Splendid abode for the Sun King
The grandeur of Versailles is so evident that modern tourists are moved to inquire, `How much did this cost?'
PHOTO: DEEPSHIKHA MEHTA
EXQUISITE: The Hall of Battles
MYSTIQUE, solitariness and romance are words eternally linked to châteaux. With their massive ballrooms, twisting galleries, ceremoniously laid out kitchens and enviable furnishings, Chateaux were also the dwellings of European Kings and queens. They also make a befitting gift to one's princess read daughter as a venue for hosting a wedding bash as was so grandly done by the billionaire and steel magnate L.N. Mittal.
Having soaked in the life history of Louis XIV, stories on the famous court of Versailles and Marie Antoinette, the Mittal wedding and with remnants of teen dreams, a la Victoria Holt still in our minds, we set out on discovering Chateau de Versailles on a cold morning while on a vacation in Paris. The prompt and spiffy Parisian metro rail took us to Versailles, once a small village, destined to be the abode of the most popular 17th Century French king, who got the chateau built to bestow a look of royal rituality to his epicurean ways. He gave to France as also to the world, the symbol of absolute monarchy.
The chateau of Versailles stands today, on one hand, as a representation of royal grandeur and extravagance that was eclipsed with the storming of Bastille in 1789, and on the other hand, as a symbol of peace and French national pride in their history, with historical treaties like The covenant of League of Nations signed here.
The gateway surmounted by the Royal Arms of France leads into the huge courtyard with the statue of Louis the XIV in the centre. While cameras clicked away to catch the magnificent facade of the "Petit Chateau", we were told that in the past, crowds of plebeians, dressed in their very best, would flock to get a glimpse of their king, Louis the XIV, as he moved around the chateau. Cuisine and culture found its finest expression at the famed soirees of Versailles, a vision of ornate carriages, gossamer fabrics and scintillating jewels. Hobnobbing being the norm, it wasn't for nothing that one said, "anybody who was somebody had to be present at the court of Versailles". Stepping inside the chateau, one is struck by the lavishness of the décor. Considering that revolutionaries had once plundered the chateau in 1789, one need only give a free run to one's imagination to get a picture of the real splendour of the palace in the 17th Century. Dappled in gold, royal maroons, pastel greens, pretty pinks and floral designs, every room is mesmerising. Famous artists as also artefacts in gold adorn most rooms with their sculptures and paintings.
The most spectacular are the "State apartments" which were used for entertaining on apartment evenings. "Diana", "Mars", "Mercury" and the War drawing rooms were reserved for purposes ranging from a light meal, drinks, and war discussions to elaborate get-togethers. Words like embellishments and ornamentations fell short of describing the sybaritic aroma of the rooms.
Proclamation of the king's persona
Velvet and silk drapes with gold and silver trimmings, a throne for the king, the ceiling depicting "Apollo drawn by four horses accompanied by seasons" painted by Lafosse, the Apollo drawing room, is an emphatic proclamation of the king's persona. Louis the XIV claimed that there could not be anybody above the King and that God had granted him his position. With unbelievable ease he compared himself to Apollo the Sun God, master of peace and arts. And he lived up to it in spirit and deeds. Like the sun he had to be visible to his subjects for most part of the day. He patronised playwrights like Moliere, Corneille and Racine while art and architecture flourished in his reign. It is said that the king's ritualistic "levees" (waking up) and "couches" (retiring to bed) attended by the nobility and selected others drew a parallel with the rising and setting of the sun!
Traversing the splendid hall of mirrors decked with massive chandeliers and designed by Hardouin Mansart is flattering to say the least. The queen's bedchamber sits daintily festooned with floral pinks and lilacs in a combination with gold, overlooking the south parterre. The King's bedchamber, ornately done up in gold and reds, is a statement of power. Primly furnished in comparison to the King's apartments, are the Dauphin's and the Dauphine's apartments but still exquisite. The hall of battles, in the southern wing is a gallery that contains 35 large paintings portraying the historic victorious battles fought by kings from Clovis (469 A.D.) to Napoleon.
After a look at numerous private apartments or "cabinets" that later kings added in an effort to evade the brazenly public rituals of levee and couchee and feeling satiated with sights each more stunning than the other, we nevertheless had enough appetite left to visit Marie Antoinette's apartments with their exquisite porcelain trimmings.
The mercurial queen would often flee to Petit Trianon, located in the botanical garden, where she added a Chinese garden, a personal theatre, a hamlet and other sites like the Belvedere (a neo-classical pavilion built on a mound) and the temple of love. It is said that the queen's self-absorption and excesses led to her estrangement from the people. She was mercilessly executed without proof in 1793.
It was the gardens of Versailles that proved to be the icing on the cake. Imagine nature's bounty matching up to the lavish interiors of the chateau. The gardens designed by Le Notre stand more as a work of art rather than as mere routes for promenades. Pruned trees, stylised shrubs and thoughtfully planted blooms make an exquisite backdrop for the elegant fountains dotting the gardens. The noteworthy fountains include the fountain of Latona, the fountain of Apollo and the grand canal, the dragon fountain, the fountain of Neptune, the fountain of Enceladus, children's island and numerous groves with smaller fountains.
The fountain of Latona inspired by Ovid's metamorphosis depicts the legend of Lotona, the mother of Apollo and Diana, protecting her children from Lycian peasants and imploring Jupiter to avenge her. This fountain is a part of a splendid parterre that extends to the royal avenue.
The fountain of Apollo has the figure of Apollo in his chariot drawn by horses rising out of the basin as if ready to make the last jump on to the land. The Grand Canal adjoining the fountain, with gondolas and rowing boats afloat, was once the scene of many festivities and was called Petit-Venice (little Venice). Other fountains drew their inspiration from various Greek legends, thus infusing a sense of mystery to every sight that one laid one's eyes on. A ballroom curtained by a waterfall is also called Bosquet de rocailles due to the stones and shells brought from the African coast and Madagascar as base for the cascading water. The opera house is yet another architectural bijou at the chateau. Built entirely of wood for enhanced acoustics, the opera house served as a venue for prestigious receptions and marriages as well.
Souvenir shops outside the chateau sell wares including elegant XVIIth-Century-look clocks, an apt and invaluable keepsake. One day seemed insufficient when it came to bidding au-revoir to the chateau with its endless beauty and countless stories. It's no wonder that chateaux are constantly linked to romance, beauty and mystery. No wonder one wants to live in them forever!
Send this article to Friends by