This is one post in a series of articles about our visit to Paris.
In our last post, I talked about the Palace of Versailles; today I’ll share our walk through Versailles’ gardens. Of the two, Dale and I would agree that the gardens are a can’t-miss. It was everything you’d hope for in a royal garden–expansive lawns, sculpted gardens with brightly-colored flowers, towering hedges, and artwork everywhere. At the end of the post, I’ll include some general tips for visiting the palace and gardens.
About the gardens
The Gardens of Versailles cover 800 hectares of land, about 1977 acres (to put that in perspective, New York’s Central Park is 843 acres). It is considered the quintessential Garden à la française (French Garden) and has been copied the world over.
Louis XIV felt that the grounds should be just as impressive as the palace and in 1661 commissioned artists, architects, and others to design a garden worthy of a king. It was an enormous undertaking that took forty years to complete. An army of men excavated the woods, marshes, and grasslands that surrounded the palace, creating manicured lawns, parterres (formal gardens), bosquets (tree groves), an orangerie, numerous fountains, and the Grand Canal.
Over the centuries, the gardens have been extensively replanted five times and have also changed at the whim of French leadership. Louis XVI attempted to have the property redesigned into an English garden, with disastrous effects. During the French Revolution, the grounds were opened to the public, and people could be found doing their laundry in the fountains. When Napoléon I came to power, he paid little attention to either the palace or gardens and they fell into disrepair. Little was actually done to preserve and restore the grounds until the 19th century, when Versailles was turned into a museum.
As with the palace, restoration of the gardens has been a continuous process. Two devastating storms in the 1990s destroyed thousands of trees but allowed for curators to more thoroughly restore the estate to its original classic French-garden landscaping.
The Musical Gardens
Normally, access to the gardens is included as part of the Versailles admission ticket, but we were there on a special events day: on Tuesdays from March-October, Versailles hosts Les Jardins Musicaux (The Musical Gardens), and there was an additional charge.
What does the Musical Gardens entail? It sounds rather whimsical, doesn’t it? Basically, various groves and fountains have musical accompaniment that reflects the mood or theme of each setting. We were under the impression that this meant we’d hear live music, and we were disappointed when we realized it was actually recorded music playing over speakers. It seemed cheesy. We debated whether or not to pay the extra money; after all, we had an expansive view of the gardens from the palace’s terrace, so did we need to see more? But every guide we’d read said that a visit to the gardens was a must, so Dale and I shelled out the extra Euros to enter while my mom and sister opted to take a tram tour instead (less walking).
As for the Musical Gardens, we should’ve had a little more faith that a garden worthy of a king wouldn’t offer anything that was kitschy. The music did nothing but add to the joy of our visit.
Here are some of the garden’s highlights:
When you exit the palace to access the gardens, you enter the Parterre d’Eau (Water Parterre). As I mentioned above, a parterre is a sculpted garden, but in this case, the “garden” consists of the terrace and two large, rectangular pools skillfully designed so that sunlight reflects off the surface of the water and illuminates the façade of the Hall of Mirrors.
The reclining figures (above and below) are part of a group of eight stationed around the pools that symbolize the rivers of France.
The Parterres and the Orangerie
There are two formal gardens near the palace, the North and South Parterres, and they are spectacular!
The Orangerie is a building that shelters fruit trees during the winter; they are moved outside when the weather is warmer.
The Grand Canal
The Grand Canal, built between 1668-1671, is about a mile long. The royals used it for naval demonstrations and boating parties; they accessed the lake via yachts and imported Italian gondolas. The canal also had a practical purpose, acting as a reservoir for the many fountains on the property.
There are eleven large fountains in the garden (as well as numerous smaller ones), each with special water features. The fountains were an engineering marvel at the time they were first designed and installed, operating on a hydraulics system that allowed the water effects to shoot high into the air. Today’s hydraulic system is similar to the one used when the Sun King roamed the gardens. These days, the fountains aren’t always “in play” (activated), but since we were there during Musical Gardens, a few of the fountains were turned on periodically. They were quite a spectacle, especially since they were accompanied by music!
As I mentioned in the previous post, King Louis XIV’s fave Roman god was Apollo, god of the sun, and he features in many of the garden’s works of art. The Latona Fountain depicts a story from Apollo’s childhood: a group of Lycian peasants is insulting Apollo, his mother Latona, and his sister Artemis. Latona appeals to Jupiter to avenge them, and he obliges, turning the peasants into frogs and lizards.
The Apollo Fountain
The Apollo Fountain portrays the sun god emerging from the sea at dawn in his four-horse chariot, accompanied by Tritones.
The Dragon Fountain
The Dragon Fountain depicts Apollo, along with Cupids riding swans and some vicious-looking dolpins, killing the Python serpent (portrayed as a dragon in Greek mythology). This is truly one badass fountain.
The Neptune Fountain
This intricate fountain, sitting on a large pool, has 99 water effects. It wasn’t in play while we were there, but it’s apparently an extravagant show when running!
Each of the many bosquets (groves) of Versailles is centered around a theme, and they all have fountains, statues, and other decorative features.
Bosquet de l’Arc de Triomphe
This grove celebrates several 17th-century French military victories.
The Colonnade has 32 arches and 28 fountains. The statue in the center depicts Prosperine, Roman goddess of the underworld, also associated with fertility and the cycle of life, being abducted by Pluto, god of the underworld.
The Grove of Apollo’s Baths
This grove, created in the 1770’s in the style of English-Chinese gardens fashionable at the time, highlights several important statues from a collection of pieces entitled The Sun Horses and Apollo Served by the Nymphs.
The Grove of the Three Fountains
This bosquet was a favorite of King Louis XIV’s because it was accessible to him despite the fact that he was hobbled by gout. From what I read, the water feature–composed of three different fountains containing over 100 jets–is beautiful when running.
Encelade Grove and Fountain–Our favorite!
The Encelade Fountain was a gripping sight. The Titans, a group of immortal giants, attempted to climb Mt. Olympus despite being explicitly prohibited by Jupiter, and for their transgression they were severely punished. The subject of this sculpture is the Titan Enceladus, who (according to Versailles’ brochure) is in the process of being buried alive under the rocks of Mt. Olympus. (Note: other references I read said that Enceladus was buried under Mount Etna and that the volcano’s eruptions and tremors are caused by his movements).
Not only is the sculpture dramatic, but the accompanying music matched the piece PERFECTLY*. We sat on a nearby bench for several minutes, listening to the composition and staring at poor Enceladus in the throes of his punishment. We were captivated.
Like many of the works in the palace, this sculpture alludes to one of Louis XIV’s grand victories, in this case the Fronde, a 16th-century French civil war. When running, the Encelade Fountain has the tallest jet of all of the fountains–82 feet.
A few other random bits of loveliness before I wrap up this post:
Tips for visiting Versailles:
Versailles is a medium-sized city about ten miles outside of Paris and easily accessible for a day trip. The cost of admission was included in the Paris Museum Pass, which we purchased when we first arrived in Paris. Like I mentioned above, the museum pass normally includes garden access, but we had to pay an additional fee for the Musical Gardens.
- Getting to Versailles from Paris was super easy. We took the RER C, one of the high-speed trains serving Paris, and the Versailles station was within a short walking distance from the palace.
- Get there early. Versailles is one of the most popular tourist attractions in France, with millions visiting every year, and it gets mighty crowded.
- Plan to spend a full day at Versailles. We were there for about four hours and could’ve spent several hours more in the garden alone. We also missed the chapel, Royal Opera, and private châteaux of the king (the Grand Trianon) and Marie Antoinette (the Petit Trianon).
- You can bring outside food into the gardens and have a picnic (wine! cheese!), but food is not allowed in the palace, so you’ll have to plan ahead.
- Versailles hosts numerous events, including concerts in the Hall of Mirrors and spectacles in the gardens, so if you have time, try to catch a performance of some type. The palace and grounds are also in a constant state of restoration, so be sure to check the website for closures and additional fees.
*The music that accompanied the Encelade Fountain was Andre Campra, Tancrede, Actes 4 & 5, and Jean-Philippe Rameau, Dardanus, Actes 1 & 2.