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France’s Palace of Versailles and Louis XIV

Versailles, France

Europe’s finest royal palace tells the story of its most famous divine monarch, France’s Louis XIV. Creating a centralized government around him, the Sun King gathered thousands of his nobles here, dazzling them with the palace’s Hall of Mirrors and endlessly sprawling gardens.

Complete Video Script

France — for centuries, the richest country in Europe — is strewn with lavish palaces, châteaux, and mansions. After all, until its revolution, its society was the epitome of that Old Regime notion that some are born to rule and the rest of us…well, just deal with it.

Paris glitters with Old Regime elegance — royal parks, gilded bridges, noble mansions, and, of course, the biggest palace in all of Europe: the Louvre.

And, when those kings and nobles wanted to get out of town for some hunting or perhaps an intimate rendezvous, they built equally lavish palaces in the countryside. Their favored playground: The Loire Valley, which dazzles visitors with châteaux like the grandiose Chambord, the dreamy Azay-le-Rideau, and the graceful Chenonceau.

But we’ll cover the châteaux of the Loire in another episode. This time, we’re sticking closer to Paris. Every place we’ll visit is within an hour of the Eiffel Tower. And we’re starting with Europe’s grandest palace.

Versailles is the palace other palaces were modeled after, the one many tried to outdo — but none succeeded.

This ultimate royal palace is all about this man: the ultimate divine monarch, Louis XIV.

He spent about half of France’s entire annual GNP to turn his dad’s hunting lodge into a palace suitable for Europe’s king of kings. The château started small — just the middle stretch of this grand facade. That was the hunting lodge where little Louis spent his happiest boyhood years. Once king, the massive expansion began.

While today’s crowds are tourists, 300 years ago, this courtyard was a very different scene. The palace hosted nobles — thousands of nobles, each with an entourage. They’d flit from games to parties to amorous rendezvous in their sedan-chair taxis. Imagine servants running around delivering secret messages and roast legs of lamb.

And it’s crowded to this day. Smart travelers avoid weekends, come late in the day, and use a museum pass to skip the ticket line.

The Palace of Versailles was the residence of the king and the seat of France’s government for a hundred years. It’s a long series of lavish rooms, each with its own theme, and with every inch sumptuously decorated. In the late 1600s, Louis XIV — shown here with his capable hand literally on the rudder of state — was creating the first modern, centralized government. And, in order to personally control as much as possible, he gathered everything here.

United, under a strong king with the continent’s biggest population, a booming economy, and a powerful military, France under Louis was Europe’s superpower.

Around the year 1700, Versailles was the cultural heartbeat of Europe, and French culture was at its zenith. Throughout Europe, when you said, “the king,” you were referring to the French king — Louis XIV.

French was the lingua franca. France was in vogue. You name it — clothes, hairstyles, music, theater, table manners…French taste spread across the Continent.

Louis was a true Renaissance man, a century after the Renaissance: an accomplished musician, dancer, horseman, statesman, art-lover, lover. He called himself the “Sun King” because he gave life and warmth to all he touched.

He was symbolized by Apollo, the Greek god of the sun. Versailles was designed to be the personal temple of this god on earth, decorated with statues and symbols of Apollo, of the sun, and of Louis himself. The classical themes throughout the palace underlined the divine right of France’s kings and queens to rule without limit. Here Louis is shown with his entire royal family — all depicted as gods on earth — ordained to rule without question.

Versailles celebrated Man, rather than God, by elevating Louis XIV to almost godlike status. Louis was a hands-on king. He ruled for about 70 year and he was the perfect embodiment of the absolute monarch. Louis summed it up best himself with his famous rhyme, “L’état, c’est moi!”: “The state, that’s me!”

Pleasure ruled at Versailles. The main suppers, balls, and receptions were held in this room. The ceiling is like a sunroof opening up to heaven, filled with action parallel to the action right here in Louis’ court. The style is pure Baroque, which lends itself to propaganda art — a riot of exuberant figures.

