It is our 20th anniversary. “Let’s go to Paris,” Bruce suggests. “You’ve always wanted to share it with me.” He had visited the city several times, but only on business; I had vacationed with family and friends. “But not to Paris right away,” he continues. “Let’s go out to the countryside first.”
I think it a wonderful idea since we had spent the entire summer of 2012 in sweltering New York City. I make plans for the second week in September for two days in Versailles, a day in Giverny, a day in Auvers-sur-Oise, two days in the Loire Valley and the last four days in Paris. We want to follow in the path of artists: architect/painters Richard Mique and Hubert Robert creators of Marie-Antoinette’s Hamlet of the Queen; Impressionist painter Claude Monet’s home Giverny; artist Vincent Von Gough’s final residence the town of Auvers; inventor/artist Leonardo de Vinci’s last domain Chateau de Clos; Parisian designer/architect Charles Garnier’s Opera de Paris and French architect/designer Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre (House of Glass).
But little did I expect I will be going solo. An important business meeting comes up for Bruce at 4 pm on the afternoon we are to fly out from Kennedy. I am terribly disappointed and nervous since I haven’t travelled alone in many years. “You’ll be fine,” he reassures me. “I hope to meet you in Versailles before our two days are up. Not to worry. I bet you’ll have a great time. Let’s grab a cab to the airport.” At 9:15 p.m. I am taking my seat on a transatlantic flight from New York; at 11:15 a.m. I am in a cab on my way to Versailles.
I had been following articles about the renovations of the Trianon Palace Hotel, Versailles, built in 1907, for several years in the magazine Town and Country. It is the site where the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles were dictated in 1919. It is the jewel in the Waldorf=Astoria Collection. A majestic turn-of-the century white edifice, only 30 minutes by car from Paris, shimmers in the noon-day sun as my cab circles the driveway. Immediately, I am transported back in time.
The Staff at the Trianon is exceptional; nothing is too difficult or demanding for them; to please me is their task. “You look so sad,” Helene Duquait, Chief Concierge, announces on my arrival. “I promise your stay at the Trianon will make you smile. I give you my word.” Helene wears golden keys on the lapels of each side of her navy-blue suit jacket – Les Clefs d’Or. She is one of a small number of women honored for distinguished service by the Union Internationale des Concierges d’Hotels. Thirty to be exact. The association extends to over 40 countries with a membership of 3500.
As the arrival receptionist shows me to my suite, she proudly announces she has chosen it specifically for us. It is situated in a quiet corner on the third floor overlooking the three-acre centuries-old wooded park of the Chateau de Versailles. The rooms are chic and graciously appointed with a black and white deco color scheme accented by touches of gold and purple. As she pulls back the curtains, a pastoral scene of sheep napping under a weeping willow is displayed. A carte postale, I sigh, smiling. Helene was not kidding; hyperbole is definitely not her style.
Exhausted, I change into my hot-pink bathing suit and head down to the pool. An inviting azure tinted 200-square-meter indoor-heated swimming pool, reminiscent of the South of France, stretches before me. I am in heaven. A luxurious 2,800 square meter Guerlain Spa is also available to ease my stress. An array of immaculately dressed, uniformed beauty-personnel are posed to assist me. The Spa contains 11 treatment suites, a hammam (a Middle Eastern wet sauna) and a number of steams rooms. Forty-eight services for both men and women are available: massages, hand and foot therapies, facial and body treatments, as well as make-up applications and lessons. I never have to leave the hotel. But, Marie-Antoinette is calling...
I had visited Louis XIV’s Chateau years before with a college chum as part of our European pilgrimage, but I was not able to get to see Marie-Antoinette’s domain. It was closed for renovation; and so it was every other year I had the opportunity to visit. This time I made sure the site was open. It was the main attraction for our stay in Versailles. Travelers usually make a day-trip out from Paris, but that would mean one couldn’t linger if one wanted. And I wanted to! I had read many articles asserting her estate was flawless and much more approachable than the king’s. Besides, I had developed and directed a musical drama for The Vineyard Theatre, off-Broadway several years earlier based on the diaries and letters she wrote. I needed to experience her terrain for myself. Of course I was wishing Bruce was with me; visiting historical sites is one of our mutual passions.
I walk through the skillfully clipped tree-lined park of Versailles to get to the ochre-tinted Petit Trianon. Ange-Jacques Gabriel designed the chateau in 1762-1768 by order of King Louis XV for his mistress Madame de Pompadour. Marie-Antoinette was bequeathed it and the surrounding grounds in 1774 by her husband Louis XVI when he assumed the royal crown. It was rumored she was not happy with the demanding responsibilities of life at court. She desired something smaller, more intimate, strictly for her own pleasure. No one could visit the estate without her permission – not even King Louis.
