After 3 hours of sleep, Kathleen and I woke up and successfully navigated to the Charles de Gaule airport. We slept in late at the expense of things like makeup and breakfast, a decision we had made the night before. We arrived 2 hours before her flight and I went with her through the check in desks all the way to security. We said our tearful goodbyes and waved to each other til the moving sidewalk had taken her into a tube and out of sight.
I had thought for a moment I might take a nap in the airport before heading to Versailles. however, by this point it was past 8:00 and the palace is in the exact opposite direction of Paris as the airport. The route wasn’t bad. I took two overground trains, so just one easy transfer. Unfortunately, they only have trains running the the Château of Versailles every 20 minutes or so… So it was packed to the gills.
I didn’t mind so much on the train itself, but that also meant we would all arrive at the same time and cause horrible congestion in the queues. With this in mind, I stopped for a croissant between the station and the palace. I hadn’t eaten yet, and I figured I could let the crowd sift through. Now, I did need to eat at some point, so I still haven’t decided whether this was a huge error, but it definitely did not work like I had hoped it to. As I approached the palace, to my horror I saw the longest queue since I’ve been in Europe.
I had some decisions to make at this point. I was definitely seeing the palace, but did I need to wait in line to get a ticket first? Citizens of the EU under 26 are given free admission and need no ticket. I’m not a citizen of the EU, but in France they usually let me in anyway because I study art. It didn’t wind through nice little ropes, which I had never appreciated til that moment. It was impossible to even figure out where it ended. People stood in groups, not facing a universal forward, so as the line began to curl around itself for the third or fourth time you had no idea which way was front. I started from the beginning and followed the line to the end. This alone took me 20 minutes. A nice man in a bright orange jacket with ten 15-year-olds on a school trip was in front of me. We chatted, and he was very concerned that I didn’t have a ticket. He agreed to let me back into my place in the line, and I went to investigate.
The ticket office was another nice little queue, but at least it was mostly indoors. The man at the ticket desk took more time looking at my papers than the Turkish passport control. This made me a little nervous when he sent me off ticketless. I was glad to be free, but could he write me a note or something? What if the people at the gate didn’t see what he saw?
The line for the ticket office nearly doubled in the time I was waiting, and the one to get in the palace had grown too. Fortunately, I was able to find my spot back with the little school group. Thank goodness that man decided to wear bright orange today.
I had read there was a free bag check and wanted to ditch my luggage. Apparently this is only a service if you are carrying items that cannot be allowed in the chateau, like food or drink. Desperately, I pointed out my trail mix and some apples that I still had packed away. The man told me that those were okay to be taken in, but took pity on me and checked it anyways. Thank you, kind stranger.
Inside the door, I first waited in a line to use the bathroom and then a line to get into the building. The first half of my visit was entirely comprised of waiting in the cold. It was overcast today, so it really never warmed up. The chateau itself was pretty interesting. I had of course always wanted to see the Hall of Mirrors, so that was exciting. However, having gotten 3 hours of sleep, lost my hairbrush, and forgotten to put on makeup… the Hall of Mirrors was more like a Hall of Horror. Just kidding. It wasn’t that scary, just a little embarrassing. Not a good day for me. Yikes.
I have to say, I found it a little lackluster. My favorite parts were the magnificent, sweeping views of the gardens. I knew even before I went outside that, despite the cold, the gardens would have to be the best part.
I set off to find the faux village built by Marie Antoinette where she would go to “play peasant.” These are a good distance from the chateau and not easy to find. However, the grounds are worth seeing, and you really would miss out if you made a bee-line for that. I decided I would first stop for lunch when I found a restaurant with more reasonable prices than the other places on the grounds. The restaurant was right next to a bike rental place.
Emboldened by my experience yesterday, I went to rent a bicycle. Yes, this time I sought out riding a bicycle. I realized when I got on just how tired my legs were from yesterday, but that’s something you just power through. I went on a quick scouting mission to see if I could find Marie’s Hamlet. I found her summer chateau that marked the entrance to those grounds, but no bicycles were allowed past that point. I turned back, and decided to do a circuit around the lake.
