Versailles, France — There is a marvelous story by Jorge Luis Borges called "The Aleph," concerning a phenomenon of time and space --a specific point in the ordinary physical world (discovered behind some cellar steps, oddly) through which everything else in the universe floated at will. It held a jumble of all we know, from the whispers of lovers courting to the cries of war, birdsong, or the daily commerce of the greengrocer next door.
One can stand in random corners of the gilded labyrinth called Versailles, outside Paris, and be able to conjure something of that phenomenon. Stare at an inch of monogrammed tapestry in the royal chambers, and it bespeaks not only the ascendancy of kings and the triumph of some charming king's favorite -- a Mme. du Barry of Mme. de Pompadour --Mansard, or Charles Le Brun, first painter of the King and director of the royal factory for crown furnishings. Intrigue, royal whim, and cutthroat competition took their toll on the most gifted artisans; even the legendary tapestry makers, the house of Gobelin, had rough periods.
It surely takes a course in French civilization, a whole library on French tapestry, crystal, furnituremaking, painting, exotic horticulture, and then Sainte-Beuve's marvelous book on the famous French women of this era -- to understand even the surface of the palimpsest called Versailles. How can the average visitor cope with this self-contained city within a few hours? The same way one deals with an Aleph, one imagines -- just realize the immensity and the intricacy of the thing, seize all that the mind can hold, then just treasure the images that linger.
A good tour guide helps, and Versailles has excellent ones, eloquent in several languages. Don't feel put out at finding yourself in a small crowd, moving through the halls. That, after all, is how most people viewed royalty at their most domestic: rising and dressing in the mornings, dining, making their way to chapel, then going through their daily public retiring ceremonies. The queens were even required to bear their children publicly, to establish the legitimacy of their offspring. It was in the queen's antechamber that the king and queen dined in public, "to the joy of the provincial visitors," a chronicler tells us, "who, after having watched [the queen] eat her soup, would go to see the princes eat their boiled meat and then run till they were out of breath to watch mesdames eat their dessert."
Begin, if you want time alone to find your bearings, by pausing just outside the main gateway of Versailles, which is crowned with the arms of France. Look across the Great Courtyard, which is flanked to the south and north (your left and right) by two long brick and stone wings -- the Ministers' Wings. The great equestrian statue of Louis XIV, placed there by Louis Philippe, dominates the square . . . and over his head soars a reminder of the encroachment of time --scaffolding rigged over the north wing. It's part of the massive, ongoing restoration going on throughout Versailles, under the direction of Gerald Van Der Kemp, the curator, who also heads the newly restored gem "Giverny" -- Claude Monet's home and gardens now open to the public as a museum of the painter's life and work.
Inside Versailles you will sense the atmosphere of a long-term archaeological dig. some suites are bare and dark, walls stripped of peeling paint and gilt, awaiting renovation. (Some areas await further funding, Mr. Van Der Kemp gracefully reminds potential contributors, though restoration plans are completed and ready to be carried out.) Visitors usually barely notice those areas, dazzled as they are by the splendor of the newest restorations, particularly the king's apartments, the culmination of years of painstaking work. But the darkened rooms are worth a look, when you come across them, for they, too, are part of the shifting palimpsest. Versailles is more than a stone and garden complex, even more than a storehouse of treasures; it is a social, political, and artistic landscape which has been in flux ever since it began in the 17th century. A sense of its growth is helpful as you approach it.
Versailles began relatively simply as a small hunting pavilion, raised by Louis XIII in 1624 and rebuilt a few years later. The Sun King, Louis XIV (1638 -1715), found it an attractive location and, between 1661 and 1681, ordered construction on a massive scale. In 1682, he made it the court residence and the seat of government for the peak of the French monarchy's glory. So it remained until the Revolution -- and the fateful 6th of October, 1789, when the Paris mob stormed Versailles and forced the royal family into confinement in the Tuileries, then ultimately to the scaffold.
During its century as the capital of France, Versailles grew into a full administrative city, with ministries, lodging for the court officials, parade grounds, and the lavish gardens, which stretched to the horizons, punctuated by fountains, orangeries, and a central canal large enough to float a miniature flotilla. The renowned Grand Trianon, the Petit Trianon, and Marie Antonette's infamous "cottage" also became part of the Versailles legend.
At the same time, before the Revolution, the chateau was actually a cultural museum, where anyone could be admitted "if he was decently dressed" to view both the chateau and its treasures, including the royal inhabitants. During the reigns of Louis XIV, Louis XV, and the unfortunate Louis XVI, the scaffold's victim, it has been said that the whole of French history took place at Versailles. The flowering of its culture happened there as well: The present collections in the Louvre, the Bibliotheque Nationale, and other museums were culled from those of the sovereigns who were also great lovers of art, literature, theater. In fact, they made their capital the European center of 17 th- and 18th-century civilization.
It was stripped of its masterpieces, its solid silver furniture melted down during the Revolution. But it was later restored by Napoleon and Louis XVII (who were, nevertheless, never able to live there) and finally turned into a "Museum dedicated to all the Glories of France" by Louis Philippe.
