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Sunday at Versailles

Sunday morning came earlier than anyone anticipated – thanks in part to the time change in Europe which took away one hour during the night. We were grumpy and well, just mostly grumpy. My feet were sore from walking so much the previous day – that does not happen very often – but Versailles was waiting for us, and this was the only day we could visit, and I was the one who really wanted to go, so off we went! Jeff, ever the fearless leader, took us on a lengthy jaunt through the streets of Paris to the RER station where the regional trains go to places outside of Paris. It was our first double-decker train ride, which excited our kids. We hopped on and took the 30 minute train ride out to Versailles.

To quote Rick Steves, “If you’re planning to visit just one palace in all of Europe, make it Versailles.” It was the king’s residence and France’s governmental center for about 100 years (basically the entire 18th century), after Louis XIV decided to ditch the Louvre in Paris and move 10 miles out to a swampy marshland where his father had a hunting lodge. He built Versailles and invited everyone out to see it, and the people are still coming 300 years later. The RER train ride was uneventful, except we noted that the rain seemed to pick up the closer we got to our destination. By the time we left the train station at Versailles, it was really coming down. Ann really wanted to visit the market in the town of Versailles, so she and Mom left us to see if it was still open (our late rising and losing one hour meant it was lunch time by the time we got to Versailles), and Justin, Jeff and I took the kids to McDonalds (!). We lost Mason on the way but Jeff retraced our steps and found him – The Whites have a rule that when you (the child) get lost, stay at the last place where you saw your parents until they come find you. Mason obeyed that rule and thus was easy to find – such a good boy! I was impressed. So we go get our nuggets and fries and bask in the glory of American fast food and wait for Mom and Ann to come back to us. They came back wet, but bearing cheese and apples and some little crunchy things that did not look appealing to me at that time but I devoured them about six hours later. For some reason the adults did not eat lunch at McDonalds – I asked Jeff if he was eating and he said no, Justin had been sick to his stomach so was not eating regardless, and I learned a valuable lesson about European traveling – eat when the opportunity presents itself, because you will be sad later on when you are in Europe’s most fantastic palace and all you can think about is if you brought a granola bar in your backpack or not. ( I didn’t). This rule of opportunity also applies to bathrooms, especially bathrooms in famous museums. They are usually clean and nice and always free (or at least included in the price of admission). Public restrooms on the street are not free, not clean, and sometimes are just holes in the floor (amazing but true!).

We all trudged through the rain to the palace gates – it would have been impressive except they use part of the courtyard for parking and there were African men everywhere trying to get us to buy umbrellas, and also because most of the front of the palace is under scaffolding b/c of an extensive remodeling/restoration effort. We tried to go in the gardens together – we thought they would be free since they start charging for them in April, but apparently they decided to start charging early and we were denied. At that point we decided that Ann and Jeff would take Jack and Mason back to Paris and Mom, Justin and I would keep Emma, Will and Katy and tour the chateau’s interior. Thus resolved, we presented our museum passes and entered the interior courtyard of the chateau. It was a little difficult from there to figure out where to go, but we somehow managed. After my sad experience with the Rick Steves’ tour of the Orsay, we opted to rent the audioguides at Versailles – hoping also that it would keep the children occupied, which it did. These audioguides were not that great (Darn! Foiled Again!), but the kids liked them. Rick actually was better. The palace/chateau was very crowded, claustrophobically so, I guess because the weather was so nasty and it was a weekend. I still loved visiting the individual rooms. The chapel was fascinating – the king sat in the upper level facing the altar, and the nobles knelt on the lower level facing their king with their backs to the altar. I guess they were worshiping him worshiping God. It was also beautiful, one of my favorite rooms in the palace. The other notable room is the Hall of Mirrors where Louis XIV would receive heads of state and where the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, ending World War I. The Hall would have been more impressive had it not been SO CROWDED, but I guess it would have been crowded with nobility and servants 300 years ago so lots of people should be expected. Will had eagerly anticipated the Hall of Mirrors because Louis’ throne was there, but when we got to the end of the Hall, the throne was a cardboard cutout! Very sad for Willy! And I was pretty disappointed too. But you have to remember that during the French Revolution, Versailles was stormed by angry common folk, and I imagine the throne was one of the first things to get thrown out the window, so to expect it to be there today was a bit of a stretch. However, surely the French government has made enough money off of this place to display a better reproduction. After all, they did not have cardboard cutouts of beds and dining tables. Rick (my good buddy Rick Steves) says that Versailles is pretty sparsely furnished b/c everything was destroyed during the revolution. As we walked through the Queen’s guard room, I read that this was the room where Marie-Antionette was hiding in 1789 when the Revolutionaries stormed the palace and took her and her husband Louis XVI back to Paris as prisoners. They were decapitated by the guillotine soon after. I tried to imagine angry mobs as I looked out the floor to ceiling windows.

We were soon to have our own angry mob on our hands as we debated about paying the add’l fee to tour the gardens. Two of three children were adamantly opposed to the idea, and I was ready to give in to them, but Mom and Justin said, “Look, we’re only here once, if you want to go, let’s go ahead and do it.” So we went in the gardens, and I was glad we did. They had turned the fountains on I guess while we were inside the big house, because they weren’t on the first time we looked at going into the gardens, and they were really beautiful, even in the cold, rainy weather. The view of the back of the chateau was impressive as well. There were formal gardens, expansive rectangular pools close to the house, and this gradual terraced descent into the back of the estate. Marie Antionette had created her own little haven back there where she pretended to be a simple peasant (with multiple servants assisting in her fantasy) and had a working farm complete with vegetables and a water mill. However the Domaine De Marie-Antionette was another 30 minute walk from the main house (thus an hour round trip) and they charged yet another entrance fee to see it, so we opted out. Still we strolled along the gravel paths, marveled at the Latona and Apollo Basins, and could see farther out the Grand Canal which Louis XIV created. During his time, they imported gondolas and gondoliers from Venice (who lived in a little hut by the Canal) to pole noblemen and women through the water.

After we had gotten our fill and the kids had definitely reached their limit, we made our way back to the train station and trundled back to Paris. It was on the train ride when I ate every last crumb of crunchy stuff I could find and still wished for more. Then we plodded wearily back to our apartment, filled Ann and Jeff in on our day and thanked them for watching Jack, and we all went out again (but thankfully not far) to a great little restaurant for dinner. I had been dre
ading this – our first time in a real restaurant with all of the kids, but we brought books and crayons and they all did really well. They also ate really well – ham, hamburger and french fries for all! And la glace to top it off. I believe the place was called Camille. We enjoyed sitting and eating together, and there was a french couple seated nearby who found our children charming, which I found charming. Ann said as we were leaving the man said something in french to Emma and when she did not respond, he looked at Ann and said, “Elle ne parle pas francais?” which of course she didn’t, but I like the idea that he thought Emma might speak french. We walked back to the apartment in pouring rain and I think went straight to bed, though I can’t remember exactly. Oh, I looked in my journal and was reminded that Justin watched Memphis play Texas on the Internet after everyone had gone to bed. Memphis won of course, which was a bracket-buster for Justin who had called pretty much every game except for that one. I was already in bed trying to catch up on journal writing and you can tell by my handwriting I was dozing off as I was writing. We may have slept in that day, but we still managed to pack a lot in.

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