Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Biking in Versailles

Benny and I in front of the Grand Canal.

Big day today, for today we go to Versailles. I woke up pretty jazzed at 5:30 a.m. and couldn’t go back to sleep. I was excited about leaving Paris for the day, excited about touring a sight I hadn’t seen before, and this wasn’t just a sight, it was Versailles, the extravagant palace of Louis XIV, the Sun King. Marie Antoinette and Louis VI lived there too, and were dragged from Versailles back to Paris by a mob during the French Revolution where they were later executed.

Versailles holds a vital place in French history. It was the center of political power, not Paris, from 1682 to 1789. Louis XIV transformed it from a hunting lodge to an opulent palace. It remains the symbol of the ancien regimewhere Marie Antoinette played at being a milkmaid with porcelain pails embossed with her crest.

So I just couldn’t wait to see it for the first time, and prowled our tiny studio until it was time to wake Benny and wheedle him into dressing and eating breakfast. “No,” I repeated. “Versailles isn’t just a museum. We’ll get to ride bikes.” 

Well, those were the magic words, because Benny perked right up and agreed to walk through the Tuilleries Gardens to the Seine, then cross the Pont Royal to the Museum d’Orsay. (“No Benny, we’re not going into this museum.”) The train station to Versailles, actually a suburban rail line — rather like BART for Paris — was in front of the Orsay. 

The train was feeling kind of Muni that morning, though. A small crowd of tourists gathered, milling around, looking at the departure boards and trying to buy tickets. The station attendant at the one open ticket window announced there were computer problems, pulled the window shade down, walked away, and didn’t return. But I didn’t even consider giving up — our museum passes were only good for Friday and there was no way I was going to Versailles on a Saturday. Finally, after multiple tries, I managed to buy three tickets and we ran for the 8:34 train. 

One of Italian artist Giuseppe Penone's tree sculptures in the
Versailles gardens, created to blur the boundaries between nature and art. 
We were dismayed to find a middling-long line, maybe 70 people, waiting in the courtyard. This was the ticket holders line, there was no escape, so we patiently shuffled along as Benny repeated, “Where are the bikes?” I had to break it to him that we were seeing the chateau first, before the tour groups arrived. (My pathological horror of tour groups really came through on this trip. You’d never guess that I’d traveled in one of those groups myself, with my own dorky red “Globus” bag.) Anyway, only a few giant buses were disgorging passengers, and I wanted to get through the chateau before the 10:22 senior group from Chantilly showed up.

We were just in time — soon after we arrived, the line just exploded from a lazy little winding worm to a giant python, growing fatter by the minute, stretching out past the front gate. The only amusement was watching people come up the harried French museum guy at the head of the line. The scene was repeated endlessly: 

Vistor: Where is the line for ticket holders?
Museum Guy: Zis iz the line.
V: No, for ticket holders.
MG: Zis! Zis iz the line!
V: (horrified) This line?
MG: Oui! This line!

Then the visitor would linger a bit, perhaps hoping the Museum Guy would change his mind, (“Mon Dieu! But of course, you can enter by this secret ticket-holder line!”) then trudge halfway to Paris to join the back of the line.

We entered the chateau before this scene had time to pall, shuffling through a series of rooms that brought to mind Prague’s Baroque cathedrals (and I thought those places had a lot of cherubs). Every square inch was covered with either crystal, gold gilt, Roman gods or Louis himself. Sometimes all four at once, with Louis as the God of War, wearing a gold helmet and a crystal spear. 

Benny had fun for a while identifying the various rooms: Ares, Hermes, Athena, Apollo, etc., but bikes were never far from his mind. We had audioguides this time and shuffled from treasure room to treasure room, simultaneously impressed and appalled. No wonder the French revolted.

Finally we took pity on Benny and headed outside. Ron and Benny sat in the sunshine while I bought souvenirs, then we walked through the gardens, eating lunch at a little outdoor cafe. We were a good half-hour ahead of the hordes, who were still gaping at Louie's bedroom, and the day was warm and sunny. We strolled over to the Neptune Gate to rent a bike, but alas! the bike rental booth was only open on weekends. Benny was devastated. "Let's go north," I suggested, thinking of the central square with a gift shop, restaurant and electric vehicle. "Maybe that bike booth is open."

Well, I felt like a hero when we got there, because the bike rental booth was doing brisk business, with waves of tourists wobbling off on their bikes, barely avoiding pedestrians. Benny's face when he saw the row of children's bikes was priceless.

Apollo Fountain.
I hadn't been on a bike in six years, so I did a little wobbling myself, but Ron wiped out first, hitting the dirt to avoid a car. For a time it looked like we'd have to leave the bikes and the garden and find a pharmacy. (The scrape was quite deep and bloody, and there were no first aid facilities at Versailles.) But Ron cleaned up the wound in the men's room and I wheedled a few bandages out of the nearby restaurant.

Then we headed off once more, taking two hours to circle the gardens and the Grand Canal. Benny was in heaven; the bike ride ranked right up there with the ferry trip, the Roman museum and the London Eye.

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