The neoclassical style of the chateau, surrounded on all four sides by informal flowerbeds filled with blossoming potted plants achieves a refinement and tranquility not in vogue at the time, which must have brought peace of mind for the young Queen. Delicate chalk-white carved wood paneling (boiseries) encase the doors and walls of the rooms on the first floor. Portraits of the Queen as well as landscapes with frolicking lovers are hung throughout the salon. Marble fireplaces hold busts of her visage and porcelain vases filled with branches of florets. Tall gilt mirrors hang above mantels creating height and depth for the space. The reception area is discreetly decorated with small sofas, chairs, and simple tied-back window curtains covered in a candy-red-raspberry and white floral satin fabric, in addition to several round tables, a harp and harpsichord.
The original banisters leading up to the private quarters on the mezzanine and the attic, where the King’s rooms are located, have a sensual feel to the touch. These areas are tiny measured against the excessively large apartments of the Grand Trianon. Surprisingly, I find them, though beautifully refined, much too small even for my own taste. Her pristine private white and gold satin bedroom is even more modest than I anticipated. It is furnished with only a tiny -crowned-canapé bed, two chairs, a footstool, a wood inlay table, a gilt mirror and two gilt sconces with candles. The kitchen located downstairs is also quite plain. It is said that when Marie-Antoinette wanted to dine, she did not desire to see the faces of her servants. Her plans were to install a pulley system under the floor to lift-up a fully set table like Mad King Ludvig was to install years later at his Swann Lake Castle in Bavaria. But having delved into the history of her life, I knew Marie-Antoinette was homesick and longed for an intimacy only her beloved family and country Austria could provide. In time, even the Petite Trianon appeared too large for her own wellbeing. She begged to return home, but her mother demanded she stay and do whatever was requested of her by the court and the people of France. In 1783 she commissioned architect Richard Mique and painter Hubert Robert to create a settlement down the road from the chateau as a refuge. The Hameau de la Reine or Hamlet of the Queen turns out to be my favorite section of her residence.
It encompasses a large grassland surrounded by trees and scented bushes which line several small lakes stocked with golden koi and a family of swans. A circular Greek Temple of Love, situated on a tiny island, dominates the landscape. As you walk from site to site the footsteps of a coterie of Marie-Antoinette’s friends seem to be tagging along. A charming octagonal marble pavillon known as Belvedere or Salon De Musique suddenly appears beside a stone grotto designed by Hubert Robert. It is here the Queen held Chamber Music concerts complete with viola, violin, and harpsichord - which she played - and served tea - by herself - to a select few who visited. The pavillon is dedicated to the four seasons symbolized by classical reliefs placed above each of the outer doors. The walls of the circular interior are white stucco accented by interlacing foliage and floral patterns with a floor of marble tiles.
Down the road picturesque rural cottages are erected which hold window-boxes filled with flowering hot-pink plants. They are surrounded by rustic gardens and fields of cabbages and pumpkins, a water mill, and a tower. Further along, a farmhouse complete with chickens, pigs, goats and donkeys, which can be heard chattering to each other, is assembled next to a bird house filled with chirping feathered friends, a faux barn, and a working dairy. Enchanting! The whole milieu transports one to a quaint village in Austria. I feel, as Marie-Antoinette must have felt - totally delighted! The rest of the world seems to have faded away. Had I known, I would have brought along a picnic basket and consumed a petite dejeuner.
Suddenly I’m aware of long dark shadows edging over the scene. “A storm?” I contemplate. I hadn’t brought an umbrella. A need to quickly head back to the Trianon Palace Hotel overcomes me. Though I truly hate leaving her environs, I’m excited to find myself dashing down the exact pathways that have existed for centuries. Tall manicured box-trimmed trees loom over me. I am transfixed by their height and shape and beauty; but the need to jog overtakes me. Like the rams that inhabit the park, I seem to glide over the grasses covering the ground.
Cold and wet, I am greeted back in my hotel suite by a table laden with chocolates, fruit, nuts and soda water. A handwritten note has been left wishing me a Happy Anniversary. I feel so cared for! I sigh, again, smiling. Greedily I tear open the sweets and take a nibble. It is late. (Bruce & I had made reservations for a 7 pm dinner before we had even arrived.) I take a hot bath in the black n’ white n’ purple flowered bathroom. It seems wherever I look, Marie-Antoinette’s love of flowers exists. Quickly, I dress for dinner.
