Hurry to the castle and get back on the road again; is the way to describe a typical visit to Versailles. Tourists are brought in by hundreds, often from Paris, dropped off right in front of the castle and a couple of hours later they are already again seated on their train or bus. I admit it; it is an attractive castle. Yet Versailles has much more to offer because around her 'pièce de résistance' is a lot going on, and you easily need a whole weekend to fully explore the historic city. I pulled out three full days to delve into the epicenter of the French monarchy and discovered a city where you can enjoy yourself unrestrictedly. And above all Versailles is full of music: Lully, Rameau and Mozart, to the Beatles and Pink Floyd, they were all here.

Louis XIV, omnipresent …

How do you mean left bank and right bank? I will never forget my first visit to Versailles, about 15 years ago. I arrived on a sunny morning in May by train from Paris to Versailles and I walked like all the others straight to the castle that was shining underneath a clear blue sky, my breath was halted for a second. But I became really speechless when looking from the terrace across the lively fountains of the garden into infinity. I was surprised and overwhelmed at the same time. Since that day I keep coming back, but I never went beyond the castle and the famous gardens of Le Nôtre. After all these years I became curious to find out more about the city itself, therefore I booked a room in the shadow of the castle – in Versailles everything lies in the shadow of the castle - and I discovered during three days the epicenter of the French monarchy. Moreover, I'd like to know why a city without a river has a left and a right bank.

Château de Versailles.

A mathematical structure. When I unfold the city map of Versailles, the broad Avenue de Paris strikes me immediately. The huge lane splits the city into two equal parts that are again separated by the Av. Saint-Cloud and the Av. Sceaux. The three lanes, edged by a double row of plane trees, come together at the immense Place d'Armes, with at the left and the right the old neighbourhoods of Saint-Louis and Notre Dame, and a bit further away the historic quarter of Montreuil. The mathematical layout that was the basis for constructing the city makes that I can orientate myself easily. At the Place d’Armes, one of the largest squares of France it is chaotically busy as tourists show up from every side. I walk away from the crowd along the Rue Hoche to the quarter of Notre-Dame, the first district that was constructed by Louis XIV.

Notre-Dame Church.

The Notre-Dame Church dominates the Rue de la Paroisse which is the shopping street of the district. In better times it was the parish church of the royal family. According to the locals you are not a real Versaillois if you walk down the street in less than an hour because they come here mainly to socialize, as everyone talks to everyone. A bit further I walk into the beating heart of the district, le marché Notre-Dame, a covered delicatessen market that was constructed by Louis XIV and was given a new look in the 19th century. Twice a week there is an outdoor market on the square and for those looking for ingredients to have a successful pick-nick – locations are widely available in Versailles – here you can find what you are looking for. It is no coincidence that the best and coziest restaurants from the whole city surround the market. I take a rest on one of the plenty terraces and enjoy a glass of white wine, the warming summer sun and the vibrant neighbourhood.

Passage de la Geôle, a charming and intimate corner.

From the market I pass along the Hôtel du Baillage through to le quartier des Antiquairs. In le Baillage, the old prefecture, the class difference came apparent during the Ancien Régime: poor criminals were locked up in humid dungeons while rich criminals had apartments and caterers at the upper floors. Now you can find charming antique shops over here and in the cellars the nightclub Les Caves du Roi Soleil mainly attracts a trendy clientele. I walk along Le Passage de la Geôle - one of the most intimate and charming corners of the city - to rue Rameau, to the cinema Le Cyrano. In this rigid building that dates from the time of silent movies, the Beatles played their first concert in mainland Europe on January 15, 1964, even before their debut in the Parisian Olympia hall.

Grand Canal.

Ghost city. ‘An average visit to Versailles takes about two hours’ says Richard, who guides me through the fascinating history of the city. And it can be worse. ‘Some tourists quickly take a selfie in front of the castle and leave again, he ads with disguise. Richard is a speaking waterfall who talks about Versailles’ history with paragraphs at once. Only few people know that the castle was built over a period of 300 years, at the time of the Sun King it was not at all as big as it is now. The original area – once the hunting slot of Louis XIII – was with 6500ha bigger than today. When we walk through the sunlit garden – the sun is never far away, metaphorically speaking – it is fairly busy. But 800ha is still big enough not to feel entangled. Under the trees along the Grand Canal hundreds of people are picnicking, on the water some white rowing boats are floating along each other and people are walking around the endless groves. Richard points out the double row of trees along the paths: ‘When the king walked through the garden his servants followed him discretely to be continuously at his beck and call.

