The splendor and surprises of Versailles

Posted on: August 21, 2015 | Written By: Doug Oster | Comments

The gardens of Versailles cover over 200 acres. The estate itself is over 2000 acres.

The gardens of Versailles cover nearly 2000 acres. The estate itself is over 2000 acres. Photos by Doug Oster Tribune Review

The gardens of Versailles seem to go on forever.

Nothing can compare to the gardens of the Palace of Versailles. One has to wonder how many people have stood in awe of the same sight since 1682.

Louis XIV moved here that year, making Versailles the center of government for France until the French Revolution a little over 100 years later. He spared no expense to create something that still astonishes today.

The vista is stunning and so expansive, it’s hard to tell if the boats floating in the distance are small remote-control toys or full-size rowboats. The gardens cover nearly 2,000 acres yet can be viewed in their entirety by standing in the shadow of the palace itself.

On a recent trip, I was accompanied by a group of travelers who spent the week exploring gardens around Paris with me. Versailles was the culmination of the visit and didn’t disappoint.

Inside the palace, our tour guide told fascinating stories about French royalty and showed off ornate painted ceilings, tiny beds, fancy walls, a huge chapel, expensive carpets and everything else you could imagine a king needs to be comfortable at home. Fellow tourists shuffled along, shoulder to shoulder in rhythm, slowly toward each room, every group listening intently to their guides who waved different colored flags to keep their flock in tow.

The wavy period glass of the palace made the gardens outside look like impressionistic paintings. When a few windows were open, a cool breeze would occasionally allow fresh air to offer relief from the oppressive heat.

About five minutes into the tour, I whispered to a friend on the trip that I was going to slip away into the gardens. He smiled, nodded, and I was off. It took 20 minutes to navigate through the starry-eyed crowd as I looked for the exit. Time was at a premium, and the gardens were calling.

Colorful chaos

The gardens of Versailles are filled with annual close to the palace. Photos by Doug Oster Tribune Review

The gardens of Versailles are filled with annual close to the palace. Photos by Doug Oster Tribune Review

The beds closest to the palace are filled with annuals packed as tightly together as the poor souls left in the palace. It was a trademark of every garden we visited in France, a style that provides chaotic, colorful beauty. Tall, pure-white flowering tobacco were surrounded by blue and purple salvia as 3-foot-tall white cosmos swayed slowly in the summer breeze. Each bed was surrounded with meticulously trimmed boxwood shrubs. Periodically, there would be one bed planted exclusively with old-fashioned pink roses.

I’m not sure if the royals would have approved the few weeds that poked out between the plants, but they were easy to ignore, and it was actually a little comforting to know that, even here, perfection is hard to achieve.

The other side of the palace was also planted mostly with annuals around topiary, which hugged the ground. Red geraniums shared space with purple verbena, white petunias, pink dianthus, yellow coreopsis and more. Classic statuary, fountains and large pools of water punctuate the upper gardens near the palace.

On each side of the long, main alley of Versailles, woodland groves and garden rooms offer surprises galore — this is where the magic really begins. Thirty-foot-tall topiary leads to these groves and are the perfect use of a garden design technique called “hide and reveal.” Nothing can be seen through the tall trees until stepping into the grove.

Classical music mysteriously plays from somewhere in the woodlands, changing from area to area. It’s never far away and adds something special to the already enjoyable experience of the surprises at each turn.

A beautiful Italian woman in a deep-blue dress, knee-high tan boots and a large, floppy white hat strikes a model’s pose in front of the luminescent gold figures of a fountain in the Triumphal Arc Grove.

From ancient to modern

Some visitors embraced Sectional Body preparing for Monadic Singularity by Anish Kapoor. I loved it!

Some visitors embraced Sectional Body preparing for Monadic Singularity by Anish Kapoor. I loved it!

The woodland paths are covered in chalk-colored gravel, which turns shoes and the cuffs of pants the same color, but provides a comfortable surface for exploring the gardens. It’s hard not to smile walking into the groves, as each one astounds. Intricate sculptures of horses and the god Apollo are breathtaking in the Grove of Apollo’s Bath. A worker in a blue blazer warns tourists not to step off the path into the grass as they try to get a little closer for photos.

The Colonnade appears after a long walk down the topiary trees and, to me, looks Roman. Kids run through the center surrounded by 32 marble columns.

The greatest surprise might have been in Star Grove, where modern artist Anish Kapoor had one of his five works displayed.

From the circular path that surrounds the grove, what looks like a giant red speaker teases visitors from the other side of a fence. “Sectional Body Preparing for Monadic Singularity” seems, at first, out of place in the center of a large field, but it’s intriguing, compelling you to seek it out and try to understand just what it might be. Two guards warn art lovers not to touch anything as they climb into the center of the art, bathed in red light streaming through a huge trumpetlike speaker. It’s a brave choice and refreshing to see something so new complement this 17th-century classic.

One of the other wonderful things about Versailles is the mixture of formal gardens and the informality of the locals visiting to enjoy picnics, sleep in the grass and let their children free to play.

Those planning a visit should consider spending the day to get through the palace and gardens. We had about two hours for the gardens, so it was a whirlwind, and some of the groves are still a mystery. One trick is to learn the fountain schedule, as they run sporadically.

Versailles is a French masterpiece, which harkens to another time with no concern for a budget. The only thing that mattered was grandeur at its most ostentatious. Most importantly, walking through these gardens actually nurtures the soul and fills gardeners with inspiration and more ideas for their own landscapes than they will ever be able to use.

Doug Oster is the Home and Garden editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7878 or

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