*Post by Nic and Anto depending on who was awake*
The day has come when we finally get to do our bike tour to Versailles – we had been looking at options for a Versailles visit for a while and had stumbled across Fat Tire Bike Tours (an American company but we won’t hold that against them, right..). They specialise in bike tours, as the name may suggest. As neither of the adults involved have a great love for overly touristy, commercial tours we held out the hope that a tour that involved at least a modicum of physical effort might weed out some of the more annoying participants.
The morning started like most in Paris with some nice fresh coffee, bread and a serve of healthy eggs to fuel what we expected will be a day of some effort. Before we knew it we were about 10 minutes past when we wanted to have left the apartment – Miss A was being ‘just oh. so. helpful’ which most mornings wouldn’t have been an issue… Anyway we made it down to our ‘local’ subway (about 40m from our apartments front door) – the tour departed from an office over near the Australian embassy (a place we have become familiar with) – for which there are a ton of Metro options, all of which require at least one change. Working out which was likely to be the best involved a fair amount of guesswork.
Like most public transport systems the Paris metro’s run on a reduced schedule on Sundays – this means you can wait for up to 8-10 minutes for a train at times (*please* Action buses take note). This means that although you have to allow some additional time it’s still not worth your effort to actually look at a schedule – just turning up and waiting almost always works out. As it turns out today’s trip involved about 4 minutes of waiting and a fairly quick run between the lines to try and make up the time we had devoted to Astrid wrangling. Sadly between just not leaving enough metro time, GPS slowness (for some reason the GPS seems to have a hard time getting locked on when you are buried in buildings with a layer of thick cloud around) and Anto guessing the wrong walking direction we ended up about 5 minutes late for the tour check-in. We had just become the people on the tour that always show up late and annoy everyone from the start – not our preferred first impression.
Luckily everyone involved seemed fairly relaxed and friendly, our group consisted of an American guide, Justin (who seemed fairly generally un-American to us sensitive Aussie’s) an American couple over for about 6 days while the Husband was working, and an Australian chap who is in Paris on study leave for 6 months (Anto tried to not be horribly jealous at the concept of being paid to be here for 6 months..). We were assigned a couple of bikes, followed by performing quick last minute adjustments, including ensuring that Astrid fitted in her special seat and Nic making sure that she could still ride a bike after not being on one for possibly more than 3 years. A quick briefing was held about what we were to do for the day & covering off the tour operators philosophy of ‘taking the lane’ when riding on streets (the narrow streets make this even more important than in other places) – and then we were off and riding to the nearest RER train station (RER’s are bigger than metro’s but not long distance – probably the equivalent of Sydney’s trains). It was interesting to be back on a bike & rolling down the streets – you could cover fairly large distances quite quickly & seemingly it was actually easier to negotiate the intersections on a bike compared to wandering across the (ever unreliable) pedestrian crossings. After no practice riding before hitting the streets Nic nearly only fell over once as someone opened a car door into the bike lane and only cut off one member of our group, but stayed upright! Before we knew it we were at the RER station, and after a bit of juggling we got the bikes down through the ticket gates and onto the platform – just as our train was ready to leave. After a quick ‘heave’ to get the bikes onboard we sat down for the 15-20 minute train ride to Versailles.
Versailles is what we would consider a satellite city of Paris, being only about 16km from the center of Paris as the crow flies. However unlike most of the other surrounding cites / towns people who live in Versailles will say ‘I live in Versailles’ rather than ‘ I live in the Paris outskirts’. After getting off our RER train we had a quick ride to the huge Market held in a square that is filled with vendors and blocked off from cars twice a week. This was by far the biggest Market we had been to on the trip thus far – there was probably 40-60 ‘outside’ temporary stands (most of which were the size of a good sized fruit and vegie shop back home) additionally there were more permanent shops inside buildings off the square and continuing down the rather symmetrical streets that led out of the square. We had about 45 minutes to browse around and select our picnic lunch supplies. The market also contained a large poodle, and we did finally manage to get a photo of one!
Being by now oh-so-French we went about purchasing our food in the order of importance: Bread (and of course pastry) from the bakery down the road – which proved to be of excellent quality, wine just next door (wine with lunch combined with bikes – what could go wrong…), followed by cheese and some local butter, some freshly rotissaried chicken for the meat eaters and finally some fruit in case we starved to death – a highly unlikely occurrence. We packed our purchases up, with delicate items going on the back of the tour guides bike in a lovely wooden create he obtained somewhere at the markets. Then it was back on our bikes for the rather short run out to the Versailles Jardins – which had been reduced down to ‘only’ 2000 hectares over the years. We would stop our ride about every 5 minutes or so for a snippit of the history of both the place and the characters that led to it’s creation.
