Monday, May 12, 2008

Not All Castles are Created Equal

Word to the wise: don't go to the Château de Versailles on a holiday weekend. Last Thursday was a national holiday as is today, which means that a lot of French people took off Friday and made a nice long vaction of it. With the absolutely gorgeous weather we've been having, many Parisians have fled the noise and crowds of the city to join the noise and crowds of the beach. Many are also playing tourist in their own county, visiting sites and cities along with foreigners from all over the world. Guessing from the impossibly long and slow-moving line at the entrance of the famous home of Louis XIV, Versailles is one the top of many of their must-see lists.

I went to Versailles early Saturday morning with a friend from Minneapolis who just wrapped up a 12 day stint in France. Upon seeing the line (and lack thereof for the gardens), and remarking on the tragedy of being inside when the sun is shining, we decided to forgo the castle for the gardens. This was undoubtedly the right decision. Filled with manicured hedges, rare trees, blooming flowers and magnificent fountains, the royal gardens were a sight to behold. Even better were the properties that make up la Domaine de Marie-Antoinette. Located on the opposite side of the gardens from the castle, France's most famous queen had her own little vacation destination only a short carriage ride away from home. Best of all was the Queen's Hameau; a series of quaint little country cottages where she could get away from it all and enjoy the simpler life of a peasant.

Versailles is definitely the most well-known château in France, but I don't think it is the most worthy of a visit. The crowds were incredible, the line for the ladies' room was ridiculous and the whole operation felt very commercialized, like a 16th century Disneyland. I was much more impressed by the castles that I visited in the Loire Valley. Versailles is right on the edge of Paris, so the area around it is bustling with roads and the activity of a busy suburb. The Loire castles are isolated and quiet and give you feeling of being in a entering a different world. Even those that are not in the county are in cute little villages rather than unimaginative commuter towns. We enjoyed the gardens and I'm glad I saw the castle if only because it's something you should do while in Paris, but I'm not sure I'll go back to see the interior. In this city with so many amazing things to do and see, one cannot afford to waste time waiting in lines.

No comments: