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Versailles gardens offer welcome respite from French sightseeing

Versailles, France -- Lying on a plush carpet of grass, I watched three teenaged boys attempt to row across the lake. They paddled in circles and made little progress as they laughed and joked with each other in Italian. Even as the small boat ro...

Versailles, France -- Lying on a plush carpet of grass, I watched three teenaged boys attempt to row across the lake. They paddled in circles and made little progress as they laughed and joked with each other in Italian. Even as the small boat rocked precariously, they didn't seem to care.

A warm early spring day welcomed families as they enjoyed lunch on the manmade lake's shoreline. Sunlight caressed hand-holding couples as they threw breadcrumbs to the fat ducks nearby.

Wiggling my stretched-out toes, I couldn't help but sigh happily.

Legend states that in its prime, France's Chateau de Versailles was accessible to anyone. The only requirements for entry were a hat and a sword, which could be rented at the gate.

That accessibility is certainly true today. Every year more than 6 million people visit the powerful court of Louis XIV that once set cultural standards for all of Europe.


It's not difficult to understand why.

After more than a week of appreciating fine art and historical monuments in London and Paris, my husband and I needed a break.

The chateau and gardens at Versailles were the perfect antidote to what we so fondly called "museum head."

There's plenty of history and fine art in the palace and on the grounds. But once one completes the obligatory (and crowded) tour of the palace, which includes the grand Hall of Mirrors, the grounds beg to be explored in a more laid-back manner.

Home of the king

Versailles was the residence of the king and the seat of France's government for more than a century. Louis XIV, who reigned from 1643 to 1715, moved out of Paris and transformed his father's small hunting lodge into one of Europe's finest palaces.

It was no small dream.

Today's Versailles includes 2,000 acres of grounds and 12 miles of roads. Gardeners plant 210,000 flowers each year. A grand canal -- 1 mile long and more than 3 miles in circumference -- serves as a place for locals and tourists to hang out.


The Versailles in Louis XIV's day was even larger and grander. In the early days, fountain guards were ordered to whistle when the king approached, so the fountains (originally 1,500 of them) could be fully turned on as he walked by.

The chateau grounds were eight times vaster then. One park was used to hunt with hounds and the smaller one -- today's grand park -- was used for hunting by foot.

The gardener who designed the grounds, André Le N'tre, was an expert in botany, architecture and painting. The broad skills paid off. The gardens are as much a piece of fine art as the chateau and the masterpieces inside.

The grounds are laid out geometrically and everything is symmetrical, although layered in levels. Patterned flowerbeds can be enjoyed year-round from the upper stories of the palace. Trees are pruned to perfection. Even the Orangery houses decoratively pruned orange and pomegranate trees that are wheeled outdoors for the summer. Viewing the gardens from the Royal Drive -- the primary route from the rear of the palace -- I felt as though I was entering a carefully planned maze or labyrinth that could offer hours of meditative wandering.

Exploring by bike

And that's exactly what we did.

Although the grounds can be explored by foot (as much as one can walk), we opted for a faster method. After finishing lunch, we rented bicycles and slowly pedaled our way down one of the trails.

Over the next hour we biked past a flock of sheep nibbling in a pasture and dashed past locals walking their dogs.


We wandered past the Trianon area, a village-like region Louis built so he could escape the pressures of the palace. Subsequent French kings spent even more time in this home away from home. It gave the royal family a taste of the "simple" life that included a small theater.

From there we joined others following the trails around the Grand Canal. Children kicked soccer balls to their parents and teens rollerbladed between groups of walkers. Even joggers weren't in too much of a hurry as a light breeze teased the tips of branches about ready to burst into color.

It felt good to soak in the sun and pretend -- even for an afternoon -- that I was royalty, albeit royalty that provided her own foot power.

All too soon the afternoon was over. We joined the crowds returning to Paris via the train.

We were tired, but refreshed. And ready for a few more days of sight-seeing.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erin Hemme Froslie at (701) 241-5534

If you go

The chateau at Versailles opens at 9 a.m. Tuesday through Sunday, except on certain French holidays.

Admission price to the state apartments is about $8. Guided tours, some of which include the King's Chamber and Opera House, are extra. Admission to the Trianon area and the gardens, which are open daily, is about $5.50 and $3, respectively. There is no charge to enter the park. Admissions are discounted after 3:30 p.m. and all are covered in a Versailles "passport" or a Paris museum pass.

Renting bicycles costs $7 an hour. The 30-minute train ride from Paris to Versailles costs about $6 round-trip. For more information, visit www.chateauversailles.fr

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