Take a Tour Inside the Restricted Passages of Versailles
We know the Palace of Versailles as the iconic French castle — immortalized in pop culture as Marie Antoinette's gilded stomping ground for lavish parties, fashion debuts and other debaucheries.
The landmark, which began as a smaller hunting lodge, saw the reign of four kings, which spanned more than a century. While French historians and locals smirk at the sensationalized rumors behind Château du Versailles and its royal occupants, the site is not without its secrets and controversies.
The kings' mistresses (Louis XIII – Louis XV) are portrayed as outcasts in modern films like Sophia Coppola's, Marie Antoinette. In reality, they had their own luxury apartment in the palace, fit with a private stairway the king could discreetly access.
Marie Antoinette would often retreat to Petit Trianon, her private home a few minutes from the main palace. There, she would lounge in a pastel blue salon with sliding walls that could be lowered for sunlight, and raised to prevent her fans or enemies from snooping.
We were allowed to explore the prohibited areas of Versailles, along with historian and research director, Mathieu Da Vinha. Da Vinha gave us the scoop on the more confidential, dark details of this historic gem.
The Stairway of Murder
In the 1700s, a former monk and servant at Versailles attempted to stab and kill King Louis XV on this stairwell. He had entered a door that led to the front courtyard of the palace — an area where the general public was allowed to congregate. The King's thick winter coat prevented knife injuries and saved his life. The servant was put to death by being tortured and having liquid metal poured into his wounds.
Mistress Du Barry's Apartment
Madame Du Barry was a mistress to many during her lifetime, but was also a well-known supporter of the arts. Louis XV was infatuated and gifted her with exorbitant jewelry and clothing. This hand in excessive spending eventually led to her execution by guillotine, following the French Revolution. During her role as mistress, she lived in a luxury apartment in the palace fitted with a library and views of the main courtyard. This was the hidden door and stairway that connected the King's quarters to her room. She wasn't allowed in the King's bedroom, so appointments were set to meet in hers.
The Anti-Mistress Gate
King Louis XVI, son of Louis XV and husband to Marie Antoinette, was said to be the only king who didn't engage in extramarital affairs. He decided to prove this and make a bold statement by installing a sharp-pronged metal gate in the middle of the stairway that once served as his grandfather's cheating route.
The Education Rooms
Louis XVI, more of a shy intellect than socialite, became interested in science, geography, and key crafting at a young age. He would later become known for his locksmith talents. He likely inherited this trait from his father, Louis XV, who was also interested in the natural sciences, medicine, and printing presses. This room served as a private space to research, study, and experiment during their childhood and adulthood.
Marie Antoinette's Moving Mirrors
The Petit Trianon was originally built for kings' mistresses and was once occupied by the controversial Madame Du Barry. When Louis XVI became king, he gave the smaller, tranquil residence to his wife, Marie Antoinette. Marie would take refuge there often to escape the pressures and formalities of the palace. She wanted the home as private and casual as her era would allow. This included a boudoir with moving wall panels that could slide up or down, depending on how discreet the queen needed to be.
The King's Library
French Kings and Queen had two sets of residences at Versailles. State apartments were areas where the general public could visit, including bedrooms, although the king didn't actually sleep there. Private apartments are where royalty spent their off-duty hours and led more normal lives. This was Louis XVI's private library and office, where his love of geography is evident. According to Da Vinha, the king would use this telescope to watch those entering the palace and socializing in the front court.
The Maids' Quarters
While the kings' mistresses lived in opulence, their servants slept in rooms barely large enough to walk around in. The servants also had maids of their own, who slept in cubbyholes in the wall within the same room. In a residence with plenty of room to spare, it's one of the grim details of daily palace life.
The King's Water Closet
Considered one of the most beautiful rooms in the Palace, according to Da Vinha, this is actually King Louis XVI's private wardrobe den and bathroom. An 18th century-style toilet is behind a hidden door in the wall. The room has floor-to-ceiling gold detail and elements of the king's love for geography and science can be seen in symbols along the walls.
The Private Courtyard
This outdoor space served as a private meeting point for Louis XV and Madame Du Barry, and is one of the more charming areas of Versailles. The site's origin as a smaller lodge can be felt here and the kings' love of hunting is also evident. It's easy to imagine the beginnings of a romantic affair or an off-the-record political conversation taking place on these open-air terraces — far away from the stiff complexities of the Palace.