The Venus Room is a reminder that love ruled at Versailles. Here, couples would cavort, blessed from above by the goddess of love. As if to encourage the fun, Venus sends down a canopy of garlands to ensnare mortals in delicious amour.

Louis invited the nobility to Versailles in order to control or “domesticate” them. The “domesticated” aristocracy lived a life of almost enforced idleness. Games were part of Louis’ political strategy. By distracting the nobles with billiards, gambling, and dancing, Louis was free to run the country. The good life was addictive and, under Louis, the bluebloods were hooked.

This was Louis’ ceremonial bedroom. His daily life was a series of symbolic rituals. For example, while he’d actually sleep elsewhere, right here, the Sun King would “rise” and “set” with the sun each day.

Once mighty, now domesticated, dukes and barons actually competed to see who would hold the candle while Louis slipped into his royal jammies. Bedtime, wakeup, meals — it was all public ritual.

The royal bedroom faced the rising sun. It was the center of the palace…and the center of France.

When you understand the themes of the palace’s many rooms, a stroll through Versailles is a stroll through French history.

The War Room reminds us that Louis had Europe’s leading army, and his reign came with lots of expensive wars.

Louis ruled from 1643 to 1715. By the end he was tired of fighting. Here, in the Peace Room, peace is granted to Germany, Holland, and Spain as cupids play with discarded weapons and swords are pounded into violins. Louis bestows an olive branch on Europe as his queen cradles their baby twin daughters.

At the end of his long reign, Louis, having exhausted France with his many wars, gave this advice to his great-grandson, the next Louis: “Be a peaceful king.”

The Hall of Mirrors was the highlight of the palace. No one had ever seen anything like it. Mirrors were a great luxury at the time, and this long hall was astounding.

Imagine this place lit by the flames of thousands of candles, filled with elegant guests in fine silks, wigs, and fake moles, as they danced to the orchestra. Under gilded candelabra and amid busts of Roman emperors, servants would glide by with silver trays of hors d’oeuvres.

And from the palace, guests would gaze awe-struck at Louis’ amazing gardens. One more way that Louis proved he was a divine-right ruler was by controlling nature…like a god. These lavish grounds — elaborately planned, pruned, and ornamented — showed everyone that their king was in total command.

Only the Sun King could grow orange trees here in chilly northern France. And Louis XIV, he had a thousand.

Fountains — another great way for a king to illustrate his power over nature — were a huge attraction, a marvel of both art and engineering. The king’s engineers literally rerouted a river to power these. While the fountains ran for Louis whenever he liked, they run for tourists only on weekends.

The Apollo Basin shows the Sun God, a.k.a. Louis, in his chariot as he starts his daily journey across the sky. The emerging horses give the impression of the sun rising out of the mists of dawn.

The palace’s back yard is huge — and if you turn around, it seems to stretch forever.

Versailles was laid out along an eight-mile axis. You could get lost exploring it — golf carts and rental bikes make that a fun option — or just enjoy a lazy paddle on the Grand Canal.

Versailles began as a country escape, but the Château soon became as busy as Paris itself. So Louis, needing an escape from his escape, built this smaller palace buried deep in his vast back yard.

The delicate Grand Trianon was the king’s private residence far from the main palace. It provided an ideal refuge — away from the sniping politics, strict etiquette, and 24/7 scrutiny of official court life.

With ever more power and wealth, France’s ruling elite became dangerously out of touch and detached from the grinding reality of its people’s daily lives.

Later, French royals retreated still farther from the main Château and the realities of French political life, ignoring rising revolutionary sentiments that were turning their society into a tinderbox. And, deep in the garden, you find this bizarre sight: Marie-Antoinette’s little peasant hamlet.

She longed for the simple life of a peasant — not the hard labor of real peasants, who sweated and starved all around her — but a fairytale world of simple country pleasures. So, she built this rustic fantasy. The Little Hamlet was an actual working farm with a dairy, a water mill, and domestic animals.

This is where the queen tended her perfumed sheep and her manicured gardens…until that day the Revolution arrived, and her hungry peasantry stormed the palace, marched her and the king back into Paris, and eventually cut off their heads.