In the Other Versailles

the smoking dog restaurant

One of Versailles' less-than-royal restaurants.

For Part of a Day

Versailles:- Friday, 28. February 1997:- It is closer to Saint- Germain-en-Laye from where I live, but it only takes 15 minutes by car to the parking lot in front of the Château at Versailles. I have to drive past the royal park and forest of Marly to get there, and then it is a boomer of a road straight south.

I just don't feel like going to Paris today, although the weather is fine and I seem to have miss-laid my scarf. In 20 years, I don't think I've been to Versailles more than a half-dozen times. Three or four times at the Château, but never inside.

Walking around the grounds of the Château is free and that is what I have done. Slightly over two million visitors paid to enter the buildings last year, so they are not doing too bad with Louis' old place.

Recently, the Yvelines edition of Le Parisien has been putting it about that the town, the city of Versailles wouldmeat counter in the market like to see some visitors too. Le Parisien tirelessly promotes excursions to the outer reaches of the Ile-de-France, as well as mentioning sights in the city - and we are on the same wave-length quite often, and sometimes I even get there before my colleagues do.

A butcher's stall in the Versailles market.

The only reason to mention this, is to allay any fears you may have about being a 'tourist.' It wasn't always so, but these days probably half the people on any particular tour to a site in the Ile-de-France, are French, if not Parisians. For this reason I commonly use the term 'visitors,' because the distinction between 'tourists' and locals is blurred if not meaningless.

Versailles, the city, is worth a visit. It is the biggest place of any size close to Paris, but I have no idea whether it is a big town or a small city.

Unlike Paris, Versailles has no métro; but it is served from the capital by three SNCF lines: one from Saint-Michel - the infamous Line 'C' of the RER - which arrives at the Gare Versailles-Rive Gauche. The other train line is a regular one, from Saint-Lazare, and it arrives at the Gare Versailles-Rive Droit, by way of La Défense. The third train, from Montparnasse to Versailles-Chantiers, is one that goes beyond - to Rambouillet if you feel like it.

Versailles is a very contrasty place. The Château takes up all the west end of it, and its park is bigger than the town. Three huge avenues - the Avenue Saint-Cloud, the Avenue de Paris and the Avenue de Sceaux - all point to the Place d'Armes in front of the Château.

These are wide and breezy; rainy plains in winter and boiling deserts in summer, assuming that it rains or the sun shines. As they come to the place, the space between them is filled by the Petite Ecurie on the south and the Grande Ecurie on the north and they are identical in size, except the 'Petite' has a coupole. There are no horses in them.

The Château is splendid. The rest of Versailles is quite ordinary, with an important distinction. Unlike Paris, it is not particularly old as French towns go; but unlike Paris, it has not been modernized and all spiffed up. A lot of Versailles is a crumbling old dump.

There are cobbled pavements that can destroy shoe heels and ankles; antique paint is flaking off walls and doors, the buildings are not high and the multiple chimneys are easily visible, many windows have wooden shutters, many need repainting.

Despite the danger to high heels, I think the 'crumbling' and the 'flaking' are the main attractions to this old sort of country town. As you face the Châteaua market fish monger from about the Rue Royale, there are two main quarters: Saint-Louis is on the left, south; and Notre-Dame is on the right, north side. Go into either of these and you will see what you will not see in Paris unless you look very hard.

In the same market, the fresh fish dealer.

The big avenues are mostly dreary with their government, administrative and court buildings. But on the Rue du Vieux-Versailles in the Saint-Louis quarter, the shops are old and sad and flaking and darkly painted. It is a street for black and white film. Through entries made for coaches, there are cobbled courtyards, with cast-iron water pumps. Every window has its set of louvered shutters.

Near the Saint-Louis Cathedral, edified in 1754; from which the quarter gets its name, there is an intersection called the 'Carrés Saint-Louis. Built by Louis XV in 1755, it was conceived as a 'shopping centre,' which may have been mankind's first mall. Thank you, Louis.

Starting from 1671, Louis XIV - the 'Great' Louis - who had other nicknames, due in part to his considerable 'Greatness' - had the village of Versailles torn down. It was subdivided and the lots were handed out to anybody - who the king liked - and who could pay five 'sous par arpent (an arpent equalled 3,194 square metres),' and who promised to follow Louis' building code. The main rule was that no townhouse could be higher than the level of the Cour de Marbre - so Louis could easily overlook his grateful beneficiaries.

My literature here contains nothing about the fate of the pre-existing village of Versailles that was torn down, nor anything about its inhabitants. I presume they could not afford the 'cinq sous' price of a lot, and they all moved to Le Chesnay, to be near the present Parly II shopping mall.

My guide says there are no 17th century buildings left in the town; it is actually composed of 18th century constructions; some remodeled in the following century. Today I see that 'remodeling' goes on - but, aside from totally modern street furniture, it seems to consist of fixing up 19th century additions to the town - such at the Rive-Gauche train station, which looks spiffy and newly re-painted.

However, the Hôtel de Ville, which is sitting at the nearby corner of the Avenue de Général de Gaulle - ex-Rue Royale - and the boulevard-like Avenue de Paris, was originally built in 1670 for Maréchal de Bellefonds. Louis XIV bought it for a friend, and then it went through the usual cycle of owners and speculators until it was taken over by thevegtables on sale in the courtyard town in 1790. In 1899, it was found too small and enlarged - but, to my inexpert eye, it looks like a 17th century construction, in very good shape.

The Notre-Dame Church, was erected in 1686 which qualifies it as 17th century. In the district named after it, it was the parish church of the king and his court. There are a few remaining 17th century buildings around it and the nearby Notre-Dame market.

Neither meat nor fish is complete without vegetables.

This 'Marché Notre-Dame' is my real target, partly because it has been in the news lately, and partly because food plays a large part of this issue of Metropole.

It is like a twin of the Carrés Saint-Louis in size and location, and has been here since 1665. It became a formal marché in 1721, and the actual buildings - four, at each corner of the square - were constructed in 1841. Like a lot of old public places in France, it is in daily operation as a working marché. As such, it is a practical example of the near-final stage of the food-chain (which is so heavily on display at the current Salon de l'Agriculture).

I must have food on the brain, because all the 'Versailles' photos with this article are from this marché. To capture the 'disappeared' 17th century buildings and cobble-stones, I will have to make a return visit.

The road that rings the marché's square has many bars and restaurants, and these may be interesting as places to eat because the origin of the raw materials is only a few metres away - and if you were here very early in the morning you might see cooks and their helpers doing their selections and carting it off to their kitchens.

This old part of urban Versailles is quite compact - as I said, it is smaller by far than the Château's park. If guided tours of splendid palaces and strolls through over-kept gardens and parks, leave you cold; then I suggest you detach yourself from any 'tour' you may be on, and have a little walk around the town of Versailles.

It is not a hectic, nervous place. It is just a modest little town in France that happens to have as a neighbor, one of the world's most stupifyingly outrageous palaces.

The town of Versailles is real life, the palace is an 'attraction.' You are allowed to make a choice - but of course, you can always tour both, if you are democratic.

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