Monday, September 14, 2015

An American family in Europe: Day 4, the Palace of Versailles

(Previously: Day 3, Paris)
The best way to beat the crowds at the Palace of Versailles is to get there early and be ready to enter when the doors open at 9 a.m.

We didn't do that. While I tiptoed out to get some fresh bread, my family snoozed away the morning. We didn't leave our apartment for Versailles until 10:30 a.m.

There was no direct train from our location in the 4th Arrondissement to Versailles, which lies just outside Paris, so I mapped out what I thought was a fairly good route involving two Metro subways lines and one above-ground RER train. But after the two subway rides, we learned that the "RER C" train line was partly closed, so we had to add another subway line to the mix. Eventually, we got there.

From the Versailles train station, it is about a quarter-mile walk to the palace, but we diverted from that route to get some lunch. In retrospect, this was a mistake.

My thinking was that we should eat before we enter the palace site, because surely any food places there would be overcrowded and overpriced. As it turned out we paid plenty for our sit-down lunch. We could have, I discovered later, bought some simple sandwiches and snacks in the palace gardens for less money and enjoyed a picnic in the gorgeous surroundings.

(Another good strategy: Pack a lunch and bring it in.)

I knew from my research that Versailles was one of the most popular tourist sites in Paris, but even so, as we approached the palace, I was stunned.  First, there was a huge lot packed with nothing but tour buses. Then, in the plaza outside the palace was a teeming mass of humanity. Easily over a thousand people stood in lines snaking all over the place. I couldn't make any sense of it, and there weren't any official representatives to answer questions.

We decided to go to the gardens first, and visit the palace later. The gardens are normally free, and we tried simply to walk in, but it turns out that this day was a "Spectacles" day when they run the fountains and play loud classical music. So this "free" attraction cost us $35.19 (it was not covered by our Museum Passes).

The gardens are well-groomed, cleverly designed, huge, and spectacular. That said, the Spectacle admission was a waste of money. You don't need to see fountains and hear music to be impressed by Versailles' garden. Go on a free day if you can.

We walked through the gardens, nicely leaving the crowds behind. We took a break by the pretty Grand Canal, then walked further, and somewhat accidentally, reached the Grand Trianon, an impressive mansion that was once the home for Louis XIV and Napoleon (no, "Odd Couple" fans, they did not live there at the same time).

In another location, the Grand Trianon would be the central attraction. At Versailles, however, it was a mere sideshow.

It was a long walk back and we couldn't seem to find a place for a snack, or a bathroom. We did, however, end up in a pretty, semi-hidden terraced garden area that looked like a perfect place to rest our feet. Bordering the garden were curving benches made of a mix of stone and hedge. We sat down to rest our weary feet, and a moment later, I heard a whistle blowing. It didn't register immediately that the whistle was aimed at us -- a worker was signaling that we couldn't sit on the benches.

You gotta expect the unexpected when you're traveling -- but benches that you aren't allowed to sit on?

We got back to the palace around 4 p.m., and found that the crowds had dissipated only slightly. Amazingly, this attraction that draws many thousands of people each day has only one small set of bathrooms anywhere near the Palace. (This wasn't the only place in Paris that seemed to lack bathrooms. Don't people here pee?)

Our Museum Passes allowed us to skip the ticket line, but not the much longer security line. Still, the line did move along, and within about 25 minutes, we were inside the palace. It had lots of rooms of art -- seemed a bit like the Louvre we had been in the day before -- plus the impressive Hall of Mirrors. It was still fairly crowded even in the late afternoon.

In all, I don't think the tour takes you to even 50% of the entire Palace. A lot of it seemed like an art museum. I would have liked to have known more about the palace as a living place -- what did the kitchen look like?  Where did the servants live?

If I was giving travel advice, I would propose something slightly radical for those who come to Versailles: If you come on a busy day, skip the palace. The gardens are much more impressive, and while there are some rewards to seeing the palace, I don't think it's worth battling thick crowds.

I thought I'd considered almost all the details for our trip, but I discovered I blew it here in one respect: We should have bought round-trip train tickets. When we left the palace and went to the Versailles trains station we found long lines to buy tickets (one machine was out of order when we got there, and a second one broke down while I was waiting in line). It took 45 minutes just to get tickets; ugh.

Later that evening, my wife and I returned to what I think works best in Paris: Wandering around. As the sun set on the evening, we discovered some hidden plazas, including Les Place Vosges, which was hosting an outdoor movie.

Next: The Eiffel Tower

The full trip, by day: 

Days 1 and 2, Los Angeles to Paris

Day 3, Paris

Day 4, the Palace of Versailles

Day 5, the Eiffel Tower

Day 6, Goodbye France, hello England

Day 7, Windsor Castle & Stonehenge

Day 8, Bath

Day 9, Doctor Who and Swansea's LC

Day 10, the waterfalls of Wales

Day 11, Blists Hill and Ironbridge

Day 12, Warwick Castle

Day 13, Oxford and Harry Potter Studio Tour

Day 14, this is London

Day 15, British Museum and British Library

Day 16, the Tube goes on strike

Day 17, Greenwich, the Thames and Westminster Abbey

Day 18, the Tower of London

Day 19, heading home


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