In the shadow of Marie-Antoinette

Hidden by the splendors of Versailles are the pleasures of the Queen's Petit Trianon hideaway

In the 18th century, without a carriage, the journey from Paris to Versailles, the residence of the King of France, was anything but enjoyable. Imagine sharing a six-hour ride with another 20 passengers on a huge, uncomfortable covered cart, called a carabas. Versailles was a popular destination. Three days a week, les jours d'appartements, the palace was open to the public. That tradition can be traced back to the reign of Louis XIV: the king had to be accessible to his subjects. Anybody suitably dressed was authorized to mingle with the royal family and the courtiers, and thus witness all the major events that punctuated daily life at court.

Today, it takes no more than half an hour to reach the magnificent palace and its priceless treasures, but, thanks to the never-ending crowds of tourists, one can easily imagine how busy were the ornate salons of Versailles. For all their richness and beauty, however, the grands appartements and the breathtaking Hall of Mirrors are nothing more than a huge empty stage. While many travellers visit the palace and its surrounding gardens, they often neglect most of the park and the Trianons. These summer residences are treasures of French architecture and a treat for the tourist who likes to go off the beaten path.

After Louis XIV's death in 1715, his successors, Louis XV and Louis XVI maintained the appearances of court life but longed to escape, as often as possible, the tyrannical rules - the Etiquette - established by the Sun King. Louis XV was fond of the Grand Trianon, an elegant construction adorned by a colonnaded portico of pink marble, built for his grandfather, and its surrounding gardens sprinkled with delightful multi-coloured flowerbeds, sculptures and fountains. In 1768, another masterpiece of the Greek-style architecture so fashionable then was added to the domain: the Petit Trianon.

I'll always remember the day my father brought me for the first time to the Petit Trianon. I was just a boy of 12 or 13. We had come to see play. Chairs had been set up in the courtyard of the Grand Trianon and the sheltered colonnade connecting the two wings of the chateau was to be the stage. Before the performance, we ventured to the nearby Petit Trianon and entered its gardens through a door that had been left open. We were alone. It was magical. I felt at peace and somehow protected by the shadows of those who had once lived there. That impression never left me, and whenever I happen to be in Paris, I make a point of going back to the Petit Trianon.

Although the Trianons can be reached by car, I much prefer to start from the palace. My last visit was no different. Ignoring the huge line-up of tourists waiting to enter the grands appartements, I quickly crossed the vast, cobblestoned Place d'Armes and, as I reached the marble courtyard, I turned right to the short corridor that leads to the gardens. Apart from a few joggers, the park was deserted.

I slowed my pace to admire the perfect symmetry of the gardens a la francaise, the structured flowerbeds or parterres and the two large stone basins adorned with the statues of Apollo and his mother, Latona. Passing the ornamental pools of the Parterre d'Eau towards the Grand Canal, I turned right and followed the path that leads to a little bridge.

This is by no means the fastest way to get to the Trianons, but I always choose it in the hope that I might be visited by the extraordinary adventure that befell two English ladies on a pleasant day in August 1901. As they were proceeding towards the Petit Trianon, they suddenly noticed a lady dressed in white. Before they could approach her to ask directions, for they had all at once felt lost, a man "strangely dressed" ran towards them and asked them to leave - with a polite air that seemed out of place. In the background, they got a glimpse of a beautiful lady, dressed in white. A few months later, while relating the odd incident, they became convinced they had seen the ghost of Marie-Antoinette. Whether or not those two ladies were visited from beyond that summer day, the Petit Trianon is forever imbued with the spirit of Marie-Antoinette.

She was offered the little chateau by her husband Louis XVI in 1774. Raised amidst the carefree atmosphere of Schonbrunn, the Hapsburgs' summer palace in Vienna, the young queen never made any attempt to conceal her annoyance at the ancient customs of the French court - "an odious importunity," as she once said. Thus her joy when she was given the Petit Trianon. There, at least, the dreadful etiquette was banned. There she felt truly at home.

From the little bridge, it does not take more than 10 minutes to reach the gates of the chateau. When the queen was in residence at Trianon, two guards wearing her colours - green and yellow - stood at the gates and checked the names of the visitors. For, "by order of the Queen, only a handful of people were admitted to this sanctuary. Even the king would not dare pay his wife a visit without being first invited to do so.

Inside the chateau, admiring the elaborate handrail adorned by the queen's signet, I slowly climbed the stairs to reach the "salon de compagnie," by far the most beautiful room of the Petit Trianon. The walls are made of delicate wood panelling, white and gold, decorated with garlands of wildflowers. The exquisite furniture is upholstered in red velvet - the original furniture was sold during the revolution - with matching drapes surrounding each window. Atop the elegant chimney piece made of violet-coloured marble, I recognized the two vases of petrified wood offered to Marie-Antoinette by her brother, Joseph II. Nothing pompous in this room, designed to suit a young and elegant woman seeking to escape the stuffiness of court life. There, the queen entertained her friends or some rare guests of honour like her brother. Protocol was forbidden. "At Trianon, said Marie-Antoinette, I am not the Queen, I am just myself."