The impressive hall of mirrors.

In the Grand Trianon and the Petit Trianon – two notorious pleasure grounds in the garden – the respective mistresses served the kings as discreetly. Marie-Antoinette preferred to pass her time at Hameau de la Reine. ‘She hated the protocol and therefore created here a property with a little farm where she milked the cows and sheep’, Richard smiles. The garden of Versailles is the biggest landscaped garden that was ever made and designed by the world famous landscape architect Le Brun. In the immense castle we walk continuously through the grandeur of the French monarchy. ‘During its best days thousands of people, mostly servants of the royal family lived here’. The most popular public attractions are the bedrooms of the king and queen and the enormous mirror hall. ‘After the revolution Versailles became a true ghost city’ concludes my guide. In 1837 when it became a national museum, the castle was already unoccupied for over 40 years’. Versailles shined again in the 19th century when the bourgeoisie from Paris settled down over here again. Before I say goodbye to Richard I still want to know the story behind the rive gauche and the rive droite. He smiles and explains: ‘the Avenue de Paris was once the largest and widest avenue in the world and divided the city into two parts, a left and right bank’. It is that simple.

The sun is never far away…

The musical heritage of the Sun King. The beautiful weather entices me to the streets already early in the morning, I love to see a city wake up. Nothing is happening so far at the otherwise typically busy Av. de Paris, except at the Hôtel des Menus-Plaisirs, where musicians are actively walking in and out, I sneak in pure out of curiosity. The orchestra of the Centre de Musique Baroque Versailles rehearses here, an ensemble that focuses on old music. And in Versailles they know everything about baroque music. I have a chat with one of the cellists. ‘We mainly restore old score sheets and carry them out, he says passionately. Art, and mostly music and dance, were close to the heart of Louis XIV who himself was a dancer. In 1661 he founded the Académie Royal de Dance, and eight year later the Académie Royal de Musique; which merged together later on. Famous names like Lully, Rameau and later on Gluck preformed to please the royals, but also less famous composers. There was even a Belgian composer on the payroll of Versailles’ says the cellist who wants to test me. ‘That has to be Henry Du Mon’, I answer confidently. Also Mozart was here once. In January 1764 the six year old wonder child gave an organ concert for Louis XV in la Chapelle Royale. Because I am myself a keen baroque music lover I already bought a ticket for the performance of Lully’s ‘Amandis well in advance at the Opéra Royal de Versailles. It was again Louis XIV who gave the order to build the opera, but it was only completed in 1770 during the reign of Louis XV. In the evening I enjoy an unforgettable performance and it takes only little imagination to get back in time a couple of centuries, only the wigs and powdered faces are missing. The flamboyant melodies of Lully, the perfect acoustics and the magical décor are giving me continuous goose bumps. This is the essence of baroque, and a night to remember.

The vegetable garden of the King.

A royal vegetable garden. When I walk through the quartier Saint-Louis I do not find any trace of the medieval center that it once was, Louis XIV had it all destroyed. Just like in the Notre-Dame district, a church dominates the neighborhood, the cathedral Saint-Louis. From the cathedral I only have to cross to rue du Maréchal Joffre to get to one of the most beautiful areas of the city, le Potager du Roi. Louis XV had a 9ha large garden constructed in 1678 to provide the royal family with fruit and vegetables. Apples, pears and abricots, but also figs and melons were cultivated and apparently the king loved asparagus. He frequently asked the impossible of his gardeners, like summer vegetables in winter and fruit, preferably as exotic as possible. He also often requested something new and therefore those working in the vegetable garden were continuously kept busy.  The garden is a delight to the eye, I walk past fruit trees that are pruned into artistic shapes. From the fountains in the central square I enjoy the beautiful view over the well-maintained French garden that yearly still produces 30 tons of fruits and 20 tons of vegetables.

Salle Jeu de Paume.

At the east side a gigantic iron fence separates le Potager from the Pièce d’eau des Suisses, it seems like the two most beautiful areas of the district were connected together. The Pièce d’eaux des Suisses is named after the Swiss guards that dug the lake in 1679. Today it is a green oasis where you can peacefully cycle, walk and sunbath. Also the Saint-Louis district has its vivid street, la rue de Satory. In this pedestrian street you can take a break at one of the many terraces and there are also plenty of restaurants. You can taste the whole world over here. I relax from my long walk with a delicious glass of pastis, my favorite drink on a hot day. On the way back from the hotel I walk along la Salle du Jeu de Paume, the sports hall of Louis XIV. Jeu de Paume is the initial version of tennis, a game the Sun King adored. The hall had a crucial function in the run up to the Revolution, in 1882 it became a museum and now it is part of the Itinerary of Human rights, an historical trail through Versailles.

