The magic of Versailles

First of all I must clarify my previous entry entitled, Paris: The Winnipeg of France.  My brother pointed out the “Paris of the Prairies” was not, in fact, Winnipeg, but Saskatoon as was referred to in Tragically Hip song Wheat Kings.  I was skeptical especially since looking at Saskatoon, there were simply no similarities whatsoever between Paris and Saskatoon.  Of course I never once claimed that anything I stated in my travel blogs was true; every lousy writer need some artistic license.

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan that looks nothing like Paris

We woke up the next morning and bought an amazing quiche at the local boulangerie, Dominique Saibron, then boarded the RER train to the Palace of Versailles, which is about forty five minutes out of central Paris.  Lawrence again offered some great advice.  First, he told us to purchase return tickets from Versailles at our local station to avoid the line at Versailles.  Secondly, he told us to pre-order our entrance and “skip the line.”  Finally, he told us to go late enough so we could see the water gardens.

Versailles: a “fixer-upper”

The RER train itself had paneling mimicking the ornate interior of the Palace, but the station still reeked of stale urine.  When we arrived we followed the crowd outside the station, past Versailles McDonalds and along an avenue that led us towards the Palace.  It was indeed grand from outside, but first we had to fight our way through the gaggle of street hawkers attacking the queue like wasps at a pool party.  Entering through the Palace gate, the line to get in snaked through the courtyard and was the length of a soccer field.  For a second or two I felt sorry for the grannies and grandpas failing outside in the hot sunny weather, but then saw the “skip the line” entrance and proceeded to walk straight in.  Sorry grandma, you should have pre-ordered!

After getting through the security stations and getting ourselves an audio guide we followed the conga line past the chapel, through a guest room, a sitting room, the “governing room” before finally getting to randy old Louis XIV’s bedroom, dripping with colour from floor to ceiling–classic overcompensation.

Pretty nice sleeping area if you like sleeping

The bed itself had a wrap around curtain for when he and the queen were holding hands and cuddling.  After the bedroom we emerged to the Hall of Mirrors, which really was the most impressive room in the Palace.  On one side were thirteen large windows and the other side a mirror that gave the impression of sunlight radiating from both sides.  At the time, mirror glass was extremely rare and expensive so it was the type of luxury only a king could afford.  Think about that next time you take a selfie in your bathroom.  The mirrors were also handy for Louis to admire himself in his blue tights and fur coat, a fashion trend that has yet to return.

The Palace itself was not as impressive as I had expected, but then again, we only saw about one third of it.  The other annoyance was the sheer number of people passing through with us.  It felt like leaving a stadium after a concert where you beholden to the speed of the crowd.  I kept hurrying Julia along by telling her there were more impressive things to see and then it abruptly ended… that was it, but we definitely saved the best for last because the gardens were absolutely spectacular, cascading down from the Palace to several man-made lakes and laid out in intricate and perfectly symmetrical patterns.  Even the tree bonnets were perfect rectangles, as nature intended.  We started walking through the perfectly clipped hedges along angular passageways and into smaller gardens, many of which featured fountains that were not yet spewing water.  Within the dense shrubbery, speakers played classical music at a volume that made you feel that a chamber orchestra lurked around every corner.

First look at the gardens

We made it all the way down to the Apollo fountain and waited with anticipation for the water show.  Then right at 3:30 there was an ominous gurgling sound, like God belching, and water starting shooting from the fountain.  We stayed for a few minutes, but had to move, there were about another dozen fountains to see and from Apollo it was all uphill.  We followed the map closely and returned to some of the fountains we saw earlier, but they took on incredible life with water gushing from every orifice.  IMG_7510When we arrived at the King’s Garden we found the Mirror fountain, which danced to the crescendos of the musical suite.  While people admired this incredible display of musical artistry, my thought was: How did it work?  Computers?  Valves?  Voodoo?

