Versailles holds a curious place in the Western liberal mind. In one way, its infamous inhabitants from Louis XIV to Marie Antoinette perhaps represented the first modern fashion/media celebrities, with both still providing plentiful fodder for contemporary pop culture. Indeed, the former was played by Leonardo DiCaprio in The Man in the Iron Mask…the latter by Kirsten Dunst in Sofia Coppola’s quasi-surreal Marie Antoinette. The seductiveness of Versailles remains strangely undiminished.
Yet the Château de Versailles epitomized the sort of shameless profligacy that led to epochal class revolutions. Ironically, the United States of America, birthed by just such a revolution, is these days looking a lot like 18th Century “Ancien Regime” France.
All of which added up to philosophical food for thought on our most recent trip to the city of the Sun King, just 20 minutes west of Paris – but a world away in so many respects.
The mission was thus: previous visits had always been of the half day sort, never really traveling beyond the Château – and leaving us yet wondering what the town spreading out below it was really like. We appropriately checked into the rather dramatically titled Hotel Le Louis Versailles Château MGallery, before starting down the handsome, tree-lined Avenue de Paris.
Here’s what we discovered.
As the town grew around the Château in the 18th Century, neo-classical, the style of the day, very much prevailed. Indeed, we were reminded of England’s great Georgian city of Bath, but without all the puffery and frippery; streets like rue Colbert, rue Georges Clemenceau and Rue Carnot in the quartiere Saint-Louis proved a flaneur’s dream of insouciant strolling. Here were the aristocratic homes that once held ambassadors, vicomtes and marquises – with Versailles Cathedral, dating to 1754, rising gracefully above the Place Saint-Louis.
From the hotel’s windows we gazed down upon the palatial structure that houses the École nationale supérieure d’architecture de Versailles, one of Europe’s most prestigious architectural schools. Inside, it contains two exhibition spaces, in which are regularly staged more academically leaning exhibits.
Since Versailles is not a place one visits on the cheap, splurging for an extravagant souvenir is practically de rigueur. To accommodate, the Château recently opened the exquisitely stocked Marble Court Boutique, those temptations wound through four chicly designed rooms. A selection of books, housewares, jewelry, etc. ranged from the classy (a Le Gobelet du Roy Teapot) to the campy (a Marie Antoinette Rosebush Tray).
Seeking something a bit more personal, we popped into Maison la Varenne, which is sort of the biscuiterie/confiserie of kings. Carrying on the legacy of the exalted royal chef François Pierre de La Varenne, the shop was chic and modern, the selection remarkably playful. To wit, one can take away pastel skewers of essential oil scented marshmallows; dark chocolate lollipops; and, our favorite, wild strawberry and mango macarons.
A couple of blocks away, Art et Chocolat is very much what the name says it is. Isabelle Schneider’s inviting boutique is barely four years old, but the chocolates she sells, designed by Hélène Colas, cheekily reference history – a Louis XIV shoe, a classical Greek vase, an African mask.
The Marble Court Boutique
Potager du Roi
Staffing the most spectacular château ever built meant also having untold mouths to perpetually feed. And Louis XIV, always ahead of his time, conceived his own farm-to-table concept all the way back in 1678. 341 years later, the Potager du Roi is still in operation, producing more than 50 tons per annum of fruits and vegetables, sold in the city markets and to the area schools. And with more then 400 varieties of fruit trees, it regularly stocks up the locals with the exotic and uncommon.
We were surprised by just how modest it looked, since Louis is most remembered for his lack of it; but it was emboldened by the majestic surrounding architecture, which made the experience of strolling through the gardens just that much more memorable. There was also a stylish little shop attached, where one can inquire about booking a tour – which fascinatingly contextualizes the gardens within the socio-political machinations of the last three-plus centuries.
