France's Palace of Versailles is beloved by everyone - except me, it seems. Would a day of cycling Versailles bring redemption?
Every great story needs a villain and, for 21 years, the French Palace of Versailles was mine.
I visited Versailles on my very first trip to Paris in 2001 as an international student. The excursion was an optional class trip but one I had eagerly agreed to. After all, it was one of the most popular attractions in France. What wasn't to love?
Turns out: Plenty. I had a miserable visit, so bad that I've long described Versailles as my least-favourite travel destination. It was a damp, cold, drizzling April day. I was hungry. I had a headache. Versailles' pricing structure was confusing and costlier than expected. Pushy touts made for a jarring welcoming committee. I recognize now that, in retrospect, Versailles didn't even stand a chance. It was never going to be a good travel day and it (mostly) wasn't the Palace's fault. But it took me the better part of two decades to come to that conclusion. It was time to revisit Versailles and give it another shot. Could a day spent cycling Versailles provide the redemption I was looking for?
I don't think I've ever put quite so much preparation into a relatively straight-forward day trip. First, I signed up for a Versailles bike tour and skip-the-lines Palace pass with Fat Tire Bikes. I had previously enjoyed their Paris bike tour and felt that being in the capable hands of a guide was preferable to doing things my own way. Secondly, I cleared my schedule. I didn't want anything strenuous planned for the day before or after the tour. I wanted to enter this re-do as well rested as possible! Finally, I made sure I had plenty snacks and even headache medication on hand. I wasn't going to leave anything to chance.
Meeting my tour leaders in central Paris was easy enough. Fat Tires provided clear directions and I craftily allowed myself ample time to pick up a latte on route to our meeting point so I'd be in fine form for the excursion. I appreciate that the tour price of 99 Euros include our train ticket to and from the town of Versailles. Little things make a big difference. I also appreciated that the tour operated on a rolling start - when the first 12 participants arrived, we set out with the first guide and then the rest followed. I'm glad that the early birds didn't have to wait for any stragglers.
While waiting to catch our train, out tour leader Dave explained some of the particulars about the day (and we learned that the staff at Versailles train station are hawks about checking tickets - keep it until you completely exit the station.) Dave gave us the rundown of our schedule and shared that we would tour Versailles first and then do the bike ride after.
Based on the online itinerary, I had expected it to be the other way around, starting with the bike tour and ending in the palace (where we could spend as much or as little time there on our own before heading back). However, the threat of rain and the the chill of the day convinced them that we should start in reverse. In other words, there was no ducking out of the palace visit for me if I hated it. I was committed.
In hindsight, this was a good move. We were among the first to enter Versailles before it was at its most crowded. Doing so at the beginning of the day also meant we were well rested and eager to explore. However, that doesn't mean I didn't have my doubts. Guess who was milling about the Palace gates? That's right, the touts! Were they the SAME touts from all those years ago? Their chintzy Eiffel Tower souvenirs sure hadn't changed! Inside, I didn't love the bottleneck of people all crowded into one small area as we patiently awaited the single security screening machine.
Uh, this isn't feeling all that awesome so far, Versailles.
However, as I'm sure you could gather from some of the first photos in this post, many beautiful things caught my eye as I explored. I tried to dig deep into my imagination and think of what it would have been like hundreds of years ago to walk through rooms with velvet wallpaper and silken beds. And, ultimately, I realized a fundamental travel truth about myself which is that I don't really enjoy grand historic homes, whether they are royal palaces or simply fancy manors. I love history, I love interesting objects, I very much believe in the power of a sense of place but when you put all those things together in a luxurious, old-timey building.... meh. It's just not the most compelling travel experience for me and that's okay.
For what it's worth, I tried really hard to be wowed by the grandeur of the Hall of Mirrors. However, I was getting annoyed and impatient with people being people, stopping for videos and posing for photos. The shot above reflects (pardon the pun) the least congested spot in the room and I still wasn't that interested.
Or maybe, just maybe, I was getting hungry.
Thankfully, in addition to my own snacks I had an extra delicacy to sooth my ruffled feathers. There's an on-site branch of the macaron shop Ladurée at Versailles to tempt visitors. Well, why not? I'm never one to turn down a treat. I especially appreciated the irony of eating the bright blue macaron, known as the "Marie Antoinette", in the Versailles gardens. It was a very "let them eat cake" moment!