In July 1781, she gave an evening party for her brother, which the Comte de Lieudekerque-Beaufort, then a young page, recalls in his Souvenirs. "All was confusion and freedom" in the queen's favourite room, he wrote. "We passed one antechamber and were making our way towards the smell of food in the dining room. We were very surprised [...] to find ourselves in the salon were coffee was laid out for the royal party. As we were about to leave through one of the doors, the two sides opened and we were face to face with the Queen and Joseph II. You imagine our fright. It did not last long. [The Queen's] gentle smile reassured us [...] She made us come back with her in the coffee room and made us sit down in a corner and help ourselves to cakes, brioches, etc. We were delighted to be told afterwards that we could follow the royal party all through the gardens."

The gardens of Trianon remain the ultimate expression of a dying world that delighted in hiding its artifice. By the 1770s, symmetrical gardens with their neat rows of flowerbeds and embroidened hedges had been dismissed by the French elites. Nature - or, at least, a much idealized idea of it - was now in fashion. And as Jean-Jacques Rousseau explained in his Nouvelle Heloise, "Nature plants nothing in line!" Marie-Antoinette probably never read La Nouvelle Heloise, but she was a woman of her time and she had to have her "natural" garden that would "create reality".

The gardens of Trianon, soon famous across Europe, were achieved in record time. Nothing was spared. Countless trees were transported from the royal nurseries near Melun to Versailles, a hundred different species of flowers, tulips from Holland, magnolias and lilacs from the south of France, daffodils and roses from India or Africa and more, were planted along the sinuous paths. An artificial grotto covered with moss and a miniature river, crucial features of any natural garden, were also added to complete such a charming picture. The river meanders slowly through the lawns, surrounding a minuscule island and its Temple of Love, a domed circle of 12 white marble Corinthian columns. The languid waters reflect the elegant lines of an octagonal pavilion, the Belvedere, before dying away in two branches in front of the chateau.

After 1780, Marie-Antoinette, bringing her children along, spent most of her summers at Trianon. There, forgetting the tiring pomp of court life, surrounded by her small circle of friends, she lived a peaceful existence. Soon imitated by her ladies, she discarded her heavy court dresses and wore simple gowns of white gauze and straw hats.

On a few occasions, following a lavish supper, her guests, charmed by the latest airs from Haydn or Mozart, had the chance to admire the garden illuminated by hundreds of multi-coloured lanterns. "It was perfectly enchanting, wrote an enthusiastic King Gustavus III of Sweden in 1784. At Trianon, Marie-Antoinette was at her best, entertaining her guests, wrote the king of Sweden, "like any mistress of the house."

As early as 1783, the queen asked her architects to add a small village to the garden. Eight rustic half-timber little houses, including a mill and a farm, with real sheep, cows and hens, were built. To achieve the illusion of real peasants' dwellings, artificial cracks and crumbled stones were added to those miniatured constructions. Inside, however, every house was elegantly furnished.

From the "Queen's house" in the hamlet - it consists of two parts joined by a wooden, ivy-covered gallery - she could watch the farmer, his wife and the small staff under their command, wondering to their various tasks. Each afternoon, fresh milk was brought to her in elegant ceramic pots adorned with her monogram. But Marie-Antoinette never played the shepherdess, as has been popularly repeated, and the hamlet, for all its artifices, was nonetheless a real village, supervised by real peasants.

It was there, in the summer of 1789, that she almost encountered three young men from the province of Lorraine who where visiting Trianon. "Just as we were about to leave, wrote one of them, Marie-Antoinette's arrival was announced and, as we had no time to reach the garden gate, our guide made us go into the stable."

Thus hidden, they witnessed an unguarded monarch.

"The Queen [...] was wearing a plain linen dress with a scarf and a lace cap. In these simple clothes she seemed more full of majesty than in the grand robes in which we had seen her at Versailles. Her way of walking is peculiar to her. One cannot distinguish her steps; she glides with incomparable grace [...] Our Queen passed quite close to where we were standing and all three of us had an impulse to bend the knee as she passed [...]"

I was nearly noon when I finally decided to leave. While walking back slowly toward the chateau, I gazed one last time at the little grotto surrounded by trees already changing colour. On October 5, 1789, Marie-Antoinette had come to Trianon alone to enjoy one last walk before the winter. As she was standing behind the grotto, she suddenly saw a page running towards her. He was sent by the Minster of the King's Household. A crowd of women was marching on Versailles. The queen was expected at the palace. She left her beloved Trianon in a hurry... never to come back.

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