Our elusive traveller ‘Pip Squeak’ on his stay in the picturesque Gardens of Versailles
Waking up in the Gardens of Versailles on a misty summer morning should be a joy. But you’re not allowed to sleep in the Gardens of Versailles, so my night hadn’t been the most restful. Every time something heavy crunched among the trees my eyes would be wide open again. What if it was the gendarmes? What if it was wolves?
At 3am there had been a thunderstorm right above my tent. My GCSE physics was telling me what a bad idea it was to be the tallest thing around, pitched here by Louis XIV’s enormous ornamental boating lake, the Grand Canal.
It was a scenic spot though. The whole Gardens are, though ‘gardens’ is perhaps a technical term here, since the plants and landscaping do their very best to imitate plastic ornaments, as if organic shapes are somehow shameful. Gardeners wander round with ten-foot cookie-cutters, which they place around the privet and trim. Renaissance music is piped through hidden speakers and fountains carefully tinkle. Barely a leaf is out of place.
As a jewel of the Renaissance, and an expression of man’s complete control of the landscape, Versailles must have been magnificent and awe-inspiring (and the Palace itself still is). These days its geometry, order and muzak make it an overly gilt rival to Homebase.
Despite this, elements of wildness manage to creep in. If you pause by the gleaming statues, you realise these are scenes of sex, murder and betrayal hidden beneath – the vicarious Tarantino thrills of the Sun King’s court. A slippery rat lives by the café, children don’t know the rules and flustered staff blow their whistles.
At night the tourists and sparrows return to roost, the muzak fades when the fireworks stop, and the wild things are free to roam. The mosquitoes emerge from the standing pools in the relandscaped woods. The thunder, presumably too polite to speak during the day, lets off steam. Badgers (or wolves?) crunch amongst the trees.
At 6.30am I strike camp. I swim in the Grand Canal, still hot from the day before. This is an uncommon moment of peace in a place that teems with 6 million visitors a year.