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Ride Through Versailles

Benoît Peverelli The author, Joan Juliet Buck, biking past Versaille's Grand Canal.

Photo: Benoît Peverelli

The past is another country, and it's the only place I ever want to go. When the air collects into soup at the bottom of the bowl that Paris sits in, and the lady in the market corrects my request for "two pieces of roast beef" to "two slices" with a withering look, and I become too weary to rise above the passive-aggressive subtext in every exchange, I flee to a place of total and utter bliss. It's 20 minutes away by cab and three-and-a-half centuries away in the past. When I edited Paris Vogue, my greatest and sometimes only pleasure consisted in bicycling through the vast park of Versailles. In the autumn, the overgrown allées of the former hunting grounds were bumpy with fallen horse chestnuts; in the winter, I raced around the endless perimeter of the Grand Canal to keep warm; and on summer evenings, I rocked my melancholy by the empty basins of stone fountains.

Grandiose and overwhelming, Versailles stands for everything pompous about France. In 1661, Louis XIV took over a marsh west of Paris to build the best palace in the world. He added the Trianon as a pocket palace where he could hang out and be a family man. Louis XV built the Petit Trianon for Madame de Pompadour, and Louis XVI created Le Hameau, a little farm of half-timbered cottages, for Marie-Antoinette. The Revolution trashed them all, and then for two centuries, punctilious curators reassembled the treasures while savant gardeners snipped and seeded the grounds. This year, Versailles is fashionable again, because of Sofia Coppola's movie, Marie Antoinette, which was filmed in its great rooms for the comparatively reasonable cost of $20,000 a day. The hordes of tourists trundling along the Hall of Mirrors will now ask where Kirsten Dunst sat to look at the roll of silk and exclaim, unforgettably, "Wow!"

The formal gardens and vistas of Le Nôtre are well-known and punishing to the feet, but Versailles has the unknown bounty of a magical, carefully tended 17th-century park, whose dimensions and details exceed the reach of any map or any guidebook. You can ride for hours without seeing a trace of today. It was meant to be experienced on horseback, and a bicycle is lower than a horse, but it never shies, bucks, or needs water, and when you look up as you pedal along, the carefully trimmed trees unfold in perfect symmetry above your head, and the subtle Pythagorean perfections of French ideals realign you into harmony.

This summer, I was working on a play in Paris for two months with Actors Studio director Elizabeth Kemp, living in a hovel, hauling bags full of shoes and props up and down the steep staircases of Montmartre. Elizabeth's dog, an elegant gray border collie named Pearl, desperately needed to herd some sheep. I rarely take anyone to my Versailles, but Elizabeth and Pearl were as town-worn as I was. On our first day off, we found a cabdriver who did not howl at the prospect of conveying a border collie to Versailles, and two tunnels, a bridge, and 25 minutes later we drew up to the gate called the Grille de la Reine, where you can rent large, sturdy old-fashioned bicycles.

In the park after six years away, I feel like a child released from boarding school. I check the wheels on our bikes before I give the Peruvian gentleman who runs the stand my driver's license so he knows we won't vanish. Pearl trots along next to Elizabeth while I set off to the right, down the long road where my legs and arms rediscover the effortless rhythms of the journey. Descendants of Marie-Antoinette's sheep graze just beyond a light wire fence. Despite Elizabeth's urging, Pearl does not recognize the sheep as sheep; summer-shorn and naked, they look faintly human. The Hameau is ahead of us, its Temple de l'Amour visible beyond the trees, but I make a sharp left at the end of the allée, into the avenue that goes past both Trianons. Trees planted in straight lines lead the eye to the Grand Canal. I pause to see the look on Elizabeth's face. Her eyes are wider than ever. "Just wait!!" I shout and speed off, down to the edge of the Grand Canal, where I veer right, as always. Here the trees race staccato on the left, the water is bounded by a white stone ledge just beyond the trees, and the woods on the right are dense with grass.

The first right turn on the cross-shaped canal leads to the side of the Grand Trianon. My parents and grandparents were mad enough, when I was a child, to rent a pink marble house in Le Vésinet, named Le Palais Rose and modeled after the Trianon, so that the real Trianon is an overscaled reminder of an overscaled childhood. But the temptation to do a grandiose memory lane number doesn't slow me down; we have to get to the fields. I ride past the Trianon's Fer à Cheval fountain and into the strange Allée de Bally, where the straight line of trees is suddenly brushed with long grasses, the shade is thicker, and strollers and other bikers immediately vanish, as if no one wanted to go that way. True, there is a round red-and-white sens interdit sign on a bollard at the entrance to the allée, but I do not go to Versailles to obey signs.

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