Tucked into the farthest corner of Versailles' expansive grounds and only visited by a fraction of the main palace visitors, the Petit Trianon Estate quietly waits for people to discover its charms. Once the playground of Marie Antoinette, this Rococo paradise is rife with petites folies, or little extravagances, such as themed gardens, various hideaways, a “fake” farm and even a Temple of Love.
So pull up a chair and let's take a virtual tour around this fascinating section of Versailles, pulling in tidbits of history along the way.
Who was Marie Antoinette?
The question of who Marie Antoinette really was has been discussed by scholars ad-nauseam. The most exaggerated, simplified, rather cruel portrayal of her boils down to one phrase: “let them eat cake,” which makes her sound like a terrible person, but nobody is ever one-dimensional. People in history books are multifaceted, complex humans, even though it's easy to think of them as characters in a storybook. I like to think of Marie as just a simple, unremarkable girl, with a lot of money at her disposal, who just wanted to enjoy the pleasures of life (don't we all?). She despised the rigidity and elaborate ceremony of the French royal court, and was never happy in the main palace. Would you be happy if you were monitored by judgmental members of the court every single moment of the day, even private moments? Just because she was born into this position doesn't mean she was also born with the natural skills to cope with it intelligently.
She never had the mind for politics, always shirking her schoolwork as a young girl, and was therefore ill-equipped to deal with the massive social and political problems of her day. On top of that, she was extremely sheltered from the harsh realities of the lower class, and even if she did realize how “the other half” lived, empathy, compassion and charity were not fashionable sentiments of the day. Instead, she preferred to escape into her own world, one that she created for herself in the form of the Trianon Palace, its gardens and her Hamlet.
Inside the Petit Trianon Palace
The Petit Trianon, as opposed to the neighboring Grand Trianon, was commissioned in 1768 by Marie's father-in-law, King Louis XV. It was designed in the very popular Neoclassical style, and was only big enough to house himself and a few of his closest confidents. After his death from smallpox, the entire estate was given to Marie as a gift from her husband, Louis XVI, and she immediately started making it her own.
The details are stunning, from the lacy metalwork to the delicate moulding on every single door, wall and window. The textiles, patterns and finishes are all distinctly feminine, and I can almost imagine Marie in her elegant dresses lounging around here, free from the constraints of strict royal French etiquette.
The Petit Trianon has a completely different atmosphere than the main Palace. The furnishings are a little less regal, the ceiling height a little lower and the rooms significantly smaller. It looks like a place that someone could actually live, not a stage upon which royal duties were performed for an audience.
The French & English Gardens
The gardens surrounding the Petit Trianon are completely different from the massive hedges and perfectly trimmed topiaries in the main garden. The only French-style section is situated directly behind the palace, but it has a looser, more intimate, romantic feel. The rest of it is done in the Anglo-Oriental style, which is less about geometry and more about thematic moments: a tiny vineyard here, a grove of exotic trees there, and a shaded pond over yonder. There's so much to discover in the Petit Trianon gardens!
Now, here's where it gets fun. Most people have no idea that this exists. If you head toward the little theatre building behind the Petit Trianon via the covered pathway, you may spot a shaded trail that leads into a wooded area. Keep following the trail and you'll find that there are actually dozens of little rocky paths that criss-cross one another, one spiraling up to “snail mountain,” another leading to a hidden grotto, and another to a man-made waterfall and a beautiful octagonal building called the Belvedere.
You can't walk inside the Belvedere – which appears as a sort of open-air living room if the windows were opened – but you can peek through the glass. It's stunning! With a gilt ceiling, ornate marble floor and delicately painted walls. I can imagine Marie and one of her friends sipping some beverages and snacking on pastries during the summertime.
The belvedere sits atop a hill overlooking a man-made lake. In the distance you can see the top of the Temple of Love.
Approach the Temple of Love by following the winding stream, and you'll encounter a lovely statue of Cupid, a copy of one by Bouchardon that Marie had commissioned herself. The temple is accompanied by some Weeping Willows, which really complete the romantic scenery.
The Queen's Hamlet
This “play farm” is probably the most interesting aspect of the entire Estate. She wanted to experience the simpler pleasures in life, but she must have had no real concept of all the hard, back-breaking work that went into running a real farm. The quaint little thatched huts that were designed and constructed by Richard Mique are miniature, caricatured versions of real farm buildings, something she probably only saw glimpses of in theater backdrops or paintings (she was an avid lover of the dramatic arts, and even commissioned her own private theatre on the grounds, which you can peek inside).
These farm buildings were not constructed with quality or longevity in mind. The farm has been restored various times throughout history, once by Napoleon in 1810, another time in the 1930s, again in 2006, and most recently in 2016. You can't walk inside any of the buildings due to their fragility, but they certainly do make a pretty picture.
Find the Petit Trianon at the very north-east end of the Versailles gardens. It's situated right next to the Grand Trianon. Look for signs or take the little Train shuttle through the grounds to get there.
Petit Trianon Estate
Opening Hours: 12:00pm – 6:30pm
Closed on Mondays
Tips for Getting There:
- Enter via the main palace or through the park entrance on Boulevard de la Reine, next to the Trianon Palace Hotel.
- The TRI bus in Versailles runs from all three train stations to the Trianon Palaces, but it only goes once per hour.
- If you're planning on doing the main Palace, gardens and Trianon in one day, wear your most comfortable shoes because there will be LOTS of walking. To save some steps, consider riding the mini train shuttle that takes off from the top of the main garden.
- For folks with limited mobility, you may want to hire a golf cart.
(Credits: This blog post was informed heavily by the Biography called Marie Antoinette by Stefan Zweig. All images by Hannah Wilson.)