The Apollo basin at sunset.

Mythology meets science fiction. During my last evening in Versailles I go to Les Grands Eaux Nocturnes, an event I should not miss according to the hotel manager. On the way to the castle a small sign at the conservatorium attracts my attention. It refers to the two concerts of the rock group Pink Floyd of 1988 at Place d’Armes. A curse flows over my lips; I do not like the idea of having missed out on such a great event. Luckily there is no lack of music in Versailles, in the mirror hall of the castle I am treated with live baroque music including dance and I get immediately into the mood. When I walk through the garden a bit later I am not alone, in the mean time there are thousands of people and the atmosphere is relaxing and pleasant. The groves are put into color and the sound of baroque music comes from everywhere. I walk from one surprise into another. The Grove of the Three Fountains – once designed by Louis XIV himself – is transformed into an enchanting setting. Just like The Ballroom where the Sun King once danced himself and where a famous scene from the movie Le Roi Dance was filmed. Laser beams and smoke draw a mystical haze through the Collonade grove, shrouded in mystery around the Saturn statue. It looks like I am transferred into an imaginary world: mythology meets science fiction over the frivolous sounds of French baroque music. I start to lose all connectivity with reality and when the sun disappears behind the Apollo basin and the sky turns orange red I feel the tension rising. The apotheosis comes with the climax of splattering fireworks that explode under the loud intro of Lully’s ‘Te Deum’. I takes my breath away. For the second evening in a row I enjoy this wonderful world that does not exist anymore, it goes beyond my wildest dreams. It is the perfect finish to a divine weekend that I will not forget any time soon.

Magic during les Grand Eaux Nocturnes.


Events not to be missed:

Versailles Festival: Yearly music festival on diverse locations in and around the castle with baroque music at the central stage, with famous orchestras, conductors and soloists. Edition 2014 – from 23 May until 12 July:

Les Grandes Eaux Musicales: Discover the different groves of the castle garden with its fountains dancing on the rhythm of baroque music. From 5 April to 26 October 2014, entrance fee:

Les Grandes Eaux Nocturnes: Taste the magic in the gardens of Louis XIV with enchanting groves, frivolous baroque music and splattering fireworks as an apotheosis. From June to September 2014, every Saturday:

For the exact dates of the three events above I advice you to check out their websites, as there are some exceptions regarding the opening times.

Le mois Molière: Since 1996 this yearly music and theatre festival is organized in the streets, parks and on historical sites of Versailles. The schedule includes apart from theatre (with a lot of pieces from Molière) and (baroque) music, also theme walks and pick-nicks. Edition 2015: from 31 May until 29th of June.

Académie du Spectacle Equestre: Artistic director and producer Bartabas made the horse spectacles more modern, given they already exist since Louis XIV. He even lets horses dance on baroque music and on compositions of the contemporary composer Philip Glass:

Simply to get goose bumps from.

Food and drinks:

Au Roi Soleil chocolate store in rue de la Paroisse that tempts you to come inside, royal pralines and delicious chocolate:

You can find excellent restaurants at Marché Notre-Dame (rive droite) and the rue de Satory (rive gauche). I ate at Les Trois Marches, a gastronomic restaurant in the rue de Satory with an inventive French cuisine: and Le Saint-Julien, a splendid bistro with fair prices and a good wine list:

Those preferring star restaurants can enjoy their dinner at Gordon Ramsay au Trianon on boulevard de la Reine:

Restaurant Lenôtre: the famous Parisian delicatessen has a branch at La Cour des Senteurs, sweet, sour, a long dinner or a quick bite, but certainly haute gamme.

Sweet Versailles.

Addresses to remember:

La Cour des Senteurs: 8, rue de la Chancellerie:

Osmothèque (Conservatoire international des Parfums): 36, rue de Parc de Clagny:

Centre de musique baroque Versailles: 22, Avenue de Paris -

Versailles practically:

Info about France:

Tourist Agency Versailles
Transport: I drove fast and comfortably with the Thalys to Paris from there I took the RER (line C) to Versailles. In Versailles itself you can easily walk anywhere.  


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