Saturday, June 19, 2010

On the road (Europe 2010): Paris (Versailles)

Versailles was a disappointment--nearly everything that was once in the place was carted away during the Revolution, so it seems sparsely furnished relative to the sumptuous shell that’s left. It was, of course, interesting to see, although once again rather poorly labeled given that it’s a World Heritage Site. There are extensive galleries of paintings, mostly portraits, for example, but it’s very difficult to tell who is who, because the labels are small, hard to read, and obscured by the crowds.  I noticed that most of the visitors walked through these galleries fairly quickly and with a bewildered look. The very large paintings by David in the room devoted to Napoleon, however, are easy to see and quite impressive.

I don’t suppose anyone needs me to point out that Versailles is gilded and grandiose. It’s easy to see why even kings and queens tired of it and spent much of their time in the simpler (although still grand) complexes a short walk from the main palace—the Grand Trianon and the Petit Trianon. Given a choice, I’d prefer living in the Hameau, Marie Antoinette’s purpose-built farming hamlet just beyond the Petit Trianon. She had this village constructed on a whim to get a taste of the country life, which was a fashionable thing to do among the super-wealthy of the day. I suppose history might have been different if her little concoction had allowed her to understand what the life of the common people was like, although surely these houses were bigger, better equipped, and cleaner than real country houses. I found the hamlet interesting, though. It had twelve large country-style houses. There was a pigeon house, an apiary, a full dairy, and much else around the buildings, including hay fields, extensive vegetable gardens and flower gardens—all with a stream running through it. There must have been “farmers” that lived there to make the whole thing run. The royal families and their guests could come and milk a cow or do other chores for the novelty of it, but they didn’t really have to get themselves dirty if they didn’t want to. I think a good argument could be made for calling this the first theme park (are there earlier developments of this type? It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the Chinese or the Romans had something akin to theme parks).

The gardens in the hamlet were prettier than the austerely formal plantings around the main palace. I can’t say I cared much for the carefully clipped hedges, vast lawns (on which you're forbidden to walk), and rows of pollarded trees that make up most of the main gardens. They are impressive mostly for their scale; the gardens seem to go on forever. The area called “The King’s Garden” was perhaps the most appealing. Nearly all the walkways are simply made of crushed stone. Considering the wealth of the royal families that built Versailles and lived in it over the years, it seems odd that they never thought to pave any of it with stone. Stonework might have added some to the visual interest of the place. Taken as a whole, Versailles was worth the visit, though. I even got to see a few birds, although none well enough to identify except for those I’ve already figured out. There were mostly a few very vocal Chaffinches, blackbirds, and some crows, but there were also swallow-like birds (the one new bird I did figure out--the Common House Martin), a tit of some sort, a warbler I couldn’t identify, Moorhens on the water at the hamlet, and a rosy bird that looked like it may have been a Linnet. I hope to do the first real birding of the trip soon in the south of France or Spain.

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