When I decided to put Paris in my itinerary, and began thinking of what I wanted to do there, it didn't take long to resolve to go to Versailles. I felt the need to see this grandest of palaces, like it was the thing to do.
So on the Tuesday of my time in France (generally a no-no, as the Louvre is closed on Tuesdays, and so everyone goes to Versailles, but that was just the way the days fell), I hopped on the RER train from my hotel in the suburbs, transferred to another RER train in the city, and went out to Versailles. As I've already noted, entry was a debacle.
Crowds and opulence, the Versailles experience.
Once I got inside the gates, I began to see how ridiculously crowded it was. By the time I picked up my English language audio guide and made my way up to the royal apartments, it was pretty much wall-to-wall people. Dutifully, I shuffled through the rooms with the rest of the crowds, listening to bits of my audio guide, but refusing to be like so many of the other tourists who were dead set on listening to ALL of the audio for EVERY single number, and holding up the rest of the crowd as they stood there with their little plastic boxes up to their ears.
Only slightly opulent.
Fortunately, though, the audio guide wasn't actually all that interesting, and it was quite uneven. Most of what I heard focused on the functions of the rooms, and only occasionally did it throw out a bit on Marie Antoinette, or anyone else of interest. So I resorted to doing what everyone else was doing, shuffling through the rooms, gaping at the opulence of it all, and taking pictures. Finally, I reached a point where it dawned on me — no wonder the people revolted. If there is one takeaway from Versailles, it's that.
The famous Hall of Mirrors.
The apartments began to feel like an endless string of opulence, to the point where I was desensitized to gilt and paintings and frilly bits. It was only after much more of all of these that I made my way out into the gardens, which I don't think I fully grasped the scope of until I walked and walked and walked and walked and still was not even halfway to Marie Antoinette's house.
A "small" area of the gardens.
They were mindbogglingly extensive, but not quite what I'd expected out of gardens. There were plenty of landscaped bushes, and fountains, but flowers were few and far between until I got to Marie Antoinette's house and the Grand Trianon, both of which had some lovely flowers.
Much of the gardens were like this — tall, landscaped bushes and dusty gravel paths.
Roses outside Marie Antoinette's house (Petit Trianon) — finally some lovely flowers.
It was a day made largely for exhaustion. Exhausting myself by shuffling through room after room with the massive crowds, and then lengthy walks through the gardens. Exhausting both of my camera batteries by taking interminable photos and videos of all the opulence I saw. And by the time I left, that was all I felt, was exhausted. I'd seen things, lots of things, but it wasn't any sort of enriching experience, just an empty, gilded day.
Perhaps that should have turned me off of palaces, but back in England several days later, on Friday, the last full day of my trip, I still headed to Hampton Court Palace. I should have known things were going to be better when I stepped inside of the ticket office with my internet ticket confirmation in hand, and a woman waved me over to a side counter immediately and gave me my ticket, a map, and some other pamphlets.
My entry, and my visit, were interrupted at times because they were holding a funeral at the palace, for a woman who had been living there on invitation of the Queen. I didn't realize there were people still actively living there, but it certainly intrigued me. And the funeral was an odd but understandable reason to be interrupted; the palace had gone so far as to have special apologetic and explanatory signs posted around the palace grounds.
Grand, but more sedate — Cartoon Gallery in Mary's Apartments.
I'd come to the palace like many, I assume, to see the old stomping grounds of Henry VIII. But what I hadn't realized is that it's actually two palaces, Henry's Tudor-era palace, and a later Baroque addition built by William and Mary, and used up until Georgian times.
The Tudor and Baroque palaces meet, with the arms
of Elizabeth I and William and Mary visible.
of Elizabeth I and William and Mary visible.
Neither of the sections boast anything remotely so grand (or ostentatious) as the royal apartments of Versailles. While they easily fit the definition of palaces, it's in a more sedate, English style — think the rich tones of wood paneling instead of gilt and over-the-top detailing.
Bedchamber in Mary's Apartments.
But in spite of this, I found Hampton Court Palace to be far more enjoyable, and far more interesting. It was enjoyable because it was in reasonable proportions — it felt like just the right amount of palace and grounds to tour — and also because it was far less crowded. Only Henry VIII's apartments were crowded, and even those were not to the point where you literally couldn't move, which did happen at Versailles, so bad were the bottlenecks.
It was far more interesting, though, because it told stories, and those stories were quite interesting. Not fair, you might say, with the exploits of Henry VIII, how could it go wrong in storytelling? And you, Carrie, you might also say, would be quite primed for the experience (albeit not in a completely historically accurate way), having watched four seasons of The Tudors.
Great Hall of Henry VIII's apartments.
Well, yes, I don't deny any of these things. But Hampton Court Palace had an exceedingly interesting story to tell, and it went out and told it. Versailles, meanwhile, I would argue, was sitting on an equally interesting story in Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, but it never managed to shape the experience into storytelling. Meanwhile, at Hampton Court Palace, I found myself interested in monarchs I'd never really known anything about, such as Queen Catherine, who was actually the first queen to live in Mary's apartments (Mary died before they were completed).
Kitchens to feed a palace full of people.
Hampton Court Palace also gave a more complete experience, allowing you to tour the kitchen and begin to get an idea of just what went into preparing meals fit for a king. And then there were the gardens — the open portion was probably a tenth the size of those at Versailles, but again, that was a more manageable proportion.
The Rose Garden, one of the true highlights of my trip.
Coming from the Palace, I began at the magnificent Rose Garden, had a quite decent for a tourist attraction lunch at the Tiltyard Cafe (in one of the towers where the King and other spectators would watch jousting), and then continued on through the Maze, a not-very-wild "Wilderness", and then in to the largest portion of the gardens open to the public, the Great Fountain Garden.
Great Fountain Garden's sculpted trees, with the Baroque palace.
The Great Fountain Garden was all giant sculpted trees, paths, and flowers, all centered around a large fountain, with the Baroque palace in the background. On the other side of the palace complex were another set of daintier, even more sculpted gardens, plants and flowers neatly balanced. These all were much more along the lines of my expectations for royal gardens, and they were uncrowded enough to make walking around in them quite enjoyable.
More lovely gardens, with the Baroque palace.
Super-sculpted gardens, and so many chimneys.
No one would call Hampton Court Palace more grand than Versailles. It is not nearly so large, not nearly so luxe, not nearly so popular. But that — and its stories — were precisely what made it far more enjoyable. I had a lovely walk in the gardens, and I learned things, and as I left, I certainly felt enriched.
More flowers of Hampton Court's gardens.
Maybe I didn't give Versailles the best chance, coming on the day I knew it would be most crowded. But even when you take away the crowds, it just wasn't as well-done, on many different levels. If I had it to do again, I would have maneuvered my itinerary so that I could go to the Louvre first and view Napoleon III's apartments. If I did that, and still had a desire to get my gilt on, only then should I have headed to Versailles.
To bring this post to a close, I should reveal that while I was at Hampton Court Palace, I had the song "I'm Henry the Eighth" in my head. You know, the one by Herman's Hermits — "second verse, same as the first!" In my head THE WHOLE TIME I was there.
And I still enjoyed myself more than I did at Versailles.