Holding that great panoply of events in one "aleph-point" of the mind, the visitor can then move from Versaille's front gates across the Great Courtyard, past the equestrian statue of Louis XIV, into the Royal Courtyard, with the great wings of the chateau reaching out on either side. Gilded entrances nearer the center of the complex lead, on the left, to the Queen's Staircase (up which the revolutionary mob marched in 1789), and on the right, to the former Ambassadors' Staircase. Then you are at the very heart of the Chateau, pausing at the Marble Courtyard -- where, in the brick and stone facades you can see the shape of the original, small chateau erected in 1631. As a compass point, remember that here at the chateau's center, in what used to be the State Drawing Room and anterooms, are now King's apartments.
As you enter the chateau on the ground floor of the north wing, you are walking through rooms that were once the apartments of the great princes. These were destroyed during the chateau's transformation to a museum, and now hold room after room of 17th-century paintings and sculptures --portraits of the royal families, military scenes, panoramic views of the chateau portraying important events of the era. It is not only an introduction to the history of the chateau, but a vivid evocation of its actual atmosphere.
Before entering the royal apartments, you should tour the Royal Chapel, where all the baptisms and marriages of royalty took place, the future Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette among the most prominent. It was the fifth chapel to have been built in the chateau; the others were torn out for successively more majestic chapels. Kings and their families entered the royal gallery in the chapel by a private marble-floored hall leading back to the State Apartments.
Once in those State Apartments, you're swept into the imaginary stream of the aleph -- a flood of images, facts, sensory impressions, breaks over you as you move past velvet, marble, Gobelin tapestries, the self-absorbed faces of kings staring from gilt frames. You are walking through the Drawing Room of Plenty, the Venus Room, the Diana Room, the Mars, Mercury, Apollo Rooms (thinking even then, of the vast honeycomb of other rooms to be covered: the Royal Opera, Coronation Room, 1792 Room, 18th- and 19th-century rooms, the private suites of Mme. De Maintenon, Mme. de Pompadour, Mme. du Barry) and then, from the War Drawing Room, you spill, slightly out of breath, into the famous Hall of Mirrors.
The hall, lighted by 17 arched windows and the reflections from 17 mirror-archways on the opposite wall, was the site of royal marriage balls, ambassadorial receptions, state audiences -- and in 1919, the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, marking the end of the World War I. The silver furnishings from this hall, too, were destroyed in the Revolution, but it is now decorated with exact reproductions. Envision the first small chateau-hunting pavilion, and this dazzling hall was only a simple terrace along its back length. In 1678 Louis XIV ordered the famous architect Mansard (after whom the now-common term mansard roof is named) to construct the great Hall, and his artist-decorator Le Brun to embellish it. The project took eight years to complete.
Just behind the mirrors in the hall is the real heart of the original chateau -- once the State Drawing Room in the chateau's absolute center, it was transformed in 1701 by Louis XIV into his formal bedchamber. The Sun King clearly envisioned his personal movements as state occasions; it was here that his famous rising and retiring ceremonies took place. Louis XV continued the tradition, though he built himself a smaller, more intimate -- and undoubtedly much more comfortable -- bedchamber in which he actually slept. But his state bedchamber is one of the glories of the present restoration effort under Gerald Van Der kemp. The canopy, hangings, and cover on the king's bed are of gold and silver brocade, embroidered with gold, and re-created totally by hand.
The queen had as formal a state bedroom, resplendent with crystal candelabra, high ceilings, and moldings splashed with the ubiquitous gilt, marble inlay, and flowered tapestry wall hangings, which were changed according to the season. Look to the left of the bed for the faint outline of a low door cut into the wall, its tapestry pattern blending perfectly with the larger wall hanging. Behind this door is the queen's private cabinet, the Meridian Drawing Room, an enchanting small room, utterly feminine, where she actually took her ease and entertained close friends. One imagines her going out through the low door with a sigh, stepping onto the cold marble stage, and into the glare of fascinated public scrutiny.
And it was back through this tiny, delicate cabinet and down a dark annex hallway that Marie Antoinette fled in terror when she heard the Paris mob bellowing up her staircase, held at bay at her very chamber door by her loyal guards.* She fled through the annex to the King's apartment, the center of Versailles, for refuge -- only to find that any escape route beyond was also blocked. And thus with poignant irony, the life of Versailles as a sovereign seat -- for all its massive, golden expansion of a century -- began and ended essentially in a few square feet, a small shell of marble and brick which was the original chateau. Stand in the center of the King's bedchamber, Mr. Van Der Kemp's piece de resistance, and think of an aleph, the imaginary point in which all things flood and ebb. . . .
Additional notes on getting there: Air France has some budget fares to offer, including the "Vacances" fare (14-day minimum trip), or Apex fares, and a popular Paris Left Bank plan, connected to those tickets -- $219 for seven nights in a small Left Bank hotel. There's also youth fare, and then a briskly efficient business class, which has a few extra amenities beyond tourist class, including limo service to your hotel. There's also a good airport bus into Paris for $4.
To Versailles from Paris, there are always standard tour buses; but you can also take the bright, efficient Metro train (a marvel in itself, compared with most American subways) from the Gare des Invalides, Gare Montparnasse, or Gare St. Lazare, straight to Versailles -- for less than 70 cents and in 25 minutes.
Versailles is closed Mondays and various national holidays including Jan. 1, May 1 (French Labor Day), Nov. 1, and Christmas. Otherwise it's open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and costs about $2 entry fee (additional for the grand Trianon and Petit Trianon). There are special rates for those 18 to 25 or over 65, and it's free for children under 7 and art students.
You can visit Versailles again and again, for it's always changing. Next on curator Van Der Kemp's renovation schedule, more work on the Great Chapel and the royal nurseries.