Friday, 22 June 2012: l'Aigle to Paris Charles De Gaulle via Versailles and a very long tunnel
Written 20 July 2012
Breakfast at the Dauphin was lovely, with crisp baguettes, croissants kept in a little warmer, and ceramic pots of organic yogurt, but perhaps the most picturesque thing about it was this magnificent old stove, on which part of the buffet was laid out. I don't know whether the breakfast room had been the kitchen at some point or whether they moved the stove into it for the purpose, but I'd sure like to have a monster like that to cook on!
To maximize our time at Versailles, we headed strait there; in fact the route we took out of l'Aigle passed within a mile or two of it. I remembered huge parking lots right in front of the gates, so we just followed the signs to the chateau, and sure enough, huge parking lots. We acquired time ticket from the dispenser at the entrance to the parking area and found a space right away, though several hundred yards from the main entrance.
In the left-hand photo, showing CJ hiking toward the front gate, we've already cleared the parking lot. At this point, in the outer courtyard, we're already between the side wings of the palace but still have a good ways to go to reach the gates(visible as a golden railing at about the level of CJ's head) to the inner courtyard.
In the right-hand photo, we're looking back toward the gate from the inner courtyard. This iron gate and railing had disappeared (torn down at the time of the revolution and probably scavanged for its metal), but a few years ago, it was restored and regilded, to impressive effect. The modern shed at the left-hand end of the railing, just below the four pillars, is a temporary welcome center for groups, while the regular one is renovated. The green patch above and to the right of CJ's head is a painted scrim concealing scaffolding (more renovations).
We stood in line for a while to buy tickets to go inside the palace (touring the gardens and Marie Antoinette's hamlet, where she played at being a shepherdess, is free and I don't remember any problem getting into the large or small trianons, though I don't remember whether they charged admission), but the entire line was indoors and convenient to the restrooms.
By the time we got our tickets, it was lunchtime, but rather than wasting time trekking out through the courtyards again to apply the 100-yard rule, we just went to the palace's in-house snack bar. It was supposed to have a real restaurant, too, but that was closed. The snack bar was a cross between a scramble buffet and a cafeteria line. The queue moved slowly past refrigerator cases from which we could choose sandwiches, drinks, and salads before arriving at a whole row of cashiers, next to each of which was a cafeteria-style array of desserts and a few other items.
I was able to get my favorite French sandwich—butter and raw ham on a baguette—a very so-so pasta salad, and a pain au raisins. David got boiled ham and the thick custard pie you can see in the background. CJ had a wrap of some sort, tabouleh, and a big slice of pear tart.
Lunch out of the way, we shouldered our audioguides and tackled the palace. The first thing you see as you enter is the chapel (the tallest structure in the photo of CJ in the outer courtyard). You can't go in, but you get to look in at ground level then, later in the tour, again directly above at second-floor level. That's where I got this photo of a small portion of the chapel ceiling.
The crowds were large (although not like the ones around the Mona Lisa) and the viewing area into the chapel was small, hence the crooked photo. I had to hold the camera over my head and shoot blind.
The tour then led through a long series of rooms documenting the history of the palace. Each one presented a table-top scale model of a stage in its construction.
At the left is a relatively early stage, when the palace was only very large and the stable and guest blocks were separated from it. At the right is a later stage, where, as you can see, it had grown. The chapel stands out clearly, still the tallest part of the structure.
These rooms also displayed paintings, among which was this impressive portrayal of the palace itself (the artist probably had to use a tethered balloon to make sketches of this view. Beyond the palace, you can see the "Grand Canal," a very long, broad waterway on which the court used to have boating parties and races. Halfway down its length, it is crossed at right angles by another waterway almost as long.
Among the art works was this model for the monumental equestrian statue of Louis XIV that stands at the bottom of the outer courtyard, many other paintings, and a family tree of the Bourbon monarchs.
Farther along was a cutaway model of the palace's full-size theatre.
Next came a series of furnished and semifurnished rooms dislaying not the original furniture and fabrics (which have long since perished—the palace was essentially a ruin for a good while and housed squatters) but period pieces and reconstructions (some of the tapestries and fabrics were made by the original studios from the original patterns, like the Gobelins tapestry works in Paris or the silkweavers of Lyon).
The left-hand photo shows a set table, and the right-hand one a closeup of one of its elaborately folded napkins.
In addition to the furnishings, many of the rooms displayed works of art, some of the period of the palace, like these barbary apes mounted on goats, and some definitely not, like these four-foot crustaceans.
As you can probably gather from my choice of things to photograph, I often found the art more interesting than the furniture. Some of the itms were new, and I remembered others from our previous trip in 2005.
I liked this pair of lions, clad in skin-tight lace doilies, but my favorite was these magnificent monumental high-heeled shoes constructed entirely of shiny stainless-steel pots and pans and their lids and dislayed, of all places, in the famous mirror gallery.
