Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Queen's hamlet: the hidden treasure of Versailles

When visiting France, we knew we had to go to Versailles.  I was very excited to get out of the city and see some of the French countryside- but when we got there, I was surprised by what I saw.  In spite of arriving very early, there was a mass of people walking around.  I did not expect to see the half mile of stone leading up to Versailles.  I suppose I had heard so much of the gardens, that I expected some greenery to be around the buildings.  The view you usually see of Versailles is from the outer reaches of the gardens, looking up to the backside of Versailles. 

Versailles itself was very beautiful and very immense.  Everywhere you looked gold was dripping from the walls.

There were paintings everywhere but the ceilings in Versailles displayed some of the most amazing artwork I have ever seen.

The "Hall of Mirrors" was the most impressive room in the palace.  From the curved, extraordinary ceiling, to the abundance of crystal chandeliers, to the mottled arched mirrors mimicking the windows opposite them...I loved that room.

And then we came upon Marie Antoinette's bedroom.  It was very Marie Antoinette...or what I thought I knew of Marie Antoinette.  The most ornate fabric dressed the walls, the entire room was trimmed in gold,  white feather plumes adorned each corner of the canopy.  I could almost see her there...if I had been able to disregard the crush of people constantly shoving me and stepping on my feet.

When we made our way through the palace and finally stepped out into the gardens, I felt like I could breathe for the first time in a couple of hours.  The sky was bright blue that day and was filled with the whitest clouds I had ever seen. 

The gardens were everything I had thought they would be.  There were sculptures and fountains everywhere. 


I loved Versailles, but I found it hard to appreciate everything I was seeing with so many people around.  There was a feeling of constant movement inside the palace...almost as if you were trying to stand your ground in a very strong riptide.

I had read about Marie Antoinette's hamlet which resided a mile away. Even though we were both tired of walking, Jason and I decided that a walk, away from all of the commotion, would be well worth it.  We walked down this road bordered by cypress trees.

 As we walked, we saw big fields, villagers riding their bikes, baskets filled with groceries, families having picnics in the tall grass...it was if we had stepped into a completely different world.  A world I was absolutely at peace in. 

 Just when we thought we had missed it, we rounded a corner and saw this-

"Marie-Antoinette, seeking to flee the Court of Versailles, ordered the construction of her hamlet in 1783. There, she regularly found the charms of country life, surrounded by her lady's companions. It became a veritable farm, directed by a farmer, whose products supplied the kitchens of the Palace. Under the First Empire, the Hamlet was refurnished with refinement for Empress Marie-Louise."

"Between 1783 and 1787, the Hamlet was thus created in the spirit of a true Norman village, with eleven houses spread out around the Big lake. Five of them were reserved for the use of the Queen and her guests: the Queen’s House, Billiard Room, Boudoir, Mill and Refreshments Dairy. While four houses were reserved for the occupancy of the peasants: the Farm and its annexes, the Barn, the Dovecote and Preparation Dairy. The Farm was located outside the village and sheltered a varied livestock: a small herd of eight cows and a bull, ten goats and pigeons. One house was reserved for domestic use: the Warming Room, where the dishes were prepared for the dinners given at the Queen’s House or at the Mill."

"The Malborough Tower, a sort of beacon towering above the banks of the Big lake, was the point of departure for boat rides or fishing outings."

"Each house had its own little garden, planted with firm and round Savoy cabbage, cauliflower and artichokes, surrounded by a hornbeam hedge and enclosed by a fence of chestnut trees. The banisters of the staircases, galleries and balconies were adorned with blue and white earthenware pots of Saint-Clement containing hyacinths, quarantaine flowers, wallflowers or geraniums. Small orchards of apple trees and cherry trees were planted. Climbing plants covered the walls of the houses and arbors shading certain paths."

Marie Antoinette's hamlet was absolutely one of my favorite places we went to on our trip.  I loved the idea of this woman, who was known for her extravagance and opulent surroundings, building a village she could escape to.  It made me realize that the Marie Antoinettte the public clings to, was not the only side of her.  She was born into royalty, married royalty at the age of 14, and was executed because of her royal status at the age of 37.  Yet, her haven was a idealized Norman farm she had built a mile from her home of Versailles.   Here, in this quiet, peaceful place, I could imagine her walking on these dirt paths or sitting to watch her children play with the animals.

The hamlet was completely unexpected, but I definitely preferred it for that reason.  It felt like we had discovered a secret that Marie Antoinette only shared with a rare few.

* history of the hamlet taken from the official homepage of the Chateau de Versailles

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