Let them visit Versailles

As a child growing up in Paris, Hetty Meyric Hughes longed for dresses and wigs like Marie Antoinette’s. The feast of summer events held annually in the grounds of the Sun King's chateau are the perfect excuse to live out a childhood fantasy, she writes

Arriving to live in Paris at the age of three straight from Lima (my parents worked for the British Council and were seconded all over the world) was a surprise to me – where were the llamas? I was soon immersed in the bilingual school by the Eiffel Tower, where lessons were in French for reading and history (‘nos ancêtres les Gaulois’, I parroted) and English for maths. From six to 12, I was enrolled in the French school system, learning a poem by heart every week from a repertoire of great French poets.

Now never a year goes by without a visit to Paris, on the pretext of researching my anthology of poets who sang of the city, and of course to indulge in its famous patisseries. Versailles is a particular favourite, for the tearooms (the French love tea too!) and the chance to idle a few hours away in the gardens of the palace.

France’s Sun King, the famously extravagant and dictatorial absolute monarch Louis XIV, is said to have lamented on his deathbed to his five-year-old great-grandson Louix XV, ‘Don’t imitate my fondness for war or my taste in buildings.’ He needn’t have worried. Versailles, his most famous grand design, housed 10,000 people in its heyday, including most of the French aristocracy, and its palace and gardens are still one of the grandest, most impressive and delightful attractions of France.

The Sun King lavished hospitality on his guests, but contemporary visitors can also revel in entertainment fit for a king and relive the courtly glamour of parties, fountains, concerts and masked balls. During the warm months musical fireworks displays and daytime fountain displays are held every weekend. Like nothing better than dressing up as a Musketeer or Milady? The Grand Masked Ball organised under the directorship of French-Algerian choreographer Kamel Ouali means you could do just that.

During daylight hours, take the palace’s dear little train to visit the elegant Grand Trianon palace, or the rustic cottages where Marie Antoinette and her courtiers played at being shepherdesses (today, there is a shop selling local produce, and children can go on pony rides). For afternoon tea and pastries in regal style try Angelina, and for lunch amid the roses, La Petite Venise. Classical music lovers will want to put the Versailles Festival into their diaries. It runs in early summer every year. Concerts are staged across the chateau, in the Hall of Mirrors where the peace treaty between the Allies and Germany was signed on 29 June 1919, in the Royal Chapel, and in the Royal Opera House, a perfect chocolate-box theatre made entirely of wood.

For longer stays, you’ll find luxurious living and large grounds at the Trianon Palace Hotel, where you can also go on cookery courses or eat at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant. But the best thing of all about your let them eat cake lifestyle? You won’t find the sans-culottes arriving in a tumbrel to take you away…

Hetty Meyric Hughes is the author of Poetry of Place: Paris, published by Eland Books

Photo by Fernand Ivaldi / Getty Images

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