Paris Tips: Daytripping to Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon at Versailles
By Theadora Brack
Whenever I need to get far away from the hustle and bustle of Paris, I trek it to Le Domaine de Marie-Antoinette. Nestled behind Château du Versailles is a palace called “Le Petit Trianon,” along with a dreamy little hamlet created for the Queen. It’s the perfect spot for some tranquility, introspection, and splendor in the grass.
Bewitching with its seductive cave, mystic temples, a tiny village (surrounded by farm animals and vegetable plots) and placid lake (complete with island and lighthouse), it’s no surprise that the countryside in miniature was Marie Antoinette’s favorite retreat from the very public and frenetic life she led back up at the main Château.
Tip: Trekking to Versailles from Paris? I recommend taking the RER C line to “Versailles-Rive Gauche.” The scenic train ride takes 30 to 45 minutes. Also, buy a round trip ticket while you’re still in Paris, because by the end of the afternoon ticket lines at the Versailles-Rive Gauche station can be horrifically long, while the self-serve ticket machines are often broken.
Going to the Temple of Love
Once you reach the Château du Versailles, start looking for “Petit Trianon” signs. After paying the entrance fee at the gate, you’ll either hoof it down through the gardens and fountains, or take a tram directly there. Personally, I’d walk the walk. Along the way, there’s much to see.
During the warmer months, amazing displays of aquatic artistry bring the palace fountains to life while piped in Lully and other Baroque favorites spray on to everyone’s delight. The weather and your entourage will most likely determine your mode of transportation. Take heed, because along the way you’ll encounter steps and uneven ground, especially treacherous after a downpour. So pack your Chucks or Keds, kids!
Walk this way
There’s no set order to touring the grounds. At the Petit Trianon entrance, you’ll find a café with benches and the best chicken salad sandwiches I’ve ever stuck a tooth in. Here you’ll also find a welcome center, a WC, and a gift shop. Pick up a free map and plan your route at lunch. I usually start my stroll at the nearby Temple of Love, first paying homage to Cupid with crossed fingers and toes. Then, after putting in a cameo appearance at Marie Antoinette’s little theater, I follow the winding brook down to the hamlet.
Stay on the path! Legend has it that back in 1903 two English school teachers, Charlotte Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain brazenly took a short cut and ended up time trekking back to the 18th century. “Everything suddenly looked unnatural, therefore unpleasant; even the trees seemed to become flat and lifeless, like wood worked in tapestry.” Jourdain reported. So for the love of your pocket-sized technology, stay with your group!
Keeping it real
Marie Antoinette was just 19 years old when Louis XVI gifted the Petit Trianon to her. It was initially built for his grandfather’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour. Designed by architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel, this symmetrical royal haven with a neoclassical twist gave Marie Antoinette what she craved most—personal privacy and room to blossom. “Here I am me,” M.A. wrote.
The Queen was also given full rein of the grounds. Inspired by Rosseau’s writings, she got architect Richard Mique and artist Robert Hubert on the case, and the dream team designed a rustic hamlet that was “charming, but uncultivated and wild.” Fully embracing shabby chic, painters were also called in to create faux wood with imitation cracks, splits, and green moss. Talk about getting all crafty!
Ode to Jouy
Here’s the squeal! Back in the day, visits were by invitation only, and costumes were kept unusually simple and informal for the time. “I shall be quite alone so don’t dress up; country clothes and men in frock coats,” M.A. scribed on the invitations. A “little” white gown, a gauzy hankie, and a straw hat was the expected attire at the Petit Trianon. Banned were big hats, long dress trains, and the wide panniers that put the hustle in the bustle.
Here games like cards and blind man’s bluff were played both day and night. Let’s not forget the seesaw and the fleet of tiny row boats. At l’heure bleu, lanterns adorned the bushes, statues, and hideaways. Soon nocturnal fêtes, impromptu concerts, intimate co-ed suppers with BFFs, and private theater spectacles featuring the Queen became the norm at her private domain.
Approaching the Petit Trianon
On the boards in her very own theater, Marie Antoinette fearlessly took on her alter egos like an 18th-century Lady Gaga or Beyoncé, performing as milkmaids, shepherdesses, or village maidens. Studying theater, opera, and ballet (with celebrity tutors snagged from Paris), she managed to fine-tune her craft while crafting her own idyllic world.
Despite her unfortunate fate, in this tiny theater, with its seats for only forty, its walls and ceilings of blue velvet and paper-mâché ornaments mimicking putti, shiny gold, and cool marble, her spirited dreams live on. More than anywhere else, you can still feel her presence here, so trust me, don’t miss it.
Oscar Wilde said it best: “Illusion is the first of all pleasures.”
Need a lil’ hameau fix now? Sofia Coppola’s movie “Marie Antoinette” was shot on location.