The renowned Gordon Ramsay Restaurant on the main floor, bordering the Park of Versailles, is wonderfully sophisticated and embracing. The same deco scheme has been chosen for the room, highlighted by color fields of golden yellow upholstery for the chairs. A small orchid sits upon each table laden with white linens and sparking crystal while chandeliers of lighted bubbles appear to float in air.
A selection of enticing dishes is offered:
Pressed foie gras with green apple,
Raviolo of scallops,
Beef comfit and tomato sauce
Oven roasted Allaiton lamb,
Braised endive with hazelnuts,
Cepes mushrooms and cooking juice
Selection of cheeses from the trolley
Pineapple floating island,
Minestrone flavored with coconut
I am more than satiated by the meal. I am overcome with titillating sensations not felt in quite some time. I have been living on a practical low-fat diet for months. I hadn’t planned on making food a priority. But, from this moment on, I decide to throw away good common sense. Dining in the French “Haute Cuisine Mode” is to become an experience not to be missed! I pledge to eat pressed foie gras with green apple and white beetroot whenever the opportunity arises. I remembered the Venice Diet I created for Bruce and myself when we visited Italy several years back that worked: Eat whatever you want. And, walk seven hours a day!
I awake the next morning reinvigorated and raring to go. I have my continental breakfast in The Gallery, a lovely passage on the main floor which looks directly out onto the patio. The lush green-grass velvet sofas gently reflect the outdoor lawns. The greenery and flowers excite! How special it will be, I muse, to walk the ancient grounds of the park. On foot, it takes 15 minutes to reach the Canal; 25 minutes to reach the Palace of Versailles, if you do not take detours. But taking the road less travelled is always the more appropriate temptation. Gardens and groves crisscross and line the Grand Canal of the estate. Majestic statuary are placed impeccably along the pathways. It is an outdoor museum of art: Neptune Fountain, Apollo’s Bath Groves, the Orangery, the Second Hundred Steps Gate, etc. If tired and in need of a repast, La Flottille, a charming brassiere is located by the Grand Canal for one’s pleasure.
En route, I stop at a painting exhibition on display of the ladies who had taken up residence at the Grand Trianon during their life time: besides Maria-Antoinette and her chambermaid Jeanne-Louise-Henriette Campan, Louis XIV’s Queen Marie-Theresa and his mistress Madame de Montespan plus one of their illicit offspring Louise-Francoise; Louis XV’s wife Queen Marie Leszcinska, as well as his favorite lover Countess de Barry and Napoleon I’s wife Empress Josephine.
Next year’s exhibition at The Grand Trianon will include masterpieces of the vellum paper collection of flowers from the Museum of Natural History first introduced by Louis XIV and his uncle Gaston d’Orleans “in order to study and conserve the rarest of flowers.” Coinciding with this exposition, a reconstruction of the historic flowerbeds will be on view: Constantinople narcissi, Provence daffodils, and slate blue hyacinths, etc. If only I could return, I yearn, conjuring up the powerful aroma of each blossoms’ scent. But Bruce has made me promise that our next travels will be to places neither of us has ever been.
My last dinner in the Trianon Palace is at The Veranda, which turns out to be even more special than the night before. Besides the array of foods I can choose from: steamed perch, red quinoa, chanterelle mushrooms emulsion with herbs; turbot in Iberian chorizo risotto, pepper sauce and mussels; oven roasted monkfish, carrots with soy and sesame, ginger broth or lobster browned with salted butter, potato gratin, zucchini spaghetti (which of course I select) a gift, un petit gateau au chocolat is prepared especially for me by the staff. Once again, their kindness touches my heart. The evening ends with wonderful stories Helene and I share at her concierge desk. She reveals the joys of living in Versailles and of the caring work she performs at the hotel for some of the most exciting people on the planet. “They are my way of seeing the world,” she confesses. What a treasure she is!
The next morning, Bruce finally arrives. I am excited to see him. I confess he was absolutely correct: “I had a most thrilling time by myself. How silly of me to think I couldn’t do it on my own.” Though we can’t stay too much longer - Monet’s Giverny is beckoning - I take him out to the bucolic grounds of the ancient park where we stroll and people-watch joggers, painters, bikers, and horseback riders. Though Bruce missed my Versailles experience, and promises to return with me some year soon, you, Dear Reader, need not. Book your sojourn as soon as possible. Alone, with a friend, or a loved one. A storybook experience is awaiting you.