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Friday, June 16, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Escaping the royal daze at Versailles

Seattle Times travel staff

Halfway through a tour of Versailles, the vast royal palace-turned-museum near Paris, I was ready to revolt.

Always an eager beaver when visiting museums, I had signed up with my teen daughter for a behind-the-scenes tour of part of the 700-room palace that's not open to the general public.

I thought a tour would give us a better sense of daily life in the 17th-century palace, Europe's grandest, where rooms are festooned with chandeliers, gilt and mirrors. And I thought we'd get a deeper understanding of the history of the place where kings and queens cavorted and where the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919 to end World War I.

Yet somehow, because of my faltering French and the crush of people at the tour desk, I landed us on a special two-hour tour that focused on architectural details.

Our guide, a dauntingly elegant and erudite Frenchwoman, took a handful of tourists behind closed doors to a warren of small rooms, ornately decorated but mostly empty of furniture. We went at a snail's pace as she launched into elaborate descriptions in each room, in English and French, of everything from ceiling moldings to parquet floors.

After half the tour, my mind was mush. I looked at my 15-year-old, listening politely but almost asleep on her feet.

This wasn't the way to spend our short time in Paris. I sidled over to my daughter and hissed, "Let's make a break for it."

Information


Visiting Versailles: Get details at the palace Web site, www.chateauversailles.fr/en/

To beat the long ticket lines, get a one-day Versailles pass (click on the link in the Web site) in advance. Or get a multiday Paris Museum Pass, which includes admission to Versailles. Get information at www.parismuseumpass.fr/; it can be bought at museums and tourism offices in Paris or online at www.conciergerie.com

Getting there : Versailles is about a half-hour ride from central Paris on the RER-C suburban train.

"Really?" she whispered, looking delighted, while the guide gave us a don't-talk-in-class glare. As she turned to take her flock into the next room, we slipped away, and a sympathetic security guard led us out of the maze of rooms.

Back in the main part of the palace, I consulted my guidebook; there was much more I planned for us to see. But as my daughter looked yearningly out a window to Versailles' sun-drenched gardens, I realized it was time to dump my sightseeing agenda and head to the gardens. And, as often happens on trips, that change of plans gave us some of our best memories of our Paris visit.

The gardens of Versailles are breathtaking — 250 acres of greenery, from elegant formal gardens to a kitchen plot, dotted with fountains, statues and pavilions. But what caught my daughter's eye was the horse-drawn carriage that took tourists for a ride around part of the gardens on graveled paths.

As my daughter patted the sturdy horse, I asked the driver the price: $70 for a 45-minute ride. Too expensive, I declared. As we walked away, she crestfallen, an elderly French couple approached us. Would we share the carriage with them? It could hold four people, and they'd like to split the price.

So off we went, on a ride that turned out to be as delightful for its conversation as its views.

The kindly couple, talking slowly because of my far-from-fluent French, told us of their life in French Guiana, a little outpost of France on South America's northeast coast. Providing an impromptu geography lesson, he drew my daughter a map of their homeland. His wife pulled out photos of their grandchildren. From family, we soon moved on to talk of France and the United States, of politics and war.

Our carriage driver soon joined in the conversation, roundly condemning all presidents, French and American. With political wisdom dispensed, he talked of the palace gardens, of King Louis XIV, the all-powerful "Sun King" who ruled for more than 70 years and turned Versailles into the spectacular royal palace in the late 1600s.

Our little group was so jolly that the driver extended our ride, taking us clip-clopping along the paths for an extra half-hour.

At the end of our carriage ride, we stood and chatted some more, petted the docile horse and hugged goodbye.

Now that was a tour worth taking.

Kristin Jackson: 206-464-2271 or kjackson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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