Saturday, July 28, 2007

I hear the unwelcome sound of rain as I wake this morning. It’s like Bath all over again. I think about the gardens at Versailles and the fountain show known as “Les Grandes Eaux Musicales,” and about the long walk from the palace to the Queen’s Hamlet I so want to see. For a moment, I consider pushing the trip to tomorrow instead, but I would rather not. I’m looking forward to the end of the Tour de France and would hate to have to rush back to the city to see it. Regardless of my hopes and expectations, the weather is what it is. At least I have my ticket in hand, and given how painful it was to obtain, I’m committed to making the most of it.

Because of the closure on the RER B between St-Michael and Les Invalides, I have to take the metro further west to connect to the line. I get off at Javel – André Citroën and finally realize what those dashed lines on the map mean. I have to climb the stairs out of one station, walk a fair distance down the road in the rain, and connect with the RER at another. It is not a promising start to the day.

The ride to Versailles on the double-decker train is short but eventful. A group of musicians comes onboard and passes through the car laughing and singing and playing the accordion. Their gaiety is infectious and I am glad to contribute when they pass the hat around. They have distracted me from watching the weather out the window, so much so that when we arrive at the station near the Château I am surprised to see that the rain has stopped and that sun is breaking through the clouds. Oh, hallelujah!

When I see the ticket line, all of the bitterness I feel about yesterday’s quest evaporates. My pass does exactly what it was intended to do and I slip neatly inside. A woman at the information desk hands me a map, and while I am eager to get to the gardens while the weather is good, the suffocating crowd makes it impossible to do anything but follow en masse through the state apartments. The “Hall of Mirrors,” reopened recently after a multi-year restoration, is beautiful, but it is hard to gauge the full effect of the room while surrounded by tourists on all sides.

When I break out into the gardens at last, it is (quite literally) a breath of fresh air. I am just in time to see the fountains spring to life at 11 AM and stand in awe at the effect, looking down the “Grand Perspective” from the Palace steps. Classical music plays in background and I pick out the familiar strains of Charpentier’s “Te Deum.” Oh, to have been royal in the days of the Sun King

I sit for a while on a park bench, listening to the music and watching people pass by. I chuckle as young women traveling together, regardless of nationality, snap pictures of one another. They are happy and unaffected teenagers enjoying a summer’s day, but once the camera turns on them they adopt their best model’s pose. “The Fountain of Latona” becomes a catwalk, and they pout their lips and cock their shoulders trying to look aloof in these magnificent surroundings.

For lunch, I stop at one of the garden cafés and order an omelet served with French fries. Afterwards, I stroll down to the “Fountain of Apollo” and bear right, away from the canal. I stop first at the Grand Trianon and then at the Petit before winding my way to the Queen’s Hamlet, a quaint little village built for Marie Antoinette.

In my travels, I do not use the word picturesque lightly, or quaint for that matter, but both apply here. In my head, I know this small collection of buildings is the equivalent of today’s Disneyland. Built to amuse the Queen, it is here that she pretended to be a milkmaid while tending to her flock of perfumed sheep. Still, I am utterly captivated by it. I would move in tomorrow if I could, even if they all turned out to be false exteriors like those used on movie sets.

Along with Sainte-Chapelle and the bell tower of Notre Dame, this day in Versailles has been one of the highlights of my trip to Paris. Never would I have imagined after yesterday’s woes and this morning’s rain that things could turn out so very well.

Back home in the Latin Quarter, I cap off the day by treating myself to a classic French dinner at “Le Coupe Chou,” where I feast long and well on marinated sweet peppers, boeuf bourguignon, and crème brûlée.

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