For the next leg of the France trip, we left the Lorie Valley and began to make our way towards Paris, where we would be spending about four and a half days. En route, we stopped at the Palace of Versailles. As a side note, if don’t have a rental car, Versailles makes a great day trip from Paris, as you can be there in about 30 minutes by train.
A word of advice—If you plan to spend more than a few days in Paris, I would definitely recommend purchasing a Paris Pass, which can be used at Versailles and more than 60 other attractions throughout the city. The package includes a museum pass (which can be purchased for two, four, or six days) , a five-day Metro Travelcard, a two-day pass for the Paris bus tour, and a guidebook. Essentially, it covers all of your admission fees (and actually saves you quite a bit of money on them), and at many sites (including Versailles), there is a designated entrance for pass holders so you can skip the long, general ticketing lines.
And now, a word of warning—the Palace of Versailles is incredibly crowded. This is one of the places where you definitely need to be extra careful with your bags and personal belongings. The security guard warned us that there were a few pick pocketing incidents reported in recent days. At some points, it was difficult to see anything, and we were just kind of pushed along with the crowd from room to room. If you are patient though, and kind of hang back in each room, you can scurry up to the front when the crowds clear out. Props to the staff though, who were very accommodating when visitors with disabilities needed help. They spotted Chester with his crutches and took us up the freight elevator so we didn’t have to climb the stairs to start our tour, and they had designated guides to help those in wheelchairs maneuever through crowds so that they could see.
In terms of the history of the palace, Versailles started out as the hunting lodge of Louis XII. His son, Louis XIV moved there from Paris in 1682, making it the center of political power in France. He embarked on a building campaign over the years, which turned it into the largest palace in the world. In today’s money, the total building costs for the palace would be about $2 billion. The royal family stayed at Versailles until 1789 when the uprisings associated with the French Revolution forced them to move back to Paris, where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette eventually lost their heads.
The main highlights of the palace include the King’s Grand Apartments, the Hall of Mirrors, and the Queen’s Apartments. Opulence was the word of the day here (seriously. One of us said it every ten seconds). Every possible surface is covered with gold gilt. Don’t forget to look up, to see the magnificent frescos on the ceilings. Although much of the furniture was removed from the palace, and sold at auction during the Revolution, much of the original, lavish furnishings have been re-purchased by government under various restoration programs.
The outdoor space is just as extravagant. The gardens cover about 800 hectares, and include more than 400,000 flowers and trees, and 50 fountains. We went at the perfect time of year, because everything was in bloom. On the day we visited, however, the fountains were not turned on (maybe because it was very windy and they didn’t want people getting soaked?).
Versailles is only about ten miles away from Paris, so we left around 4 p.m. for our drive to the city. This, we reasoned, would give us plenty of time before we needed to drop off our rental car to get gas, find our apartment and lug our bags upstairs, and maybe check out a site or two before dinner. We’d still have a cushion in case we got lost, too.
How wrong we were. The next four hours were the most stressful part of the trip.
Traffic going into Paris was like Schuylkill Expressway traffic times 1,000. At one point, it took us 30 minutes to go a mile on the highway. We got off the highway, thinking we might move faster. Traffic was bumper-to-bumper, and the drivers were very aggressive. Motorcycles, scooters, and bicycles came out of nowhere, weaving in and out of traffic and squeezing in between the lanes. Thank goodness Chester was behind the wheel, and was able to adapt to this style of driving pretty quickly. I just sat in the passenger seat, got a little carsick and tried to find a radio station that wasn’t playing Britney Spears’ new single (we heard it back-to-back on six different stations).
Mostly, I prayed that we would find a gas station (we did. My eagle eye spotted a sign that said “garage,” which pointed us down a narrow alleyway, to a parking deck that happened to have two gas pumps) and that we would get to the rental car place before it closed (we did. With no thanks to Google maps, which got us pretty lost). I was never so relieved to get out of a car.
We didn’t have time to drop our things off at the apartment, in the end, and although it wasn’t far from the rental car agency, we didn’t think we would be able to make it there with all of our stuff and Chester on crutches. So, we pleaded with a cab driver, who was none to happy about the short trip (i.e. measly fare), to take us, our two large suitcases, two duffel bags, and a pair of crutches to our apartment. I know, I know, I should have packed lighter, but it was a two-week trip, and I needed multiple pairs of shoes!
Anyway. After finally dropping off our bags at the apartment, we were starving, so we headed out to dinner at Le Relais de L’isle, which Trip Advisor lists as the number one restaurant in Paris. It was one of our favorite meals of the trip. The restaurant is very tiny—it only seats about 25 people total, and was full when we arrived for our 9 p.m. reservation.
One server expertly took care of all of the tables. I was amazed at how quickly she could run up and down the narrow staircase to deliver dishes from the kitchen. Looking back at the website now, it states that there is a jazz pianist at the restaurant, every night during the summer. I can’t actually remember if this was the case, but much of the décor in the restaurant has a jazz/New Orleans flavor to it, so that would make sense.
For the appetizer, I had a mixed green salad with warm goat’s cheese—you can never really go wrong with warm goat’s cheese, in my opinion. Chester was more daring and tried the escargot. He let me sample one, and then I kind of wished I had ordered it too! Everyone told me that they would be slimy, but they weren’t. They were topped with a buttery sauce that reminded me a little bit of pesto. For an entrée, I had the salmon, which was good, but the slightly sweet, creamy carrot puree that was served with it is what I really remember about the dish. Chester had the duck, which he said was a tad on the well done side, but still tender and flavorful. For dessert, we shared two classics—a rich crème brulee that had a hint of citrus flavor and a buttery, tarte tatin.
I would definitely recommend this restaurant–it serves simple, classic dishes, and proves that French food doesn’t need to be frilly or prepared by a big name chef to be absolutely delicious.