The Parisians know a thing or two about romance. But when you live in the most romantic city on earth, you need other options for a whirlwind weekend. So if Valentines Day in Paris feels tired and clichéd, do like the Parisians, and flee the city in favour of Versailles.
The Palace of Versailles is the real love story here — of the romance between France’s King Louis XIV and his own ego. Once merely the site of a humble hunting lodge, the town grew when Louis XIV began his master project in a fit of jealous rage. Invited to see the beautiful castle of Vaux-le-Vicomte belonging to his finance minister Nicholas Fouquet, he became enraged that it was more beautiful than his own palaces. So in 1661, Louis XIV promptly demanded that Foquet’s design team — architect Le Vau, painter Le Brun and gardener Le Nôtre — build him a palace at Versailles.
Ecstatic with his creation, Louis XIV turned his back on grubby, unhealthy Paris and rarely left his splendorous creation. From 1682, Versailles was the seat of the government and the country’s capital for more than a century.
With its radiant gold exterior, pink marble, solid silver furniture and exquisite sweeping gardens, the palace was the jewel in the crown of French royal extravagance.
The decadence came crashing to a bloody end, of course, for Louis’ grandson Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette who lost their heads in the French revolution in 1789. Monarchy was over for France, but powerful Europeans still flocked to Versailles.
In 1918 Versailles was the setting for the signing of the treaty that put an end to four years of gruesome war in Europe which tore the continent apart, and created the conditions that would lead to the Second World War.
The Treaty itself, though signed in the Palace, was debated in the town’s most luxurious hotel (then and now) the five-star Trianon Palace — of which more later.
Versailles feels like a natural day trip from Paris, but the Palace, the charming town and beautiful countryside really deserve more than a few hours snatched from a trip to the capital.
Cosy bistros, Michelin-starred restaurants, a lively food-and-wine market and world-renowned antique shops, the town of Versailles is a destination in itself. A Eurostar train can whisk you from central London to Paris in two hours and 15 minutes. From there, it’s a 40 minute journey on the Paris Metro line RER C to Versailles Rive Gauche. If several people are travelling, it is also affordable by taxi, at around €50.
The extraordinary royal palace itself takes centre stage of any visit to Versailles. With its 700 rooms and 67 staircases, it once employed 36,000 people to take care of it.
After a storm in 1999, which damaged the Palace and its gardens, the interior and exterior have undergone a €12 million restoration. The highlights are the Royal Opera, the State Apartments, the breathtaking Hall of Mirrors and the fabulously pink Queen’s Apartments.
But those with time to linger in Versailles might wish to avoid the early morning crush and save the interior for late afternoon when the daytrippers have fled back to Paris, instead spending a crisp, spring morning enjoying the magnificent Baroque gardens.
The size of the gardens is considerable, but can be viewed in a leisurely stroll or on board the petit train which takes you to all the highlights — the king’s kitchen garden, the manicured lawns and shrubs, the marble sculptures, the orangery and the 607 fountains and water jets which dot the property.
Away from the exhausting splendour of the palace, the town’s buzzy markets are a welcome respite. Shopping for the best of French cheese, wine, bread and pastries at the town’s numerous markets —open air and covered — is the best way to get a sense of this vibrant town with its inextricable royal connections.
The Marche Notre-Dame is the town’s biggest market with the widest selection of food, textiles and pottery. But if you’re not in the market for markets, soak up the atmosphere with the locals from one of the cafés around Carreaux Notre-Dame, with a strong, café au lait, a freshly-baked croissant and a copy of Le Monde.
Stroll further into town and you can pay a visit to the famous Confiseur Glacier, a shimmering patisserie, its front counter bejeweled with fluffy macaroons in bright candy colours. The rumour is that when Marie Antoinette uttered her famous line, “Let them eat cake”, she was talking about macaroons, her favourite dessert.
Across the street, there’s Versailles’ legendary antiques market, the Passage des Antiquaries, leading to a pleasant cobbled square of peach buildings and a fascinating book market.
Lunch can be enjoyed on the Rue de Satory, a picturesque street close to the Palace where tourists mingle with locals in the bistros over long lunches. Try Chez Lazare and La Limosin for traditional cooking like French onion soup or Salade Niçoise accompanied by a good bottle of red.
Asking my guide about the hot Versailles nightlife scene elicited a bemused response. Looking haughtily at me, she purred: “We are country people, eh. This is a quiet town. The streets are empty by 7 o’clock. You want a nightclub? Go to Paris.”
But Versailles by night isn’t quite as dead as she might claim. The Cyrano Theatre in the centre of Versailles, which once played host to The Beatles (the town’s paper derided them as having “no future”), may have ceased live shows but is now a buzzy cinema.
Elsewhere, the city’s elegant streets are quiet, but there’s opportunity to sample the town’s quaint bistros and brasseries. For a romantic meal head to L’Angélique on the Avenue de Saint-Cloud, for the freshest fish and sumptuous homemade desserts.
But for a meal in keeping with the royal tone of the town, head to Gordon Ramsey au Trianon at the Trianon Palace Hotel, now part of the Waldorf Astoria Collection, for haute cuisine par excellence.
France’s monarchy may have gone, but the extravagant legacy of one of Europe’s most extraordinary royal families is alive and well in Versailles.
And while there won’t be a revolution any time soon, it’s probably best to keep quiet about what a Scottish chef might be doing in a flagship French hotel. It’s a question that the locals and the French press haven’t stopped asking.
For those with a budget the size of Louis XIV’s, the hotel itself is a fabulously aristocratic place to stay, sumptuously decorated but immensely tasteful, with sublime rooms, a huge swimming pool, a Guerlain spa and a second, smaller restaurant, La Veranda.
Further into town, there’s a sprinkling of pleasant hotels, like the Atel Le Versailles and Le Cheval Rouge, both a few minutes walk from the Palace.