A change of pace from Paris Versailles: Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette took it from simple to splendid, but the place has more than splendor to offer the tourist.


Want a little change from the urban pace of Paris? Try the royal palace at Versailles, just 20 miles or so down the road. It is an extraordinary study in how to develop a big piece of property to its best advantage.

The town itself, as with many little French towns, would be worth the trip even if the world's most famous palace weren't there. But the palace is there, so the day trip is a super twofer.

Versailles has the requisite compact charm: narrow cobblestone streets and a central core complete with an open-air market, or marche, as the French call it.

Former Chicagoan Susan Concordet has lived in Paris with her French husband, Jean, for nearly two decades, and she never tires of periodic visits to the historic little city. On a recent visit, she stopped at her favorite wine shop before heading over to the market.

It's a relatively small marketplace, but one filled with striking sights and smells.

Fresh-killed poultry -- unlike the more familiar, sanitized presentations of shrink-wrapped chicken parts in U.S. supermarkets -- enhances sensory perceptions: heads and feet remain, but will be removed upon request, although those who know about such things keep the feet and use them to make chicken stock. Next to the chickens are rabbits, involuntary participants in the next lapin au moutarde.

Cheese tour

Display cases filled with cheeses take you on a multinational tour. There are several varieties that never make it across the Atlantic to our tables but are nonetheless worthy of serious attention. Then there are the ones from Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Greece, Spain, Holland, Alsace-Lorraine and so on.

North Africa's influence can be seen in the variety of olives for sale; I counted about 18. Some were familiar, some alien. Some were slightly spicy, some very hot. Some were witheringly briny, some almost bland.

There were a dozen different kinds of onions, not to mention familiar vegetables such as spinach, eggplant and squashes.

"As much as I love living in Paris, there are times when I just want the comparative quiet and calm of Versailles," Concordet says.

"It is so close by and such a nice respite. There is always so much to see. There is always some sort of construction going on here, so I don't think I've ever seen all of the palace. But then, there is so much to see anyway. It could never have been done in a day -- or even two, for that matter."

Louis' house

Indeed, the palace and the grounds are vast, almost beyond the imagination. Remember, this is the palace that has two grand chateaux and several smaller houses in one quadrant.

Hey, we're talking about the former home of Louis XIV -- the Sun King -- and, later, of Marie Antoinette. To discuss France's history is to discuss Versailles.

By the time we arrived at the grounds, it was late on a Sunday afternoon, and we had stopped to have lunch at a little bistro in town. (A warning is called for here: Steer clear of anything that says "Texas" on a French menu. If you bother to travel this far, go with the French stuff.)

Within Versailles, there is also La Flotille, a very 20th-century restaurant with reasonably priced familiar offerings -- from Canada Dry ginger ale, Coca-Cola, coffee and tea to banana splits, crepes, pizza and omelets.

Instead of trying to see any of the inside rooms, we walked as much of the grounds as we could. Again, a warning: Wear comfortable, supportive shoes. Sneakers are fine, but walking shoes are better. Sandals will have your arches crying for mercy. There are inclines and steps -- lots and lots of steps.

The grounds are spectacular, and they were densely populated with tourists on this Sunday afternoon. It's fun to see the palace from the front, where the three avenues that traverse the city converge.

The parade ground abuts the Great Courtyard. To walk through the gates is to experience grandiosity on a scale otherwise unimaginable. To get an unobscured full frontal view of the palace requires coming early in the morning or waiting until late in the afternoon. Otherwise you can see only over the tops of tour buses.

But walking the grounds is pleasant enough, and a sufficient workout to test the endurance of any exercise buff.

Although the palace is generally associated with Louis XIV's court, it started out as a hunting lodge under Louis XIII in 1624. As the story goes, the young King Louis began to cultivate his plans for enlarging Versailles as early as 1661.

And when the Sun King decided to do something, he did not think small potatoes.

Take the Water Parterre, for example ("parterre" is an ornamental garden area where flower beds and paths form a pattern). Its ponds are surrounded by bronze water nymphs and statues that symbolize the main rivers of France.

Below is a basin. At its center is the Fountain of Latona, one of two fountains related to the myth of Apollo, the Greek god often identified with the sun, as Louis wanted to be.


The concentric circles of frog sculptures tell of one episode in Latona's mythic wanderings: When Latona -- the mother of Apollo -- stopped at one town to drink, residents polluted the water. She responded by turning them into frogs.

You might want to walk the Royal Avenue that links the Latona fountain to the fountain of Apollo at the other end. On both sides of the avenue -- really a broad, landscaped promenade -- are sculptures that trace Apollo's travels through the heavens.

It would be a mistake to think that only tourists appreciate the beauty and splendor of the palace grounds. The French visit Versailles in much the same way New Yorkers visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They are proud of it. They love it.

Young and old couples walk hand in hand, families bring picnics, students come in jeans and green hair -- right along with the Japanese, the Germans, the Americans.

So you don't get to any of the 50 rooms or courtyards. So you don't get to the Hall of Mirrors or the chapel. So you don't get to the Queen's Hamlet or the 30-room Petit Trianon -- the grand chateau on the palace grounds. Just to walk the grounds connects you with a historic period that was at once dark and insensitive, grand and glorious.

Pub Date: 8/11/96

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