Flâneries in Paris: The Gardens of Versailles

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Flâneries in Paris: The Gardens of Versailles
This is the 20th in a series of walking tours highlighting the sites and stories of diverse districts of Paris. As I stood at the top of the gardens of the Palace of Versailles and gazed down, a truly splendid vista was spread out before me. It was an enticing prospect for a walk and I broke with the usual flânerie tradition by arming myself with a map supplied at the garden’s entrance. The sheer size of the grounds is overwhelming and I didn’t want to miss any of the highlights.          Geometrical parterres were laid out to right and left and, as I looked over the symmetrical pools of the water parterre between them, the long, straight, central Great Lawn led my eye into the distance, towards Apollo’s Fountain and beyond to the Grand Canal. Its orderly arrangement of straight lines and right angles gave it a pleasing formality, but I knew too that as I explored, I would find hidden groves and pathways, full of surprise statues and fountains. The Grande Perspective before me was begun before the reign of Louis XIV, but it was the Sun King himself and his master gardener, André Le Nôtre, who perfected it.   The route led straight ahead to one of the central splendors of the garden, Latona’s Fountain, where Latona’s statue stands atop four layers of gilded frogs and lizards. They recall the punishment of peasants who were turned into ugly creatures for refusing the goddess a drink of water. It served at least two of the purposes dearest to Lous XIV’s heart. Firstly, it was one of his endless tributes to Apollo – Latona was Apollo’s mother – and, equally pleasing to him, it was a fantastic display of surplus wealth. How everyone would envy a king who could spray gold around a pond with such abandon! And I imagine Louis hoped they would grasp the subtext, namely the idea that crossing those in power always ends badly.    Latona Fountain detail, Palace of Versailles gardens. Photo by Marian Jones Following a path looping round to the left, I heard piped classical music, a sure sign that the Ballroom Grove was not far. Suddenly, the oval space opened up, surrounded by tiers of stone seating on grassy banks, a secluded space where musicians played high up above artificial waterfalls and dancers performed on summer evenings. Every aisle between the seats was studded with golden urns and vases. When the grove, created by Le Nôtre at the height of his powers, was opened, the Grand Dauphin staged a celebratory grand dinner. I could almost hear the laughter and the clinking of crockery.  Next came the Queen’s Grove, one of the many little woodland spaces which open up unexpectedly, hidden enclaves surrounded by trees, where symmetry has been imposed on nature by a pattern of pathways leading to a central feature. When Le Nôtre designed this one for Louis, he filled it with charming fountains shaped like the animals from Aesop’s fables, but a century later it was redesigned as a place for Queen Marie Antoinette to walk in private. It was filled with sweet-scented Tulip Trees imported from Virginia and bordered by rose beds, idyllic, but also a place of intrigue. A scene from the “Diamond Necklace Scandal” played out here, when a cardinal who thought he was meeting secretly with the queen was duped by an imposter. It made me wonder what other subterfuges unfolded in these little hideaways and I could just imagine the whispered plotting and the shadowy figures flitting between the hedges.  Ballroom Grove at the Palace of Versailles gardens. Photo by Marian Jones
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Lead photo credit : A statue showing the fate of Enceladus, (Photo by: Marian Jones)

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Recently retired from teaching Modern Languages (French and German), Marian now has time to develop her interests in travel and European culture and history. She will be in Paris as often as she can, visiting places old and new, finding out their stories and writing it all up as soon as she gets home. Marian also runs the weekly podcast series, City Breaks, offering in-depth coverage of popular city break destinations, with lots of background history and cultural information. She has covered Paris in 22 episodes but looks forward to updating the series every now and then with some Paris Extra episodes.

Comments

  • maria medina
    2023-09-21 09:15:11
    maria medina
    Amazing to know all this I have been to Versailles many times but his article has made me want to come back to Versailles in the Autumn to enjoy the garden 100 % better thanks to marian chapeau

    REPLY

    • Marian Jones
      2023-09-24 04:21:15
      Marian Jones
      Merci, Maria! I hope you do make it back to Versailles and have a lovely wander through the gardens. I went on a hot day in late spring, but now you make me want to return in the autumn!

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