The dazzling Château de Versailles is one of France’s biggest tourist attractions. Attracting thousands of visitors with its golden splendour, in recent years this royal residence located 12 miles west of Paris has been transformed into a cultural institution, housing regular art exhibitions, musical concerts and performances by the National Equestrian Academy of Versailles
As world-famous as it is, there are still plenty of secrets to discover about this extravagant palace. Here are five fascinating facts about Versailles to memorise before your next visit.
The palace was originally a hunting lodge
Would you believe that the grand and glorious château was originally a hunting lodge? King Louis XIII purchased the land surrounding the modern-day palace and commissioned a lodge to be built where he could spend his many hunting trips. Of course, this was no ordinary hunting lodge but a mini- château. Over time, Louis took control of more land and expanded the size of the lodge, leading the way for Louis XIV – le Roi Soleil – to transform it into a royal palace.
Mirror makers were smuggled into the Hall of Mirrors
Under the watchful eye of Jules Hardouin Mansart, the Hall of Mirrors began to be constructed in 1678. Now one of the most memorable features of the château, it houses a total of 357 mirrors.
During the 17th century, mirrors were rare in France due to their high value, so Venetian mirror makers were reportedly smuggled into the palace to create the dazzling glass pieces that now stand there today. According to legend, the Venetian government was so possessive of the monopoly it held in mirror making that the craftsmen were forbidden to leave the city under penalty of death.
Versailles established several entertainment trends…
The impact that Louis XIV had on popular culture is still felt to this day. It was in the court of the sun king that all-night entertainment spectaculars were first held for the elite. However, his predecessor, Louis XV, also created entertainment trends that still thrive to this day.
During the reign of le Bien-Aimé, a brand-new card game based on popular variants Chemin de Fer and French Ferme surged in popularity. Although the game had already been mentioned in literary works by Miguel Cervantes, it was only when it was given the royal seal of approval that blackjack fever took France and western Europe by storm. Nowadays blackjack, like many of its traditional card and table game cousins, is available in various digital formats for gamers across the world and is just as popular now as it was back then.
…And played a role in scientific developments
In addition to being a place for extravagant entertainment, the palace of Versailles also played a substantial role in the advancement of scientific research. During the Age of Enlightenment, Louis XV and Louis XVI became fascinated with scientific instruments, building a collection of tools used in astronomy, cartography and horology.
Zoological studies would also flourish at the court, thanks to the installation of the exotic menagerie and botanical gardens in the palace grounds. The garden once housed 400 different botanical species, including pineapples, vanilla and even coffee. Doctors conducted numerous research activities at the château, leading to the establishment of veterinary schools and botanical institutions in the years that followed.
Versailles even has a place in American history
The role that Versailles played in the French Revolution is well known. After all, the palace was expanded to house the royal court – as many as 5000 nobles would be in attendance at any one time. After successfully storming the Bastille on October 5th 1789, revolutionaries marched on Versailles, leading the royal family to flee and leaving the palace empty.
Before the fall of the French monarchy, however, two key events in the American Revolution took place at Versailles. It was where Benjamin Franklin first negotiated the treaty with Louis XVI that led to the US gaining critical support from the French military. Later, The Treaty of Paris, signed September 3rd 1783 in foreign diplomatic quarters at the palace, would formally end the Revolutionary War between the US and Great Britain.