Side-tripping from Paris into the Ile de France, we indulge in the world of royal and aristocratic extravagance in the pre-Revolutionary playground of France's elite. We explore Versailles, Europe's palace of palaces; exquisite Vaux-le-Vicomte; and extravagant Fontainebleau, home to centuries of French rulers. We'll also marvel at the glass and statuary of Chartres Cathedral…and dine like kings.
Versailles offers three blockbuster sights. The main attraction is the palace itself, called the Château. Here you walk through dozens of lavish, chandeliered rooms once inhabited by Louis XIV and his successors. Next come the expansive Gardens behind the palace, a landscaped wonderland dotted with statues and fountains. Finally, at the far end of the Gardens, is the pastoral area called the Trianon Palaces and Domaine de Marie-Antoinette (a.k.a. Trianon/Domaine), designed for frolicking blue bloods and featuring several small palaces and Marie's Hamlet — perfect for getting away from the mobs at the Château.
Visiting Versailles can seem daunting because of its size and hordes of visitors. But if you follow my tips, a trip here during even the busiest times is manageable: Ideally, buy your ticket or pass before arriving at Versailles. Versailles is packed May–Sept 10:00–13:00, so come early or late. Avoid Sundays, Tuesdays, and Saturdays (in that order), when the place is jammed with a slow shuffle of tourists from open to close. To skip the ticket-buying line, buy tickets or passes in advance, or book a guided tour. Unless you take a guided tour, everyone — including holders of advance tickets and passes — must go through the often slow security checkpoint at the Château's Royal Gate entrance (longest lines 10:00–12:00). Consider seeing the Gardens during mid-morning and the Château in the afternoon, when crowds die down.
Château de Pray allows you to sleep in a 770-year-old fortified castle with hints of its medieval origins. A few minutes from Amboise, the 14 rooms in the château aren't big or luxurious, but they come with character and wads of history — and with tubs in most bathrooms. There is no lounge, but the backyard terrace compensates well when the weather agrees. A newer annex offers four contemporary rooms (sleeping up to three each), with lofts, terraces, and views of the castle. A big pool and the restaurant's vegetable garden lie below the château. The dining room is splendid and a relaxing place to splurge…and feel good about it (reservations required).
Versailles may be most travelers' first choice for its sheer historic importance, but Vaux-le-Vicomte is just flat-out ravishing, offering visitors a harmony of architecture, interior decor, and garden design that you won't find anywhere else. Compared to Versailles, it's also more intimate, better furnished, and comes with a fraction of the crowds. Though getting to Vaux-le-Vicomte requires more effort, it's an absolute joy to tour. Located in a huge forest, with magnificent gardens and no urban sprawl in sight, Vaux-le-Vicomte gives me more than a twinge of palace envy.
Arguably Europe's best example of pure Gothic, Chartres Cathedral is one of the most impressive structures in all of Europe. The remarkable cohesiveness of the carvings and stained glass, and the unity of the architecture, are due to the fact that nearly the entire church was rebuilt in just 30 years —a blink of an eye for cathedral building. Chartres is an easy day trip from Paris. But with its statues glowing in the setting sun — and with hotels and restaurants much less expensive than those in the capital — Chartres also makes a worthwhile overnight stop. Dozens of Chartres' most historic buildings are colorfully illuminated at night (May–Sept), adding to the town's after-hours appeal.
While Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles are French-designed, Fontainebleau was built a century earlier by an Italian hired by François I, inspired by his travels through Renaissance Italy. It seems every king, queen, and emperor since has loved this place, most notably Napoleon Bonaparte. Don't expect Versailles-like unity here; Fontainebleau is a gangly and confusing series of wings that has grown with centuries of kings.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Bonjour, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the Best of Europe. This time we're living royal in France…script please. Where are we going here? Ah! "Side-Trips from Paris: Kings and Nobles Gone Wild." Thanks for joining us!
In this episode we indulge in the world of the royal, noble, and aristocratic extravagance that characterized so much of French history. This is the pre-Revolutionary playground of France's rich and powerful.
We'll marvel at the ultimate divine monarch's palace, with fountains fit for a king. We'll see what 17th-century financiers did with their mega-riches and then live pretty well ourselves, settling into our own château. We'll take a break from decadence at one of Europe's top Gothic cathedrals, and check out a palace fit for Napoleon.
In France, the region around its capital of Paris is called the Ile de France. Side-tripping from Paris, we'll visit the palace at Versailles, Chartres Cathedral, and the châteaux of Vaux-le-Vicomte and Fontainebleau.
France — for centuries, the richest country in Europe — is strewn with lavish palaces, châteaux, and mansions. After all, until its revolution, its society was the epitome of that Old Regime notion that some are born to rule and the rest of us…well, just deal with it.
Paris glitters with Old Regime elegance — royal parks, gilded bridges, noble mansions, and, of course, the biggest palace in all of Europe: the Louvre.
And, when those kings and nobles wanted to get out of town for some hunting or perhaps an intimate rendezvous, they built equally lavish palaces in the countryside. Their favored playground: The Loire Valley, which dazzles visitors with châteaux like the grandiose Chambord, the dreamy Azay-le-Rideau, and the graceful Chenonceau.
But we'll cover the châteaux of the Loire in another episode. This time, we're sticking closer to Paris. Every place we'll visit is within an hour of the Eiffel Tower. And we're starting with Europe's grandest palace.
Versailles is the palace other palaces were modeled after, the one many tried to outdo — but none succeeded.
This ultimate royal palace is all about this man: the ultimate divine monarch, Louis XIV.
He spent about half of France's entire annual GNP to turn his dad's hunting lodge into a palace suitable for Europe's king of kings. The château started small — just the middle stretch of this grand facade. That was the hunting lodge where little Louis spent his happiest boyhood years. Once king, the massive expansion began.
While today's crowds are tourists, 300 years ago, this courtyard was a very different scene. The palace hosted nobles — thousands of nobles, each with an entourage. They'd flit from games to parties to amorous rendezvous in their sedan-chair taxis. Imagine servants running around delivering secret messages and roast legs of lamb.
And it's crowded to this day. Smart travelers avoid weekends, come late in the day, and use a museum pass to skip the ticket line.
The Palace of Versailles was the residence of the king and the seat of France's government for a hundred years. It's a long series of lavish rooms, each with its own theme, and with every inch sumptuously decorated. In the late 1600s, Louis XIV — shown here with his capable hand literally on the rudder of state — was creating the first modern, centralized government. And, in order to personally control as much as possible, he gathered everything here.
United, under a strong king with the continent's biggest population, a booming economy, and a powerful military, France under Louis was Europe's superpower.
Around the year 1700, Versailles was the cultural heartbeat of Europe, and French culture was at its zenith. Throughout Europe, when you said "the king," you were referring to the French king — Louis XIV.
French was the lingua franca. France was in vogue. You name it — clothes, hairstyles, music, theater, table manners…French taste spread across the Continent.
Louis was a true Renaissance man, a century after the Renaissance: an accomplished musician, dancer, horseman, statesman, art-lover, lover. He called himself the "Sun King" because he gave life and warmth to all he touched.
He was symbolized by Apollo, the Greek god of the sun. Versailles was designed to be the personal temple of this god on earth, decorated with statues and symbols of Apollo, of the sun, and of Louis himself. The classical themes throughout the palace underlined the divine right of France's kings and queens to rule without limit. Here Louis is shown with his entire royal family — all depicted as gods on earth — ordained to rule without question.
Versailles celebrated Man, rather than God, by elevating Louis XIV to almost godlike status. Louis was a hands-on king. He ruled for about 70 year and he was the perfect embodiment of the absolute monarch. Louis summed it up best himself with his famous rhyme, "L'état, c'est moi!": "The state, that's me!"
Pleasure ruled at Versailles. The main suppers, balls, and receptions were held in this room. The ceiling is like a sunroof opening up to heaven, filled with action parallel to the action right here in Louis' court. The style is pure Baroque, which lends itself to propaganda art — a riot of exuberant figures.
The Venus Room is a reminder that love ruled at Versailles. Here, couples would cavort, blessed from above by the goddess of love. As if to encourage the fun, Venus sends down a canopy of garlands to ensnare mortals in delicious amour.
Louis invited the nobility to Versailles in order to control or "domesticate" them. The "domesticated" aristocracy lived a life of almost enforced idleness. Games were part of Louis' political strategy. By distracting the nobles with billiards, gambling, and dancing, Louis was free to run the country. The good life was addictive and, under Louis, the bluebloods were hooked.
This was Louis' ceremonial bedroom. His daily life was a series of symbolic rituals. For example, while he'd actually sleep elsewhere, right here, the Sun King would "rise" and "set" with the sun each day.
Once mighty, now domesticated, dukes and barons actually competed to see who would hold the candle while Louis slipped into his royal jammies. Bedtime, wakeup, meals — it was all public ritual.
The royal bedroom faced the rising sun. It was the center of the palace…and the center of France.
When you understand the themes of the palace's many rooms, a stroll through Versailles is a stroll through French history.
The War Room reminds us that Louis had Europe's leading army, and his reign came with lots of expensive wars.
Louis ruled from 1643 to 1715. By the end he was tired of fighting. Here, in the Peace Room, peace is granted to Germany, Holland, and Spain as cupids play with discarded weapons and swords are pounded into violins. Louis bestows an olive branch on Europe as his queen cradles their baby twin daughters.
At the end of his long reign, Louis, having exhausted France with his many wars, gave this advice to his great-grandson, the next Louis: "Be a peaceful king."
The Hall of Mirrors was the highlight of the palace. No one had ever seen anything like it. Mirrors were a great luxury at the time, and this long hall was astounding.
Imagine this place lit by the flames of thousands of candles, filled with elegant guests in fine silks, wigs, and fake moles, as they danced to the orchestra. Under gilded candelabra and amid busts of Roman emperors, servants would glide by with silver trays of hors d'oeuvres.
And from the palace, guests would gaze awe-struck at Louis' amazing gardens. One more way that Louis proved he was a divine-right ruler was by controlling nature…like a god. These lavish grounds — elaborately planned, pruned, and ornamented — showed everyone that their king was in total command.
Only the Sun King could grow orange trees here in chilly northern France. And Louis XIV, he had a thousand.
Fountains — another great way for a king to illustrate his power over nature — were a huge attraction, a marvel of both art and engineering. The king's engineers literally rerouted a river to power these. While the fountains ran for Louis whenever he liked, they run for tourists only on weekends.
The Apollo Basin shows the Sun God, a.k.a. Louis, in his chariot as he starts his daily journey across the sky. The emerging horses give the impression of the sun rising out of the mists of dawn.
The palace's back yard is huge — and if you turn around, it seems to stretch forever.
Versailles was laid out along an eight-mile axis. You could get lost exploring it — golf carts and rental bikes make that a fun option — or just enjoy a lazy paddle on the Grand Canal.
Versailles began as a country escape, but the Château soon became as busy as Paris itself. So Louis, needing an escape from his escape, built this smaller palace buried deep in his vast back yard.
The delicate Grand Trianon was the king's private residence far from the main palace. It provided an ideal refuge — away from the sniping politics, strict etiquette, and 24/7 scrutiny of official court life.
With ever more power and wealth, France's ruling elite became dangerously out of touch and detached from the grinding reality of its people's daily lives.
Later, French royals retreated still farther from the main château and the realities of French political life, ignoring rising revolutionary sentiments that were turning their society into a tinderbox. And, deep in the garden, you find this bizarre sight: Marie-Antoinette's little peasant hamlet.
She longed for the simple life of a peasant — not the hard labor of real peasants, who sweated and starved all around her — but a fairytale world of simple country pleasures. So, she built this rustic fantasy. The Little Hamlet was an actual working farm with a dairy, a water mill, and domestic animals.
This is where the queen tended her perfumed sheep and her manicured gardens…until that day the Revolution arrived, and her hungry peasantry stormed the palace, marched her and the king back into Paris, and eventually cut off their heads.
The Revolution rocked the realities of châteaux both big and small. And today, many of those that survive make ends meet by renting rooms. At Château de Pray we're happy to help out. Evocative stairways lead to elegant, if small rooms. And with the setting summer sun the grounds are a delight.
My friend and co-author of our guidebook to France, Steve Smith, is joining us, as he so often does, just in time for dinner — and we're eating like kings. And the royal first course arrives. I'm having the terrine of duck foie gras, and Steve's having the blue lobster.
Rick: You know, Steve, foie gras, to me, when you're in France, you gotta have some foie gras. It's sort of earthy — it takes you to the farm, kind of.
Steve: I like that: the terroir.
Rick: So, now, you've got seafood, but we're in the middle of France.
Steve: Paris might as well be on the coast. It's rushed so quickly here. It's fresh as it would be if we were in Brittany. And there's no real cuisine unique to this area, so they draw from all regions in France. Your foie gras is probably from the Dordogne. My seafood is from Brittany, I think.
Rick: I like that when you're in a French restaurant, everybody is talking and having a convivial time, but there's a sort of a quietness.
Steve: Yeah, isn't that great? It's a respect for people's privacy. It's how the French live.
And we're having some classics for our main course. It's duck for me, and for Steve, the lamb, each served with delicate French sauces.
Waiter: For you, sir?
Rick: A lot of Americans are a little nervous about the meat being rare when you order in a nice restaurant in Paris.
Steve: I understand, but the rarer it is — within reason — the more the flavor comes out.
Rick: And I would imagine a chef would not want to serve you well-cooked meat.
Steve: No. No!
Rick: This is expensive, but you could say it's a good value because it's more than just a meal — it's a lifelong experience.
Steve: He who comes home with the most money doesn't win. He who comes home with the most experiences, like this, wins. Ninety-nine out of 100 of your dinners, you'll forget; you won't forget this one.
Rick: That's right. This is a lifelong memory.
Steve: This is why you're traveling.
Rick: It's just magic. Look at that. Wow.
Down a dreamy tree-lined road, there's another palace which was actually the inspiration of Versailles. This is the ravishing Vaux-le-Vicomte.
With an unrivaled harmony of architecture, interior decor, and garden design, it gets my vote for the most beautiful château in all of France.
Set in a huge forest, with magnificent gardens, Vaux-le-Vicomte is an absolute joy to tour. Compared to Versailles, it's more intimate, and comes with a fraction of the crowds.
Take a stroll over the ornamental moat. Admire the elegance and symmetry of the ensemble. The gardens stretch far beyond the palace, but their main axis runs straight through its center. In this, the cutting edge of sculpted French formal gardens, the landscaper integrated ponds, shrubbery, and trees in a style that would be copied in palaces all over Europe.
This was the home of Nicolas Fouquet, France's finance minister during that over-the-top reign of Louis XIV in the 17th century.
It all came together when he hired France's top architect, landscaper, and decorator, a trio known as the "brotherhood of genius." With both a blank slate and a blank check, Fouquet's dream team made his audacious vision a reality.
An intriguing part of your visit is a chance to climb through the attic for a peek at the timbers and the structure of the roof. Then you reach the cupola, and cap your visit with a commanding view and a chance to survey Fouquet's domain.
When Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles were built, France was slowly heading toward a revolution. Of its population, about 200,000 were clergy (those who pray), 150,000 were nobles (those who own land), and the rest (over 17 million) were the peasantry (those who work). Of course, there was no democracy: just one king and his ministers — people like Nicolas Fouquet — who ran the show. Somewhat like bankers and financiers of today, these people controlled the workings of the economy, and amassed unfathomable wealth. Ultimately, the imbalance reached the point where society burst into revolution.
Another great side trip from Paris — marked by another glorious building — this one dedicated to God rather than some king or noble — is the city of Chartres. Here we see not the extravagance of rich elites, but the extravagance of medieval piety. A sight, which, for centuries, heartened the weary spirits of approaching pilgrims.
To this day, visitors come to Chartres to see its cathedral, and they find that the city itself is a delight. And wherever you are in Chartres, its massive cathedral seems to loom overhead. For over 800 years the church has attracted travelers and inspired those who visit. The earlier church burned in 1194. It was rebuilt so quickly and lavishly that it has a much-appreciated unity of architecture, statuary, and stained glass. It captures the spirit of the 13th century — the so called "Age of Faith" — like no other church.
