Versailles Is Not Lonely

photo: cafes clemenceau versailles
More of the Versailles 'village' in the Clemenceau area,
with cafés and terraces.

But Not Everything Is Open

Paris:- Friday, 26. June 1998:- Instead of taking the train to Paris I am taking the king's old high road to Versailles, to see if it has been deserted by the attractions of football.

It is kind on dumb to do this, before noon, because there is no football being played now - so I can reasonably expect Versailles not to be lonely; as hundreds of thousands of football fans will have taken the opportunity to make a quick visit to see Louis XIV's hometown and primary residence, which is called a 'château' but looks like a campus-like factory of a palace.

I find a parking place much sooner than I expect, much closer to the château than I expected. I have to walk around to the rue des Réservoirs and go back a bit to get to the tourist office, which is in Madame Pompadour's old hôtel.

The ladies here tell me business is as usual; semi-brisk in other words. I scoop up the brochures and advertising newspapers and go off toward the market. Versailles is close to where I live so I'm never in a hurry to get to it, so the market is always closing when I arrive. Today is before the usual time.

The marché Notre-Dame is a square, with covered halls arranged on the edges and stalls in the interior open space. It seems as if all of Versailles' residents shop here. Because the underground parking is not available by the quarter-hour, they park elsewhere or they shop longer.

This is very French: the dream of parking directly in front of the boulangerie where they buy their one baguette for lunch. All of France wants this; a free parking space in front of their favorite boulangerie. Sincephoto: market street versailles buying a baguette only takes about 30 seconds, that parking slot is often free - for 90 seconds, tops.

The marché is intersected by roads, so you have to watch a bit not to get run over by fruit and veg vans. If the weather is as it is today - another forecast gone wrong, but in the right direction - being at the marché is not really a chore but an agreeable pastime.

One ofthe shortcut streets to the marché; with some unusual shops in it.

I am looking for a particular shop and I find it. The information I have about it is wrong, so I ask if there is another similar shop in the town. They are not sure, there may be one over by the 'something' church - a hand-wave in a southeastly direction indicates where it is.

Downtown Versailles is not huge. There is the Notre-Dame part north of the avenue de Paris and the Saint-Louis part south of the avenue. There are also a 'right bank' and 'left bank' part, depending on the train stations - with the 'right bank' station being in the Notre-Dame sector, about a block north of the market.

A citizen on the wide and tree-lined avenue de Saint-Cloud tells me he doesn't think the 'other' shop I'm looking for, exists. I don't think so either. All the same, I cross to the other side where all the local buses are gathered, to look at the map.

This shows some concentration a little bit east, in the rue Clemenceau. This turns out to be a commercial street that has been taken over by a street pottery market, and there are a great variety of pots displayed on tables set up in the parking slots.

One display table seems to be having a vernissage in the middle of the street, where a small table is covered in food and drink. This is also very French - providing refreshments and food to potentialphoto: marche versailles buyers. Actually the crowd looks like pot makers from the other stands; maybe they need a few calories to tide them over the expected noon-time rush by pot buyers.

When the sun shines, colors are really vivid at the marché's fruit section.

Nearby café terraces are half-stocked with customers who do not seem to mind paying for their refreshments. This Clemenceau is a human-scale area, where the streets are a bit wider than those near the market, so there is more sky overhead which lends a village feeling.

A few steps further along and the administrative-formal avenue de Paris is the decor, with the Hôtel de Ville across the way, and Louis' hyper-château to the right, at the end of the extra-wide avenue.

There are the big plane trees and a wide grass strip between the building fronts and the avenue. By the buildings there is a smaller, cobbled road, for parking, but there are no empty spaces.

From the middle of the grass, the trees and their leaves overhead, frame the front of the château. Normally you see it without this frame and looking from the town, the front of the château, looks huge - like some sort of royal campus - with its gold-tipped iron gates and acres of stone.

You can see all of it, and this is possibly what is wrong with it. It is too big and it wants you to know it.

The way to get around this mega-view is to enter the grounds from the direction of the town's visitor office in the rue des Réservoirs. This puts you right up close, in the courtyard, wherephoto: a potters stand the scale, although still large, is a bit more human. Also, going in this way, you can watch the other visitors dutifully trudging up kilometres of cobbles from the main gate.

The pot stand with the free eats; in the rue Clemenceau.

I always expect about a third of them to give up by the time they reach the statute of Louis XIV. A lot of them do pause about here, but I guess they think they have so much effort invested already, they may as well continue.

If they've read their guidebooks, they'll know they are only at the 'two-star' stage of their tour. To get to the 'three-star' part they have to go though either the Arcade du Nord or its companion opposite, the Arcade du Midi, to get to the monstrous gardens behind.

There, they will see the results of a vast logging operation - done once every hundred years or so - according to a reliable Versailles informant.

I do not see this myself because I intend to see the Musée des Carrosses, in the Grandes Ecuries, beside the avenue de Paris.

The Petites Ecuries is on the other side of the avenue in an identical building. Both these buildings, like wedges of pizza, face the place d'Armes and the front of the château.

Two hundred coaches and their horses were in the 'Petites,' while saddle-horses were kept in the 'Grandes' - for a total of 2,500 horses altogether.

The Louis' coaches were sold or destroyed during the Révolution, so the ones on display are from a collection started by Louis-Philippe. It includes a lot of state coaches made for Napoléon and during the Third Republic, but also some older ones as well. Newer ones include one made for Czar Nicolas' visit to Versailles in 1896.

This collection was opened to the public in September of 1997 - but is only open on Saturdays and Sundays, from 12:30 to 18:30. In other words, never on Fridays. The doors are locked today.

Right next door, is the ticket office, which has a Web site, for the château's 'Grandes Eaux Musicales' and the 'Fête de Nuit' spectacles. This office also has tickets for the music, dance and theatre evenings at the château.

Versailles was far enough from Paris before there were trains, buses and cars; although not quite far enough away to keep the Révolution from arriving.

These days, Versailles is served by three train lines from Paris. By RER line 'C,' and by SNCF trains from the Gare Montparnasse and the Gare Saint-Lazare - all of which arrive at Versailles' three different stations. None of these are far from the château, but the RER line might be the handiest as it can be picked up on the left bank in Paris.

This has been another one of my 'failed' touristic excursions. Besides not finding a non-existent shop, I didn't see the state carriages I've come for.

The plus points are the weather, my handy parking place and the fact that it will only take 20 minutes to drive home and I can speed most of the way. Everybody else does.

photo: chateau and tour buses

The number of buses indicate how many visitors are in the
château. The tiny people in the foreground indicate how big
the 'château' really is.

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