There are plenty of reasons NOT to go to Paris in August: Lots of shops and restaurants are closed; it’s usually hot; and that’s when all the tourists are there. But there are some compensations, especially if you’re not planning to hang around the Louvre, Notre Dame or the Champs Élysées.
Last August, for the first time in 25 years, I revisited Versailles. Not the chateau, which would have been thronged with people on bus tours, but the gardens. According to the account told at Vaux-le-Vicomte, the chateau built by Louis XIV’s corrupt finance minister Nicolas Fouquet, when Louis first visited the gardens at Vaux-le-Vicomte, he was overcome with envy. He immediately engaged Fouquet’s architect, Le Notre, to create something even more splendid at Versailles.
And splendid the gardens are, all nearly 2000 acres of them – more than twice the size of New York’s Central Park. Beginning in the 1600’s, architects and gardeners built formal parterres, dug the Grand Canal stretching out from the view from the Hall of Mirrors, planted flower beds and thousands of orange trees, and created bosquets: rows of matching trees that intersected to form alleys and groves. And they commissioned fountains, many along the theme of Apollo, the sun god, since Louis styled himself Le Roi Soleil, the Sun King.
Fountains even in that age of excess were expensive to maintain and run. I’ve read that when Louis and his pals frequented the gardens, the fountain engineers had a system of whistles to let each other know where the king was headed next. The minute he walked away from a fountain, they shut it down. Needless to say, in the years following the revolution, keeping up the gardens and fountains of Versailles didn’t come high on the priorities list.
But the gardens and chateau have long been recognized as treasures of France, and today you can walk through the grounds and see them much as Louis XIV did. Not a single tree we see today existed during Louis’s time; they’ve all been replaced over time, but the designs themselves are intact.
Strolling through the gardens, with all their hidden “rooms,” fires up my imagination. I can see the flash of a dainty heel as some woman flits away to meet her lover in their special place; am I hearing giggles and whispers on the other side of those trees?
In recent years, Versailles has been running the fountains during the tourist season. And in July and August, on Saturday nights, they produce Les Grandes Eaux Nocturnes, an evening in the gardens with fountains, light shows, music and fireworks.
With Donna Morris of Best Friend in Paris in the lead, we bought train tickets to Versailles at the Gare St. Lazare, the iron and glassed roofed station that both Monet and Manet loved to paint. It’s a short ride to the town of Versailles, and maybe a 20 minute walk from the station there to the chateau.
It was an overcast day, so the light was already fading when we walked onto the grounds. More and more people arrived; make no mistake, even with all those acres of gardens, there was a crowd here.
Suddenly, along the side of the mirroring Grand Canal, plumes of fire shot into the air. We walked down the stone stairs from the back of the chateau into the gardens, where we were bombarded with iridescent soap bubbles thick in the air. At Le Bassin d’Apollon, dancing waters flickered and swayed to classical music. By now the night was fully dark, and even surrounded by hordes of people, we gasped in wonder at each new display.
The gardens are arranged into “rooms,” separated by trees and hedges. As we walked into the Bosquet de la Colonnade, the ring of columns seemed to have a flat ceiling along which eerie green shapes slid mysteriously above us. A ceiling out here wasn’t possible; we knew that, but we were having a totally other-worldly experience. “What IS this?” everyone around us asked. We sought out the works; the effect was made by pumping smoke into a wide flat green laser light.
We moved through more magical rooms, but soon started checking our watches. We didn’t want to catch the last train back to Paris; it would have been jammed with people. So we skipped the fireworks, and we were back in town by midnight. Should you find yourself in Paris next summer, I’d highly recommend Les Grandes Eaux Nocturnes at Versailles.