Versailles-Ruined Retreat of the Sun King

The Fierce Winter Storms that pummeled Europe in December 1999  were bound to take down some property—but did it have to be Louis XIV’s showplace?

Known (for good reason) as the Sun King, this French monarch devoted 50 years to remaking his father’s hunting lodge into a royal residence so fabulous, its very name betokens  luxury  living.  Here,  he  typically hosted  some  3,000  courtiers  and  their retinues  at  a  time.  Given  the  constant entertainment  and  lavish  banquets,  few turned down the chance to join the glittering  throng—to  gossip,  dance,  plot,  and flirt  away  while  the  peasants  on  their estates  sowed  the  seeds  of  the  Revolution.  It  all  caught  up  with  later  monarchs Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who were eating  cake  at  Versailles  on  October  6, 1789, when they learned that citizen mobs were converging on the palace. Versailles became  a  museum  under  Louis-Philippe (1830–48)   and   has   remained   so   ever since.

When  the  1999  storm  hit,  hurricane-force winds peeled layers of lead from the roof  and  blasted  out  thousands  of  windowpanes—but    those    were    quickly repaired  before  the  rain  could  get  at  the priceless interiors. Today, visitors can tour the State Apartments, loaded with ornate furniture,   paintings,   tapestries,   vases, chandeliers, and sculpture. The most dazzling room—a long arcade called the Hall of  Mirrors,  with  windows  along  one  wall and 357 beveled mirrors along the other—is where the Treaty of Versailles, officially ending World War I, was signed in 1919.

The  gardens,  though—that’s  another story. The Gardens of Versailles were the ultimate  in  French  formal  garden  design, with  geometrical  flower  beds,  terraces, pools,  topiary,  statuary,  lakes,  and  some 50 fountains. An estimated 10,000 beeches, cedars, junipers, and firs were flattened in the  storms,  90%  of  them  over  200  years old. Among the trees lost were a Corsican pine tree planted by Napoleon and a tulip tree  from  Virginia  given  to  Marie  Antoinette. Although new seedlings were planted, it will take years—centuries—before those leafy avenues look the way they did.

Most  of  the  trees  were  not  only  old, they were too tall for their root systems—Versailles was built over a swamp, and the water  table  is  so  high,  trees  never  sink deep  roots.  Versailles’  gardeners  see  the replanting  as  a  long-overdue  chance  to restore  the  park’s  original  design.  However, since the days of the Sun King, Paris ’s suburbs have overtaken his country hideaway.  With  the  trees  gone,  you  can  now see  apartment  towers  from  the  royal  terraces—hardly the effect Louis intended.