Where the St. Louis is so much dignified formality, the Notre-Dame quartiere buzzes with energy day and night. Its beating heart – and provider of the city’s daily sustenance – is its namesake food market. Considering Versailles’ sometimes stuffy reputation, the place was pure theater, with lively meat, cheese, fish and flower vendors animatedly shouting out the day’s offerings, along with spontaneous discounts and and ephemeral specials.
One could easily while away an entire morning here, just taking in the sights and smells, the infectious energy. And to be sure, we were endlessly entertained. The bounty of unusual fruits and vegetables, cured meats, spices, even local sausages, sweet and savory crêpes and escargot, all just begged for an impromptu picnic on the Château park grounds. But the lure of the lively cafes along the Place du Marché Notre Dame was practically irresistible – especially for the excellent Versailles people watching.
Dining Out in Versailles
Living in the culinary shadow of Paris can prove particularly daunting. How to keep visitors in Versailles, when the Michelin stars and trendy bistronomie of Paris beckon? But we dined like visiting dignitaries, with equal measures of pomp, camp and chic.
We first lunched at Carmen, a stylish little eatery that opens on to the winsome Rue Saint-Honore. Amidst the cool, stark white surrounds, the unfussy menu offered pea veloute with poached egg, farm chicken, roasted cod with basil virgin sauce, and a creamy lemon yuzu dessert that veritably epitomized summertime sweetoothing. Dinner at Le Bistrot du 11 – sister to the more formal La Table du 11 – was a decidedly on trend experience, where a three-course pre-fixe (at just 37 Euro) consisted of a zucchini-sardine-sage starter, poultry-carrot-curry main, and apricot-yogurt-verbena conclusion. The cosmopolitan clientele was of the decidedly fashionable sort.
Le Bistrot du 11
Most amusingly, we made a spontaneous swerve into camp the following evening, opting for the flamboyant dinner theater of Reminisens. Done up like a baroque era salon, with staff in appropriate period costume, we were treated to the improv staging of a lascivious, 18th Century rom-com, while we dined on quite good asparagus veloute and guinea fowl. It’s not for everyone – but it was certainly proof that Versailles has its cheeky sense of humor, if you know where to look for it.
But le plaisir of lunching at Versailles itself could hardly be overstated. In 2017, the many-Michelin-starred Alain Ducasse had opened Ore, a cool, contemporary 1st floor cafe, dramatically looking out onto the Royal Courtyard. Though we were particularly impressed that the food didn’t bow to the setting, with confit duck foie gras, Charlolais beef tartare, and Les Versaillaises, a signature take on the classic religieuse pastry, all being done to the master’s standards. And, well..the view.
Ore Alain Ducasse
The Queen’s Apartments
Obviously, there is no visiting Versailles without passing through the doors of the Château. And big news, the Queen’s Apartments were opened to the public this spring – which means we were jostling with the crowds for a glimpse of all that boudoir splendor. We have to admit, it was most definitely worth all the tiptoe viewing.
But we made haste for the always ethereal royal gardens. And as we watched the fountains dance amidst the peek-a-boo late afternoon sunshine, we were genuinely happy that we would be spending that night.
Hotel Le Louis Versailles Château MGallery
To tempt visitors with an overnight stay, Versailles will see the opening of two new five-star hotels in the next year – challengers to the Waldorf Astoria Trianon Palace, with its notable Gordon Ramsay restaurant. But for obvious reasons, we chose to lay our heads at the more cooly stylish MGallery.
We entered the spacious Art Deco lobby and were immediately struck by the buzzy energy of the hotel – always a good sign. Upstairs rooms had daring color schemes, with opulent chandeliers playing off of contemporary furnishings and headboards, and handsome parquet flooring. Our top floor room had a balcony overlooking the prodigious architecture school building and, much to our delight, the Château beyond.
The lobby bar offers one of the more cosmopolitan nightlife scenes in Versailles, with well-turned out-tipplers arranged around a retro-mod circular bar, under a canopy of lights. Dress to impress, and it’s shaken, not stirred.