We visit the queen’s private marble-floored bathroom, which she never got a chance to use: It was completed in 1788, just before the revolution. “Private” in Versailles, of course, is a relative term: The bathroom is just off the chateau’s marble courtyard. The courtyard, overlooked by the king’s balcony, is deserted this summer evening bar some swooping swallows. This is how the world’s mightiest family should have lived, in peace and quiet.
The next day we have a private tour of Versailles’ royal mansions: Louis XIV’s Grand Trianon, a place of male power, where centuries later President Charles de Gaulle would receive guests, and the Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette’s jolly home-from-home where she liked to flee the prison-like rules of court. (The notion that she played the shepherdess there is, says the guide, as much a myth as that she ever said, “Let them eat cake.”) The two Trianons are open to hotel guests in the morning, before public opening times.
Afterwards two hotel staff in 18th-century footmen’s gear drive us in a Mercedes van to a bucolic picnic spot nearby, where they set a table for us and unpack our hamper: Bottle of rose, madeleines with honey jam, oeuf parfait and so on. By this time, we have given up asking whether they are hot in their outfits.
Almost any member of our hotel staff can reel off erudite off-the-cuff discourses about Versailles history, but it’s invariably told from the point of view of Marie Antoinette, and never, say, of her chambermaid. You end up identifying with the queen, casting her as the heroine of the story. The whole feel of the Grand Controle is a wishing-away of 1789, whereas half the country outside the gates is a monument to 1789.
Two days in, I feel like a semi-invalid, short of sleep because of incessant drinking and Fear Of Missing Out on our unending range of luxury experiences. Of course, I am the perfect victim. I observe in our fellow guests, genuine 0.1 percenters, that luxury experiences are a bit like heroin: After you have had a certain number of hits, an ever greater dose is required to achieve a high.
My wife and I recover in the hotel spa, where I drift off during a 90-minute massage and awake feeling rejuvenated, though I have always found that the best anti-ageing device is to use a byline photograph from 2009. In the afternoon, a macaroon tree is delivered to our room. If I were a true 0.1 percenter, I might carp that the service wasn’t always hyperefficient. However, that must be normal so soon after opening, and the staff are unfailingly friendly and generous. In fact, this is the only place in France where I have ever felt that the customer was king.
Happily, we manage to leave without breaking the mirror with 400-year-old gilt decorations in our room. I arrive home wondering: Are we about to relive 1789 now, with France’s gilets jaunes protesters as the new sans-culottes? Is Versailles an omen for our time, with the Grand Controle offering costume parties where guests can literally dress up as Marie Antoinette? Well, if 1789 is coming up, then I imagine hedge-funders on the scaffold mentally totting up their Ducasse dinners, and thinking, “It was worth it.”
Simon Kuper was a guest of Airelles Chateau de Versailles, Le Grand Controle. Double rooms cost from €1,938 including a dedicated butler, daily tours of Chateau de Versailles and the Trianon, access to the Palace grounds – including use of boats and golf carts, and breakfast, afternoon tea and minibar
By Simon Kuper © 2021 The Financial Times