The Mirror fountain

We continued on admiring fountain after fountain until we reached the top, once again near the Palace, then walked down to the biggest fountain of them all: the Neptune fountain that was scheduled to blow at 5:30, thirty minutes after all the other fountains turned off.  As I gazed back down to the gardens, the slope indicated to me that all these fountains must be gravity fed, but where did it start and where did the water come from?  After the Neptune fountain display we made our way back to the train station and walked past the huge lines of people waiting to purchase tickets at the machines.  Another great tip for all you would-be Versailles viewers.  When we got to the platform, there was a train waiting but with no signs and nobody around, we didn’t know if we should board.  Dozens of other tourists aimless ambled about wondering the same thing until a random guy finally told us to get on.  Thank goodness for random guy or we’d still be standing there.

The Neptune fountain

It was stuffy, hot and crowded all the way back to Paris, but Julia and I were now masters of the underground as well as knowing our local grocery store and our favourite alcohol and cheese–the Parisian diet.  We decided to go for pizza down the street because Julia just wasn’t in the mood for French food.  I know, what’s the point of traveling when you don’t enjoy everything a country has to offer, but we’ve been to Costa Rica and Jamaica and Julia has yet to try coffee.  Back at Hotel Max, Lawrence asked about our day at Versailles.

“I don’t think I could have waited in line for an hour then pushed through that crowd at the Palace.” I said. “That was great advice pre-buying the Versailles entrance pass and also getting the return train tickets.  Brilliant.”

Then I asked him the obvious question because to this point he had an answer for everything Paris.

“How do those fountains work?” I asked. “Is it gravity?”

He looked at me dumbfounded, then replied, “I don’t know.”

“Yes, gravity, I suppose so.” he added.

“And the mirror fountain; the one that dances to the music,” I said, “How does that work?”

“Again, I don’t know.” he responded, fumbling at the Versailles brochure.

“Most people just admire the fountains,” Julia said, “but not Paul.  He’s gotta figure out how it works.”

“No, this is good,” Lawrence said. “I should know this for future guests. Why don’t the two of you go out for dinner then I will have an answer for you when you return.”

We went out and enjoyed two lovely pizzas at a nearby restaurant called La Fabrica then returned to a grinning Lawrence still sitting at his desk.

Julia’s La Fabrica pizza.  Wow, too much basil!

“You are right!” he announced exuberantly, “The fountains are all gravity fed from giant reservoirs on the roof of the Palace.  When the water pours downhill it is fed into smaller and smaller pipes increasing the pressure.  That is why, when they run the Neptune fountain, they must turn off all the other fountains or else there would not be enough pressure.”

“Where does the water come from?” I asked.

“It is diverted from the Seine and pumped in using water power.  It is brilliant!”

“So what about the Mirror fountain?  How does it dance to the music?”

“Ah,” Lawrence added, “it is even more impressive.  It is operated by valves in a room under the fountain itself.  It is controlled manually today just as it was in Louis XIV’s time.  Of course, in Louis’ time they did not have all the fountains on at the same time.  As Louis walked around the garden they turned on the valves to the fountain he was walking towards.  It must have been quite an operation at the time.”

The fountain statistics tell another part of the story: 4500 cubic metres of water consumption per hour, 35 kilometres of piping unchanged since the 17th century, 55 pools and fountains and 13 fountain engineers.  The garden itself has 300 gardeners working year round to maintain what can only be compared to the ancient hanging gardens of Babylon.  It’s truly a masterpiece of art and engineering but the cost of maintaining Versailles must be staggering.

Some people feel that knowing how things work detracts from its magic but I disagree.  Learning how the Versailles fountains work made it that much more incredible.  But as amazing as the day had been, we were tired and had few plans for our final two days.  Lawrence recommended we visit a local park–a French park and have a picnic.  We also decided to use our Metro pass and explore the city: Basque food and the sex district were on our agenda.

The valves at the Neptune fountain, unchanged since the 17th century.  Today a washing machine won’t last ten years.