Beyond the formal gardens and fountains of Louis XIV's palace lies untouched countryside with a transformative magic. Joan Juliet Buck pedals her way through history
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.
At the end of the Allée de Bally is virgin countryside: fields of wildflowers as far as the eye can see. Pearl dives into the flowers and jumps through the high grass like a flying fish, appearing and vanishing in a feathery arc of gray fur. The dog has caught my bliss.
We head down through a field that ends in 17th- century farm buildings. Just beyond a tall wall is the Ferme de Gally, where children can pet goats and learn all about aubergines, and one summer I spent so long in a high corn maze that at 6 p.m., I found the door in the wall locked and was condemned to pedal along the side of a highway on the Peruvian's worst bike.
Incongruous little biplanes from the 1920's sputter through the sky, rising from a nameless airfield. As we ride across the far edge of the Grand Canal, the long palace of Versailles shimmering large in the distance, we come across two beautiful houses and another farm.
"I want a billionaire so I can have all this!" Elizabeth shouts from her bike.
"I am grateful to the Revolution because all this is already mine!!" I shout back.
Pedaling furiously along the last, southern edge of the Grand Canal, we arrive at the gates that separate Le Nôtre's gardens from the larger park, ride through them and around the Bassin d'Apollon, and come to rest at the shack where I always buy my third bottle of mineral water. "Gift shop?" asks Elizabeth hopefully. Miniature reproductions of Versailles clocks and tiny ornate slippers rendered in painted resin have indeed joined the postcards and the ice cream. A last desperate effort of thigh muscles returns us to the Peruvian, who hands back my driver's license and takes $34 for four hours for two. Pearl drags her tail behind us to the Trianon Palace hotel, which sits just outside the Grille de la Reine. We stagger into the bar, fall onto a sofa, and order an Eloise feast of smoked salmon and rare beef with horseradish and, s'il vous plaît, de l'eau pour le chien.
Joan Juliet Buck is the TV critic for Vogue.
WHEN TO GO
The park is glorious just about any time of the year. On weekdays it is practically empty.
From Paris, take the RER train (to the Versailles Rive Gauche station) or a taxi—which costs $60$75, but be warned: it is not always easy to get a cab back to Paris.
WHERE TO RENT BIKES
ASTEL (33-1/39-66-97-66) runs three rental stands in the park. Our favorite is at Grille de la Reine.
WHERE TO STAY
Trianon Palace & Spa
Choose a room overlooking the palace if you want secondhand son et lumière. There's a pool and a full spa in the basement. 1 Blvd. de la Reine; 33-1/30-84-50-00; www.starwood.com; doubles from $310.
WHERE TO EAT
La Brasserie du Théâtre
An authentic brasserie. 15 Rue des Reservoirs; 33-1/39-50-03-21; lunch for two $70.
A restaurant/café on the Grand Canal. 33-1/39-51-41-58; lunch for two $62.
Les Trois Marches
The Trianon hotel's restaurant has a "Marie- Antoinette" menu on weekdays. Blvd. de la Reine; 33-1/39-50-13-21; lunch for two $225.
Situated beside the Grand Canal in the Gardens of Versailles, this traditional French restaurant is a popular spot for lunch after a tour of the palace. Established in 1895, the brasserie retains its Belle Époque style with white-clothed tables, vintage French posters, and a curved wooden bar. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide views of the gardens, as does the open-air terrace decorated with hanging flower baskets. In addition to several prix fixe options—here called “greedy menus”—the restaurant also serves à la carte dishes like the classic boeuf bourguignonne, and roasted salmon with butter sauce.
La Brasserie du Théâtre
Although famed eating establishments abound around Versailles, La Brasserie du Théâtre is a classic spot for French fare and reliable service. The brasserie is situated at the west end of Versailles, near Neptune’s fountain, in a 19th-century building right next to Le Théâtre Montansier. While Belle Epoque-era globes glow and gilt mirrors make the dining room seem bigger, this brasserie can feel intimate with tight tables. Still, the Flo chain of brasseries presents a menu of French classics such as steak tartare as well as more contemporary dishes like pan-seared scallops atop mushroom risotto.
Gordon Ramsay au Trianon (formerly Les Trois Marches)
Gordon Ramsay au Trianon restaurant is located within the Trianon Palace, a Waldorf Astoria hotel that overlooks the magnificent Château de Versailles grounds. This Michelin two-starred restaurant’s white walls, tall windows and high ceiling have detailed molding everywhere, and the chandeliers resemble cascades of light. Chef de cuisine Simone Zanoni, who has worked in Gordon Ramsay restaurants since 1997, and his team create French dishes such as the signature ravioli of langoustines and royal pigeon from Bresse. Both an à la carte and tasting menu are available, and the wine list includes numerous Burgundy wines.
Trianon Palace Versailles, A Waldorf Astoria Hotel
The majestic 1910 hotel—which recently underwent a $30-million renovation—has grand public spaces and stately rooms filled with Louis XVI-style furniture. The 199-room hotel retains all of the grandeur of it's heyday, thanks to the crystal chandeliers, Roman arches, and Italian marble floors. The hotel is also a historic site: the Treaty of Versailles was drawn up in its Clemenceau Ballroom in 1919. Thought the muted palette of olive, taupe, and beige, and a stellar spa are welcome updates.