In a nutshell Versailles exists for a couple of reasons:
Louis XIV (the Sun King – a name he gave himself as he believed the world should revolve around him) was unusually a king who both wanted to run things and actually did so – apparently the standard at the time was the king was a rubber stamp for a team of ‘advisors’ who actually ran the country.
Louis was irritated with the Nobility running around behind the royalty’s back conspiring and generally being annoying – he wanted to put them all somewhere he could keep an eye on them.
So the obvious solution was to move the ‘court’ and the seat of power out of the murky Paris where the nobility had access to people who might like to conspire against the crown and put them ‘in the country’ where you could dole out ‘chores’ based on a complex system of privilege to keep them busy and out of your hair.
Versailles took over 40 years to be originally built and planted out (mostly by the Army apparently) partially because the Army kept on being taken off the project to go invade somewhere. At this point in history France pretty much ruled the known world, or at least the bits anyone cared about. The town remained the seat of government until the pesty commoners got more than a little fed up and started the French Revolution – interestingly in part due to the combination of failed crops, which made bread (the staple food of the day) expensive and the troops returning from ‘helping’ the United States overthrow British Sovereign rule, which the French mostly did to annoy the British. Apparently the returning troops were slightly miffed that a) they were paying a vast fortune in taxes the nobility didn’t have to and b) couldn’t actually afford to eat. One thing led to another (as they do) and before you know it there was some heads un-ceremoniously removed from bodies and paraded around the streets. This fairly rapidly escalated to the King and Queen being put under house arrest at a Paris castle (since it is somewhat unseemly to directly attack your King) before they were caught a few years later trying to escape and raise a pro-monarchy European army – the European monarchy were quite intertwined and tended to stick together in such matters as ensuring the commoners didn’t run around beheading people. Apparently this was pretty much the last straw and both the King and Queen ended up falling victim to the guillotine.
Anyway history out of the way we rode down to Marie-Antoinette’s ‘play farm’ where she had a rural village created so she could get away from the oppressive nature of court life and pretend to be a commoner – although not too many commoners had all their animals freshly washed before they touched them… Apparently her dislike for court life contributed to her dislike by the French commoners who expected the nobility to ‘do their job’ – the only worse thing was that after she was married at 14 it took her a bit over 7 years to have a child – given this was pretty much her only job her (public) performance review wasn’t all that good. There is a theory that her failure to produce a child may have more to do with her husband, who was unusual in not having any recorded mistresses (Louis the XV reportedly had about 300) – apparently after a bit of a frank discussion with Marie’s brother (and wouldn’t that have been uncomfortable for all concerned) children were produced at a fairly good rate. We rode past Petit Trianon and the Grand Trianon. Petit Trianon was originally where the chief mistress (yes that’s an official title) of one of the Louis’ originally lived. Grand Trianon was used by several important people, even as recently as the 20th Century when Charles De Gaulle (French President) lived there.
We proceeded through the gardens until eventually we ended up at the end of a 1.67km long man made lake (when you are king apparently you can just ‘make’ huge lakes. The sun had come out & we had a lovely picnic on the banks – with Astrid being rather charming, somehow ending up with most of our tour guides Mandarin. As we were in France we had the traditional glass (or two) of wine with lunch – hoping that it wouldn’t affect our riding ability too much. After a very pleasant lunch it was time to get back on our steeds and continue around the lake – with a goal of eventually arriving at the ‘main’ chateau for a wander around on foot. There were numerous photo opportunities – being on a bike meant we could stop, take a photo and catch up without annoying the rest of the group.
Nic taking over here….. Anto spent way too much late night blogging time rabbiting on about French history and I’m too tired to check whether what he has written is right, but it sound closeish at any rate. there was some more stuff and some other King Louis’ in there but blah, blah, French revolution and so on…… all very interesting but back to our tour…….. Seriously, it is very interesting and great to see the places were a lot of important events occurred.
