From a zoo commissioned by Louis XIV to a hidden treasure trove, here’s a look at five things you should know about the Palace of Versailles…preferably before you book your visit.
With 2,300 rooms spread over 721,206 square feet, the Palace of Versailles is the largest in the world. Less than one hour from Paris, Versailles attracts 7.5 million visitors every year. Travelers hail from far and wide to see the Royal Apartments, Grand Trianon, Hall of Mirrors and the Grand Canal, as well as the lush gardens designed by André Le Nôtre, the setting of the famous fountain shows.
However, few visitors to Versailles know that they can enjoy excellent French cuisine, attend an equestrian show, or visit a room filled with hidden treasures that’s not usually open to the public.
There’s much more to the majestic palace than meets the eye, so here are five things you may not know about Versailles that will make your visit even more unforgettable.
1. Versailles once housed a Royal Menagerie
Did you know that Versailles once housed a menagerie that was home to all kinds of wild animals, birds, and exotic animals from all over the world? One of Louis XIV’s first projects to flaunt his global prestige and power, he transformed his father’s small hunting lodge into a palace for his court and government. In 1663 architect Louis le Vau began constructing the menagerie, the first to divide the species into separate and specially adapted enclosures where Sun King’s courtiers would pass their time. This model was then adopted throughout Europe, and menageries of this sort were eventually called zoos.
2. Many scientific experiments occurred on the palace grounds
The Court of Versailles was more than a hotbed of futile pleasures, intrigue and entertainment. The palace actually played a crucial role in scientific research, particularly during the Enlightenment period under Louis XV and Louis XVI. Both kings were passionate about science and collected instruments that had been used during experiments in surgery, aerospace, electricity, astronomy and cartography.
Zoological studies had reached new heights under Louis XIV’s royal menagerie. Doctors dissected many animals–including an elephant–and the intense research activities conducted at Versailles later led to the creation of veterinary schools. The Sun King’s passion for fruit and vegetables also led to great progress in the fields of botany and agriculture, and this continued under the reign of Louis XV. His garden was the richest in Europe, comprising 400 botanical species from around the world such as pineapple, vanilla, coffee and more. The bounty of Versailles’ vegetable garden and orchards is still appreciated today. In fact, world-renowned chef Alain Ducasse has been cooking with its fruit and vegetables for years.
3. The Petite Écurie conceals a hidden gypsotheque
While Louis XV and Louis XVI collected scientific instruments (which were donated to various scientific institutions and museums after the Revolution), the Sun King collected art. The King’s Petite Écurie (Small Stable), which stands on the Place d’Armes facing the palace, conceals many artistic treasures. This gallery of casts and sculptures hosts no less than 5,000 outstanding works from the School of Fine Arts, the Sorbonne and the Louvre. This superb collection is open to the public for special occasions like the Night of the Museums, Heritage Days, or meetings. If you happen to be in town when the Petite Écurie is open, go see it! Upcoming visits: 25 February; 18 March and 8 April.
4. The prestigious Bartabas Academy of Equestrian Spectacles is located at Versailles
The Petite Écurie, which once housed the King’s horses and carriages, stopped serving its purpose in 1787. However, the palace’s equestrian tradition is alive and kicking today at the Grande Écurie (Great Stable). The Bartabas Academy, a prestigious equestrian theater, performed here for the first time in 2003, and still holds regular performances there to this day. These outstanding shows reflect the academy’s genius and passion by combining several art forms. Don’t forget to visit the stables and marvel at the ceremonial car collection in the Gallery of Coaches.
5. Chef Alain Ducasse restores the splendor of the palace’s sumptuous royal meals
It’s no secret that Louis XIV’s evening meals were sumptuous feasts. These repasts not only symbolized the power of the monarchy but also established France’s leading reputation for cuisine and table service. Well, you can relive the lavish ceremonies built around the king’s meals at chef Alain Ducasse’s Ore restaurant in Versailles’ Dufour Pavilion. Enjoy lunch in this lavish setting, and feast on royal-court-inspired recipes coupled with a modern flair. Breakfast patrons can choose from the Queen’s Awakening and the King’s Awakening options, and the lunch menu features a selection of sophisticated sandwiches as well as choices for Princes and Princesses created especially for children. End on a sweet note with one of Marie Antoinette’s Delights. In the evening, after the Palace gates have closed, the restaurant becomes the setting for exclusive lavish dinners.
Cover Photo credit: Thibault-Chappe on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND