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The Gardens of Versailles: Might and Flower

Even the South Parterre of these gardens of Versailles, also known as the Flower Parterre, includes espaliered hedges, manicured trees, also spring-blooming daffodils and narcissus.

More than 300 decades before, the principles of France erected the Château de Versailles as a monument to their royal dominion. Place on 19,262 acres from town 16 miles out Paris, Versailles–with its grand Desert and expansive gardens–is much bigger than Manhattan. It is even bigger than Paris.

gardens of versailles

The Palace of Versailles’ exterior reflection in a serene pool on the Water Terrace at dusk

Following a danger of an uprising while he was living in the Louvre, King Louis XIV appeared to set up a home far removed from central Paris. The palace he built of gilded, granite clad, and mirrored chambers was large enough to accommodate his entire government. The imperial stables were often mistaken for the castle entry and maintained 2,000 horses. And though the palace continues to fascinate because of its vastness, excess decoration, and curious coldness, it’s the gardens that talk most profoundly to people. It is there, strolling the wide avenues leading from the palace into the Grand Canal, or even particularly, touring Marie Antoinette’s Hamlet–her sanctuary in the rigors of vegetation–that one can really imagine how it might have felt like the human beings who lived in this unnaturally ornate environment.

gardens of versailles, orangeries

Versailles’ Orangerie, designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, overlooks four quadrants of parterres de broderie and boasts trees by Spain, Portugal, and Italy.

The website of the Château de Versailles was initially a simple hunting pavilion built for King Louis XIII. But it was his successor, the Sun King (Louis XIV), who chose to recruit a gifted trio–landscape designer André Le Nôtre, architect Louis Le Vau, and painter Charles Le Brun–to turn the modest palace to the chair of his large royal court. Though the insides and buildings continued to evolve over the reigns of Louis XV and XVI, the gardens of Versailles were largely established during this early period. Architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart lasted Le Nôtre’s work following his death and generated some of the gardens’ most stunning features, such as the Orangerie and the groves with their home made fountains.

gardens of versailles, fountains

The Latona Fountain overlooks the Grand Canal and the Royal Walk, also Known as the Green Carpet.

Even the Sun King believed water includes an essential part of the backyard design, and they feature prominently as focal points in the landscape. Though Louis XV made few alterations to the grounds, his son, Louis XVI (of the unfortunate run-in with all the guillotine), replanted a lot of the gardens in 1775. As an expression of the royal majesty of the king of France, Versailles certainly delivers. The buildings overwhelm the senses with their dimensions, layout, and decoration. But the gardens also communicate the might of France, through their taming of unkind character to the king’s appetite. The plan harnesses water, earth, flowers, and trees to create vistas that extend all of the way into the horizon and appear to encompass the entire world from the orderly procession of structures, ponds, and hedges.

gardens of versailles

A hedged-in route leads to the Flora Fountain, named for the Roman goddess of flowers.

Off these grand paths, the backyard breaks into groves. These outdoor living rooms, gated and walled by greenery or trellises, were constructed for the court to utilize as outdoor celebration rooms such as musical entertainment and dancing. Dramatic fountains and statuary decorate the groves, providing them a different character.

gardens of versailles

A close-up of springtime blooms from the French Garden of the Petit Trianon

Some of the most well-known areas of Versailles are the Petit Trianon, Marie-Antoinette’s bigger, private palace, and her rustic bolt-hole, the Hamlet, which the youthful queen built when the puffery and intrigue of court became too much to bear. Antiques seller and Francophile Dinah Toro says, “The palace has been hard and disheartening; the gardens have been the contrary, timeless, and they spoke to the spirit. Marie-Antoinette’s areas were the very best.”

gardens of versailles

An idyllic scene from the gardens surrounding the Petit Trianon

Petit Trianon’s finely manicured gardens feel more comfortable into the contemporary visitor. And also her Hamlet is a poignant reminder of Marie-Antoinette’s fatal naivety and frivolity. She envisioned it as a country village on a lake, with thatched-roof huts and functioning dairies. There she could pay a visit to the cows since they were milked and select produce from the working farm.

For the film “Marie-Antoinette,” director Sofia Coppola received permission to film at Versailles. In one scene, after an all-night soirée, Marie-Antoinette and a set of friends run giggling over the broad avenues to see the sun rise over the Grand Canal. Like young individuals of any age, they greet the coming day with high spirits and optimism. They seem to get the entire Earth, exactly as the Sun King had planned. They just didn’t know it was not forever.

gardens of versailles

A view of the French Garden and Marie-Antoinette’s private palace, the Petit Trianon

By Lydia Somerville | Photography from Arden Ward

Vive la France!