So I would like to note at this point that I still hadn’t fallen off my bike! Riding with the camera bag attached to the back of the bike, the backpack (full of the copious amounts of food we bought at the markets, and several wine bottles) on my back and the camera (with heavy wide angle lens on) slung over my shoulder so I could take photos on the go. I also managed all of this while riding under the influence of French wine. I still did not fall off. Anto was also noted to say that my riding improved after I had 2(ish) glasses of wine. I guess I didn’t care about falling off any more and in hero like ways picked up quite a bit of speed at times. I’ll also point at that Astrid loved the bike! She was giggling and having a wonderful time and loved it as I rode past her. It was the first time she had ever been in a bike seat and was doing really well.
So the lakes in the gardens are spectacular. Lots of glorious photos were taken and we enjoyed our riding. It was definitely the best way to get around and the only way to see the whole Versailles property in a day. It as populated by joggers and other bikers and a lovely sunny (if cool day). We did ride up a couple of ‘hills’ (OK slight inclines) and my legs didn’t appreciate that, but otherwise it was fun.
Astrid grew tired and eventually fell asleep. She kept slumping over in her seat, despite our best efforts to keep her upright and even slept through quite a bit of riding, while leaning totally sideways out of her seat. It looked mighty uncomfy but she didn’t seem to notice.
We eventually found our way around to the Versailles Chateau and left our bikes with Justin and headed inside. First through a security check, which was mostly to ensure all the food and wine stayed in the ‘compulsory bag check in’. Anto’s pocked knife went through unscathed…. priorities? Our ticket included an audio guide but in typical Nic and Anto style we decided the line was too long to pick it up so we just went ahead without it. The Chateau is enormous and with a small child, who was rapidly getting tired and cranky, we didn’t want to dilly-dally.
The Chateau was also packed with large tour groups, who we like to avoid. Most of the rooms are very large and it wasn’t hard to get around. There is also a ‘route’ to walk so you couldn’t really get lost. We marvelled at the huge rooms, ornate ceiling art, extensive use of gold (and more gold), and enormous paintings. Some of the paintings did make us wonder how much ‘selective editing’ of history went on….
The hall of mirrors was fantastic – gorgeous chandeliers and lovely views over the whole estate. The royal bedrooms seemed like popular exhibits and were interesting to look at, but very crowded so we just had a quick look and moved onto the bigger more extensive rooms.
Here is a model of the Versailles estate (in one of the lower level rooms) so you can see some of the area we covered on our bikes.
After about an hour, Astrid had enough Palace touring, and we had witnessed the grandeur of the Palace (which was definitely worth seeing, totally spectacular), so we headed out into the ‘formal’ gardens just in front of the Palace. These were in the formal French style, and fun to walk around. It was now bitterly cold and the wind had come up, so we walked around for about half an hour and enjoyed taking some photos, then decided to head back out the front.
Our bags retrieved, we still had half an hour before our tour group met up again so we wandered down through the town into a nearby street and found an Italian cafe for some hot coffees to warm up. Our cheapest coffee yet in Paris (2 for 5 Euro!) and blindingly hot. Feeling warmer, but weary, we headed back to the bikes, met the others and jumped back on the bikes. It appears other members of the group got stuck in between the masses of huge tour groups and didn’t get to see much but got quite annoyed, so we were right to push through and doing a flying tour, it appears. The ride back through the town of Versailles to the train station was fun, but much colder. We made it through unscathed (Nic still upright on bike) and managed to get our bikes onto the correct train. It was hard with 2 bikes and an Astrid, but luckily we had many people (including our guide) to help lug the bike up and down stairs, while I lugged an Astrid.
The train ride back to Champ de Mars station was painless and Astrid was keen to go back on the bike. Luckily we had one more short ride through the streets and back to the bike shop. Even tired and cold, she loved riding the streets with her dad and was giggling with glee as we sped through the Paris streets at dusk. Back at the shop we said goodbye to our fellow tour group members, our bikes and Justin (who was keen for a photo with Astrid) and headed back out on the metro to our apartment. I was quite tired after about 20km’s of riding and probably 6-8km’s of walking. Anto did better with the riding, being a biking veteran. Astrid had the easy job of the day. We all thoroughly enjoyed the tour though and it was definitely worth doing. Fat Tire Bike Tours were awesome and very patient with us lugging a little one around. They also provided great history and background on the tour. It was relaxed and fun and we wish we had time to do more of their tours.
Astrid safely in bed, the grown ups fed our sore muscles with the nights pastry treat of St Honore…… delicious choux pastry filled with custard and cream and covered in toffee. Not a bad way to end a really fun day!