Take the RER C the books all said. It goes from all the major stations right to Versailles they all said. Just make sure you take the VICK train and not the LARA train. Easy as pie, non, aussi facile que la tarte, tout de monde nous a dit.
We got up and got out the door as quick as could be this morning because we were going to Versailles, that monument to bad taste and royal overreach, located somewhere out in the western suburbs. My iPhone Paris Metro app suggested we leave our apartment, walk across the street, get on the subway at Sèvres-Babylone, take the train to Montparnasse and grab the RER N train. But, every single guidebook said the best way to go was to grab the REC C from any of the main Metro stops along the Seine so that’s what we did. After getting our morning New York Times we got on the Metro, rode from Sèvres-Babylone to Solférino, followed the exquisite signage to the Musée d’Orsay RER station and bought our ticket for the RER.
It seemed odd that the station was completely abandoned. There was a train waiting, but not many people. The boards had no listing of Versailles Rive-Gauche and we began to wonder if maybe we should have asked that information guy back upstairs what was going on. So, we stood around for a few minutes, looked at the map, talked to an obviously lost British couple who said something about “work on the line” which sent me off to read the big orange sign in French that said something about “Travaux 8, Abr – 9, Abr” and discuss our situation some more. Finally, we figured it out – RER C was closed for the weekend and our only option was to cut cross-country to Montparnasse and catch the RER N train just like my iPhone app had suggested. We rode the C train to the Invalides station which would allow us the necessary connections and then started our trek.
Montparnasse was a signage nightmare. You’d catch a glimpse of an arrow that pointed to the RER station and then around the next corner it would disappear. You’d go on a bit and find the next clue. It was like following a trail of breadcrumbs but competing with pigeons that were eating them just ahead of you. Eventually after what seemed like 20 miles of underground walking we emerged in the daylight and found ourselves at an exit. I asked an information helper where to go and she said, “up one level” so we did, arriving in yet another train station with lots of confusing boards talking about trains going everywhere. We kind of figured out where to go but confirmed with a conductor who was not happy to help us but did so anyway, no doubt just to send us on our way. “Take the train to Versailles-Chantiers” he said so we did. Luckily there was one leaving right then. We got on, found two seat and as we waited for the departure, the cars filled to capacity and beyond. I was flashing back to those nice orderly, clean and half-empty Zurich trains and thinking “Why not here?” when we departed.
It was a local so we had a lot of stops and plenty of time to try and fathom how we were going to go from the station to the palace. I was eventually able to coax Google Maps into giving us a route by using just the right words. “1.7 kilometers” was the answer, a 1+ mile hike in a giant herd of Versailles seeking tourists on city streets. I was glad I had some ride time to ponder that. As we clicked along, watching the less than touristic outer suburbs of Paris pass by our grimy windows, I had time to search some travel forums for additional insight. “Not a nice walk from Chantiers” was the common thread, and once we arrived and started doing it, that assessment was spot on. A dirty, shabby little train track town with no redeeming qualities at all. In other words, suburban Paris.
Being the savviest of savvy travelers we crossed the street and speed-walked all those tourists right off our tails. Of course, that resulted in me body-checker some Frenchman who felt the need to cross my path but we both survived that encounter. Turning left on Avenue de Paris, we began the slow climb up to the palace.
What a sight, buff limestone buildings surrounding a huge square, the roofs and fences at the far end all clad in gold. If there was any question as to whether the Kings of France deserved to be deposed, it was gone now. I found the Palacio Real in Madrid to be ostentations, Versailles is preposterous. Like an 18th century Disneyland.
Though we managed to outwalk the horde, the line for entry was still perhaps a ¼ mile long. Having expended all my interest in anything by way of getting here, we opted to go to the gardens which our book said were free. And free they were, to the tune of 9€50, but heck, we came all this way, let’s at least do them. So, we did.
It took 40,000 workers 50 years to convert Louis XIII’s hunting lodge into what you see today. With more than 2,300 rooms spread over 721,000 sq. ft. The finished gardens are 230 acres spread among more than 2000. Based on total square footage, Versailles is the largest in the world at just over 87,000,000.
The place is so big that it’s hard to know where to start so we just wandered around with no real plan. Stretching out from the back of the palace is a long concourse that slopes gently downhill towards a 1-mile long “canal” that starts with an ornate fountain built to honor Apollo. Louis XIV had anointed himself as “The Sun King” and thus was fond of Apollo as his emblem.
Choosing one of the side paths we stumbled on a restaurant in the trees and stopped for a very reasonable and tasty baguette sandwich and a fun waiter who asked where we were from and having heard “New Mexico,” he replied, “San Antonio?”
After lunch, it was more forest wandering, and fountain appreciating, always accompanied by loud classical music playing from speakers cleverly hidden in the woods. None of the stuff we saw was striking from a design or artistic standpoint, but rather from the sheer volume of excess. The long tree-lined alleys were beautiful and peaceful, but none of it said “gorgeous” to me. The more I walked the more I couldn’t believe that any ruler, even the vainest, could think this was necessary or appropriate. The scale was just too much.
After finding our way back out front we had a look at the entry line. It had now grown to ½ a mile so we decided that maybe we’d save the palace for another day. On the way back to the train we poked around for a few minutes in the Grand Ecurie, Louis’ horse academy. Home to the royal Lusitanos, they do have a show and stable tours but unfortunately for us, they were closed. Off to the train.
The ride home was not nearly as fraught, once I got past the people that couldn’t figure out the ticket machine and once I figured out that the Invalides train we’d chosen took an exceptionally long trip around Paris. Back to Montparnasse it was, this time with a half-empty train. The station was just as nuts going as coming, but we just kept walking towards the Metro and eventually we made our way to Line 12 and the 2 stops back to Sèvres-Babylone where we’d begun our day.
(click on photos to enlarge)