The Gardens of Versailles, to me, seem to be not about the shrubbery but about the manipulation and distortion of space. Granted, it is March and the leaves hadn’t even started to come in yet. I really don’t think it would have mattered. There are huge expanses of total flatness which make the sky seem like a Kansas sky, but you can never see the horizon. There are always carefully curated trees just before that point. You don’t realize how large it is because it is all at the same scale and there’s nothing to judge it against. It’s also a really interesting juxtaposition of incredibly manicured spaces and a relatively unkempt forested area. It was really gorgeous.
The bike ride was one of the only ways to really see it. To have walked around the lake would have taken nearly an entire visit. Your other option is to rent a golf cart to drive around, but I think I prefer the bicycle. It did turn out to be a more ambitious ride than I had anticipated, but it felt good.
I dropped my bike off and set off to see the Queen’s Hamlet, Marie Antoinette’s village. I don’t know whether my legs were too tired to move normally, or everything felt slower after 45 minutes at the speed of bike, but suddenly I felt like I was moving soooo slow. I took a quick look through her summer estate, free again for me. It felt like more of the same of the main chateau. The gardens behind it were sprawling but in a different way. Outside the main chateau, the gardens are like the new Paris boulevards: wide, straight expanses of space that frame a picturesque view of where you’re going at the other end. This new garden was more like the old Paris of winding streets, narrow paths, and rustic charm. It was very sweet. I was nervous I was running out of time and wouldn’t be able to find the Hamlet, but it’s really not as large as it looks on the map.
The Hamlet did not disappoint. The little buildings were gorgeous. Sorry, Marie, but no peasants live like that. The whole little collection of buildings was curated so that from each new angle, within and around it, a new paint-worthy vignette appeared. It’s really something you must see for yourself, but I also took lots of pictures which you will see tomorrow. My only wish is that we could have been allowed to see the interiors.
I needed to head back after this. I planned for an hour to get back to the train station, but soon realized it would take me longer than that just to get out of the train station. So I smiled at some french boys driving a golf cart, and they immediately pulled over and offered me a ride to the chateau. I don’t know their names, but one studies fashion and another studies theatre. They were sweet and pretty funny, and dropped me off right at the exit.
I got lucky with my trains and ended up at the airport a little early. Instead of making me wait the extra 15 minutes to check in, the British Airlines lady opened my flight for check in for me. It was very nice. Customs was a nightmare. There were more than 60 people in line, yet only one single booth was open. I’m so glad I wasn’t in a hurry.
The airport offered meager entertainment. There weren’t any real places to eat, but outside every gate was a quite loungey area with comfortable chairs. I posted a few postcards and went to my gate.
This is where the trouble began. I don’t want to go into details, because it’s depressing. Boarding on my flight was delayed by 30 minutes. Then, they put all of the passengers on a bus and drove us to a plane. Once we were on the plane, we were informed that (due to delays at Heathrow) we would not be taking off for another hour. This was thankfully pushed back to only 30 minutes. Still, our flight was more than an hour late total at this point. Heathrow’s customs were as abysmal as Paris’s. I missed the last tube that would take me back to London, so I had to pay for an outrageously expensive express train ticket.
Then, I had to navigate through the bus system to get to Victoria, although an old Italian man did give me a free bus ticket. I barely made the last train out of Victoria Station, blessedly a train to Brighton. My phone was out of batteries so I don’t know what I would have done otherwise. The train I had purchased a ticket for was long gone, but the gate workers took pity on me and let me though. Maybe it was all my tears, maybe they were cold and wanted to go home.
I arrived in Brighton just after 2:30 AM, shortly after my sister (who departed this morning) arrived back in Kansas City. At least she probably got to sleep on the plane. I took a taxi home, best 6 quid I’ve ever spent. Now I’m finally going to bed, and I don’t think I’m going to wake up for days.