The architecture is Gothic — which was all the rage in the 1200s. Gothic architects create a skeleton of support with columns, pointed arches, and buttresses so that the walls no longer need to support the heavy stone ceiling, but are freed up to hold windows.
Chartres is most famous for its stained glass and statues. It's like a picture book of the entire Christian story, told through its art. In "The Book of Chartres" — as some nickname the church — the text is the sculpture and windows, and its binding is the architecture.
The individual figures create a cohesive ensemble, and in this case — in a cathedral dedicated to Notre Dame (or "our lady") — it all leads to Mary. Here she is on her deathbed. Then, angels gently whisk her upward, so she can sit on the throne with Jesus in paradise, where she's flanked by angels and crowned Queen of Heaven.
The nave is vast — over 400 feet long, and the widest in France. And the Gothic structure allowed for plenty of windows.
Chartres contains the world's largest surviving collection of medieval stained glass, with over 150 early 13th-century windows. The light pouring through these windows was mystical, and encouraged meditation and prayer. Stained glass was used to help teach Bible stories to the illiterate medieval masses. While the faithful back then may have been illiterate, understanding the rich symbolism in each of these windows inspired them to live their dark and dreary medieval lives with hope.
Shifting from medieval piety back to royal excess, it's time for one last palace. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Paris' booming elite class made this area Europe's château heartland. Most of these luxurious getaways began small — as hunting lodges — and then grew.
One of the most fascinating is Fontainebleau. When it comes to showing the sweep of French history, this château is unrivaled among French palaces.
While home to many kings though the ages, today, with its iconic and sweeping staircase, it's the domain of tourists. The palace is richly decorated in royal and imperial symbolism, and its walls are hung with exquisite tapestries.
As you stroll, you can enjoy the artistic shift in styles. There is stately Renaissance, such as this fine hall, which dates from 1528. Overseen by King François I, it inspired other royal galleries, including the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. The opulent ballroom, which hosted many royal parties, is Baroque. In the royal apartments, these ceilings come with the giddy extravagance of Rococo. And finally there's the more sober post-Revolutionary Neoclassical. The decor of this stately library dates from the 19th century.
It seems every king, queen, and emperor since has loved this palace. Louis XIII was born here, Louis XV was married here, and after the anti-monarchy chaos of the French Revolution, Napoleon reigned as emperor right here.
Fontainebleau has more Napoleon Bonaparte connections than any other palace, with his personal apartments and an adjacent museum. Napoleon's throne room is the only French throne room that survives with its original furniture. You'll see where the emperor slept, the oversize desk where he worked, and the little table where he abdicated.
Grand paintings portray the emperor and his first wife, Josephine, after their coronation. Rooms are decorated in the Empire style of the Napoleonic age. A tent-like room is dedicated to Napoleon at war, with his small but iconic battle coat and hat, field-cot, and first-class camp gear. Napoleon aspired to create his own family dynasty. To turn his Corsican blood blue, he married a Habsburg. His second wife, Empress Marie-Louise, provided what he called "a royal womb."
The hallway is lined with busts and portraits of the sprawling imperial family Napoleon created — relatives he put on various thrones all across his empire. It's fascinating to consider the mix of ideals, charisma, and megalomania that shaped the emperor. This revolutionary hero came out of a movement that killed off the Old Regime — only to create a new Old Regime.
All this royal, noble, and imperial extravagance, and the resulting political upheaval ,is not necessarily a bad thing. I see it as the growing pains of democracy. It's instructive to ponder these symbols of excess, once so out of reach and today the playground of the public. Why are today's French so hell-bent on defending their civil liberties? Perhaps it has something to do with their heritage of overcoming abuse of power to earn their freedom.
Whatever the case, when you travel here today, it's clear: the powerful of France's past have left today's visitors with some amazing and thought-provoking sights. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.
Life is good when you're filthy rich.
Rick: France's ruling elite became dangerously out of touch and detached from the grinding reality of its people's daily lives. Right?
Rick: All right!
Ah, just deal with it.