I was equally grateful that I had wrapped up a big pear from home for the trip. It tasted wonderfully substantial as I wandered the palace gardens and watched the staff prepare the beds and plants for winter.
Reconvening with my group and guide after the Palace visit meant it was time to pick up the bikes and head into town to explore the market. We were in for an especially lovely treat, as Fridays are a special market day in the town of Versailles and what awaited us was one of the best French markets I've ever enjoyed.
Dave encouraged us to snack, explore, and to pick up lunch items for our group picnic later that day and shared some of his favourite stalls. There were dozens of produce stands, stalls offering delicious freshly pressed juice, and hot food vendors (including one selling deep-fried Vietnamese spring rolls and another which created what I can only describe as a cross between a flatbread and a quesadilla, stuffed with leeks, spinach, herbs, and cheese, grilled with butter, and rolled up like a burrito. Amazing!)
I grabbed some couscous salad, fresh orange juice, a bottle of wine, and - perhaps not my most brilliant plan - an entire roasted chicken. I thought I could get sections of a chicken. I could not. A container of gratin potatoes was procured for my dinner as well. If only my backpack had the space, I easily could have completed my week's groceries at this one stop.
Dave had some paper cups for enjoying the wine and some disposable wooden knives for slicing baguette. However, if anyone needed a fork (say, for couscous salad), they had to fend for themselves. I had brought my own spork but some vendors did provide cutlery.
For those curious, I used my fork to stab a few chunks of meat from my chicken, which I then added to my couscous. The rest of the bird came home with me. It was slightly squashed but in good shape and beautifully complimented my takeout potatoes!
Savouring a few snacks while you shop is a good strategy because you won't eat your luncheon treats right away. First comes the big bike ride through the town and into the land which is part of the official Versailles estate. Second only to the wonders of the market, this was one of my favourite spots. Coming from the congestion and noise of Paris, I was thrilled to be among the sights and smells of the forest once again (even if said "forest" consisted of trees in orderly rows). The biking was easy and, compared to the crowds at the Palace, there were relatively few people around.
It would be an understatement to call this part of Versailles a polar opposite to the gilded castle we all know so well. They are truly worlds apart - except, of course, that they're not. As we explored the paths and set off to circumnavigate the park's artificial waterway (known as the "Grand Canal"), Dave shared different stories from French royal history with us to put all of Versailles into context.
When we were about three quarters of the way around the Grand Canal, we stopped for our picnic and we all fit comfortably onto a giant tarp. Now you know why it's so important to enjoy a snack or two in the market. You'll do a lot of biking before you get those first hard earned bites!
After our well-deserved late lunch, one final stop remained. We explored the private hamlet and rural quarters of Marie Antoinette, including a faux-peasant village she had built so she could experience ordinary life (which is either the most insulting thing imaginable or rather brilliant - in doing so, her son became the first heir with firsthand knowledge of peasant life). The area was pretty and sad and very much an underrated part of the Versailles estate.
Me being me, I was fascinated by a tiny strip of land that was growing grapevines. Who was harvesting these grapes? What kind of wine were they making? So intriguing! I was equally enthralled by the vegetable gardens that were established around the area. What was happening to all those mature veggies? Was there a secret royal banquet I should know about or were the gardeners just bringing them all home for their own use? So many mysteries to investigate!
I was a very tired but content traveller when our group began our final ride, departing the estate, cruising through town, and parking at the bike shop where we were given our return train tickets. It was a SUPERB tour experience and I can't imagine ever suggesting anyone visit Versailles in any other way. It really felt like three tours in one: The Palace (and its gardens), the Versailles town market, and the bike tour and picnic through the Versailles estate. Having a guide nearby to share history, provide tips, and keep us all in line was absolutely invaluable. And while I'm not particularly keen to ever tour the Palace again, I absolutely feel that Versailles has redeemed itself.
Now the only question remains: What's my 'new' least favourite travel experience? Hopefully I won't have an answer anytime soon!
If you enjoyed this piece, you'll also like:
The Joys of Exploring Monet's Giverny in Autumn
Paris In A Day: Your Three Hour Layover Guide
Souvenir Shopping in Paris: What To Buy and Where
PS: There's a Starbucks across from the Versailles train station. Grabbing a hot chocolate for the trip back to Paris is a mighty fine idea.
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