The Chateau de Versailles. The name alone is so full of pomp and circumstance, every word seems to carry a baritone boom followed by trumpets. It’s a must-see sight for just about every visitor to France (and French people themselves!) with good reason. The Hall of Mirrors, the Royal Chapel, and the sprawling gardens are incredible reminders of the grandeurs of European aristocracy. Visitors will see an obscene amount of gilded furnishings, elegant portraits, frescoed ceilings, and chandeliers -- all of which are entirely expected. This was the Sun King’s home, after all. But the palace and grounds here are massive, and there are quite a few activities taking place in this great estate that could be a surprise. Below you’ll find six activities that tend to be off the radar for most tourists. And bonus: Plenty of these will appeal to those that aren’t the “palace type” -- should you or your travel companions be less than enthused about room after room of marble statues.
While Versailles visitors may dream of living the life of a king or queen, Marie Antoinette dreamed of being a simple country girl. And she built The Queen’s Hamlet as her own fairy-tale village where she could play out that fantasy. The hamlet includes a little lighthouse, a dairy, and a farmhouse, which Versailles maintains with a collection of farm animals (just as Marie would have done). You’ll find chickens, donkeys, rabbits, and goats here munching on the grass and dozing in the sunshine.
The Gardens of Versailles is really a misnomer. This space is huge. We are talking multiple-football-fields huge. And it’s a lot to tackle on foot. Thankfully, the estate rents golf carts so you can zip around from one side of the grounds to the other, making it easier to see every one of those 50 fountains and 210,000 flowers. Even better, the golf carts come with a built-in audio guide and thematic classical music, letting you get around in style.
The Grand Canal, running up the center of Versailles’ gardens, isn’t just aquatic eye candy. Visitors can actually rent row boats and get out on the water. This may seem like a modern addition to the Versailles landscape, but it’s not. Back when King Louis lived here, there were gondolas ferrying aristocrats back and forth on the water, a posh diversion borrowed from Venice.
Just as the palace and grounds of Versailles have been preserved, so too have the royal stables, which currently act as the home base for the National Equestrian Academy. This organization regularly puts on shows for the public that are described as “equestrian ballets,” where horses and their riders create interesting patterns and display dressage skill. Interestingly, the performances also showcase fencing and dance on horseback, adding to their razzle dazzle.
While we may associate Versailles and its gardens with all kinds of pomp and circumstance, for French people living nearby, the estate’s manicured grounds are simply their local park. As such, it’s not uncommon to see people laced up in their running kicks jogging around the Orangerie or through the lanes leading to the Trianon Palaces. If you’re not much for tour groups and prefer getting a sweat on while you sightsee, feel free to come in your running gear and jog around the grounds. You’ll have plenty of company.
Okay, this last one is technically outside of the Chateau de Versailles, but this food market held in the town’s Marché Notre-Dame is a very worthy detour, just a short 15-minute walk from the palace’s front gates. This is an incredible and massive food market packed with stalls offering up everything from regional cheeses to spices to fresh-cut flowers. The market also offers a way to take a break from the tourist masses and dive into a bit of local culture. Plus the food here also makes excellent picnic fixings if you decide to head back to the palace’s gardens.
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