existed. Yes, more impressive than the Nixon Library.
     When we approached the Palace of Versailles on a day trip from Paris, even though I had read a detailed guidebook, I was not really ready to appreciate fully the incredible site that lay before me. How many times can one exclaim "Wow!" in the course of a day? After parading around inside consumed by awe, we were ready for a session with a chiropractor to help crunch our necks back into place from staring long and hard at the amazing royal accoutrements with ornate gardens outside, the same. What an incredible manifestation of excess! Of course, the monarchy eventually paid the ultimate price for wasting their citizens' money, but while it lasted, it must have been a blast.
     I imagine Louis loafing through his sumptuous Hall of Mirrors, built in 1678, stopping and staring at each gilded reflection and chanting: "Mirror, mirror on the wall; who is the fairest King of all?" A chapel was completed in 1710 to honour the second most important deity, and Louis XV took up the opulent challenge and paid homage to performing arts by adding an Opera House in 1770.
     Sumptuous main apartments are located on the first floor. Around the marble courtyard reside the private apartments of King and Queen. On the garden side, are state apartments where court life flourished, richly decorated with coloured marble, stone, woodcarvings, murals, velvet, silver and gilded furniture. Each stateroom is dedicated to an Olympian deity.
     The chapel's interior is decorated with Corinthian columns, white marble and Baroque murals. Louis XIV's library features neo-classical paneling and the King's terrestrial globe. The Salon of Apollo was the throne room. The Salon du Sacre is adorned with huge paintings of Napoleon.
     As with Bruce Willis movies, after a while, the whole thing gets a tad boring, but then you encounter The Hall of Mirrors, 17 great mirrors that face tall arched windows stretching 70 metres along the west facade. In 1919 the Treaty of Versailles was ratified here, ending WWI.
     Outside, there are formal gardens with geometric paths and shrubs, the Orangery built to house exotic plant species during winter, the Fountain of Latona with four marble basins rising to a statue of the goddess, the Dragon Fountain, the Fountain of Neptune spraying impressive jets of water, the Grand Canal, a "quaint" setting for boating parties, the Colonnade, a circle of marble arches built in 1685, the King's Garden, featuring a mirror pool, the 19th century garden created by Louis XVIII, and a small chateau called Petite Trianon, Marie Antoinette's favourite, who, along with Louis XVI lost their heads to the guillotine in 1793.
     The gargantuan outdoor gardens and pools require a sizable maintenance crew. We observed a large collection of palm trees that thrived in Versailles' mild climate. The outdoor configuration seemed as ornate as that of the indoors, definitely a hard act to follow, and it is little wonder that the common folk were annoyed with the frivolous opulence prior to the revolution.
     Versailles enjoys a fair share of trivia:
       As with fancy restaurants today that insist on neckties for gentlemen, a hat and a sword could be rented at the front gate to be properly attired to visit the Grand Apartment.
       Again, as with the best restaurants today, thefts frequently occurred despite guards and staff. Once during the king's levee, the royal doctor, Fagon, had his watch stolen.
       The first hot-air balloon was launched here in 1783.
       To facilitate romance, a secret passage ran from the Queen's private chambers to those of the king. This enabled Marie-Antoinette to escape revolutionary rioters in October, 1789.
       Fountain guards were ordered to whistle when Louis XIV approached so that the fountains could be fully turned on.
     You won't receive quite the same aquatic treatment, and be forewarned: when you visit, arrive early because crowds coagulate quickly with arrival of tour buses. It's best to take one's time as you wander through the astonishing 250 acres. We caught an efficient train from Paris, and arrived early morning.

Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.

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Mike Keenan

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Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Versailles,_France
Wikitravel: http://wikitravel.org/en/Versailles
The Palace of Versailles: http://www.chateauversailles.fr/

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