When we were here in 2005, only a small portion of the mirror gallery was open. I was glad finally to be able to see all of it, but they didn't resilver the mirrors in the renovation process, so they were all a little dull. The place must have been something when all those mirrors were new and fully shiny, especially when the west windows facing them (one of which you can see reflected to the right of the shoes) were lit with the afternoon sun.
Finally, here are CJ and David, lending scale to the view down a marble-floored gallery.
On the right is the real statue of Louis, on the way back to our car, which was parked just inside the tree line at about 7 o'clock in the large open space in front of the palace in the painting above. Getting out of the parking lot took forever, and seriously frayed David's nerves. To get out, you had to take your ticket to one of the machines by the entrance, pay by the hour, then hike back to your car, and on the way out, stick the validated ticket into another machine to open the gate. David wound up making that hike half a dozen times. First, like a dunce, I left the ticket in the car, so he had to walk to it with us, then back to the entrance. Then all but one of the machines were broken, the remaining one wouldn't take our American credit card, and he didn't have enough change to cover the fee; the attendant who was supposed to be on duty was nowhere to be found. He came back for change, but we didn't have enough among us. When the attendant finally showed up, there was a long line for his attention.
Meanwhile, though, CJ and I had lots of time to study the map of greater Paris that I had acquired for the purpose in Avranches and to plot a route to the airport, which was just about directly across Paris from us. No way we were going to drive through the city, so we studied by-pass possibilities. It was beginning to look as though you couldn't get there from Versailles without taking the slightly longer southern route, when I spotted the tiny dotted lines (good thing I'd had my contact prescription updated). By studying route numbers and painstakingly tracing the tiny dotted lines through a number of towns and villages, I verified that, just a couple of miles east of where we would rejoin the highway, a freeway plunged underground, passed under half a dozen towns, and reemerged 12 km later to join a freeway that would take us right to Charles De Gaulle!
So when David finally returned, hot, dusty, footsore, and exasperated, with a validated ticket, we told him don't worry, we've got it scoped out, just turn wherever we tell you. He faithfully did, and it worked. The tunnel was so long it actually had underground interchanges with other highways (!); it even passed almost under Bougival, where so many of the impressionists hung out. Strangely, this tunnel does not seem to have a name!
Once back above ground, we passed through a whole series of smaller tunnels , picked up signs directing us to the airport, and proceeded without any great difficulty to the familiar Europcars rental-car return. Once there, we had to wait while they reprinted our contract, this time with our correct names and addresses (apparently, in Rouen, we were issued a car originally reserved for some woman who lives in Canada, so our contract showed her name but our address, and the "second driver" section listed David's name at her address). Then, rather than set off in search of the small subway system that was rumored to serve our hotel, we just caught a cab at the nearby stand. The driver was unaware of the existence of an Ibis airport hotel, but a brief consultation with a colleague set him straight. It wasn't far—we could actually see the terminal from the window of our hotel room.
It was definitely the largest Ibis I'd ever seen. It included a breakfast room with three identical full-size buffets, two bars/snack bars, and two restaurants. The food didn't look inspiring, so while David and CJ rested up, I set out to survey the offerings at the more upscale Novotel next door and and Hilton across the parking lot. The Hilton seemed the best bet, so come the dinner hour, we accordingly strolled over there.
The lawns around the hotels were home to many rabbits. We spotted this one on the way to dinner.
The restaurant seemed mainly set up around a not-very-prepossessing hot and cold buffet, but the menu I had read in the lobby was, in fact available, so for our last French we ignored the buffet. We all started with the eggs "meurette style." David and CJ seemed unimpressed, but I thought it was the second best version of eggs meurette I'd ever had (after the fantastic one David had at La Mercière in Lyon last year. All those little yellowish things in the rich beef sauce are tender, sweet, braised pearl onions!
For the main course, both David and CJ ordered the duck confit and pronounced it entirely up to par.
I ordered the lentils with pork chine, spare ribs, and Montbeliard sausage. I'm assuming that the two large pink slices of tender braised cured pork loin were the "chine" and the slice of streaky-bacon-like stuff was the "spare rib." The sausage was clearly the sausage. All were excellent, and the tender, flavorful lentils had been stewed with lots more finely diced bacon, onions, and carrot. Yummy.
For dessert, after a long discussion and a trip to the kitchen by our trainee waiter, I odered caramel ice cream for dessert, then got two scoops of caramel and two scoops of black currant sorbet. Whatever.
CJ ordered the "café gourmand" (a new thing many restaurants are offering—coffee with two or three minidesserts), and we specified that she was allergic to nuts (and listed all the kinds, just in case he thought we only meant walnuts). The waiter brought it, decorated with macaroons! When we pointed out that the macaroons were made of almond paste, he apologized, took it away, and this time apparently actually consulted the chef, as he'd said he would, learned that every single dessert on the menu, except the sorbets and some of the ice creams, contained nuts, so CJ got unadorned assorted fresh berries with her coffee.
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