meta name="p:domain_verify" content="8b08da541f8a920e6 Marie Z Johnston: Versailles: A Private Tour

Monday, September 24, 2012

Versailles: A Private Tour

More than 70 million people visit Paris each year. That's a lot of people.  Of that, only 3 million venture out to the Chateau of Versailles (one million in July alone!) making the odds of sharing the Hall of Mirrors or the Queens Bed Chamber with 1000 strangers highly likely.
Difficult not to jump for joy after what we experienced!
So, of course we said "YES!" when Elissa, who happens to be an 18th century historian (see her blog The Traveling Pear) called and asked if D and I wanted to go on a private tour of the Mistress's apartments. Just how private?  We were 4, plus Monsieur P (our bilingual guide) and 'the guy with the keys'. Plus, we were going in a private car... who says no to that?

Our guide, Monsieur P
You can't even imagine how many times I've been through the Chateau of Versailles - not only in the last 3 years with visiting friends and family, but over my life time. In part because my Oncle Jacques worked on the restoration; Gold leafing the molding in Marie Antoinette's bedroom among other things  (You know the one, with the gate that kept those 200+ curious 'nobles' away from the bed while she gave birth) and, because it's a fabulous (and very easy) escape from Paris by RER. (the RER is a train that runs daily to the town of Versailles every 30 minutes or so from various locations in Paris)

Visiting the Hall of Mirrors with writer Ruth Yonker and several hundred other folk
It was raining at 8am when Aladdin (I know, I know) whisked us off in his brand new mini van to the palace and dropped us at the 'Tour Privée' entrance where we waited for our guide, Monsieur P. Then, we all followed the 'man with the keys' who led us through passageways, up staircases and down long hallways while unlocking dozens of doors in front of us and carefully locking each of them behind us. (BTW, all the light in these photos is natural as I was not allowed to use flash, and there are no electrical lights in these apartments)

We are in the private hallway used by Louis XVI leading to his apartment
Louis XV & XVI's personal stairway to the private, top floor council chamber
Initially I wondered what a person could possibly see to make a private tour worthwhile... it didn't take long to find out.  The first and perhaps most striking difference is your guide.  Monsieur P is, to say the least, passionate about his work.  He first visited Versailles at the age of 11 and from that moment on, all he ever wanted to do was be a historian at the Chateau.  When Monsieur P is not giving private tours, he's in 'the stacks': researching for scholars and others.  He gets to read people's journals and private correspondence; literally snooping though reams and volumes of private papers and books saved from revolutionary fires, hidden, rediscovered, collected over time then donated or sold to the Versailles library much to the delight of men and women like him.

These books once belonged to Mme DuBarry, the kings mistress
Because of his 'all access pass' into the intimate details of everyday chateau life beyond the public eye, Monsieur P was able to share many stories and minor scandals as only an insider can.  He knew the origins of this chair and that desk, the rather juicy gossip surrounding various portraits hanging in the private apartments, and who used the secret staircases to Mme de Pompadour's inner sanctum.  All of this was fuel for Elissa's questions, which of course opened doors to places we normally wouldn't have seen, and allowed us to look under furniture for makers marks; Monsieur P was happily on the floor with us.

Looking for the maker's mark under Palace furniture
The maker's mark!
A virtual labyrinth of hallways in the private chambers
What struck me the most about our visit was glimpsing the very private life of these very public people.  The personal apartments were not at all like the immense visitors rooms on the lower floors.  The rooms themselves are more intimate in size and the decor, while very beautiful, reflects personal taste not intentional displays of great wealth and luxury intended to impress foreign dignitaries.

Madame de Pompadour's rooms
18th century marble Owl table
Chairs once belonging to Mme Du Barry
One of Mme du Barry's rooms
Another interesting point is that the all of these private rooms are on the upper floors, under the roof tops where one would expect to find servants quarters.  The views are spectacular, over courtyards, gardens and rooftops.

View from the Council Chamber
Mme de Pompadour's garden view
View from the passageway leading to Louis XV's 'Lock Workshop'
Mme du Barry's view
Another of Mme du Barry's views
Every stick of furniture, every painting, wood paneling and artifact is original. Pretty much all of the pieces have been donated to the Chateau of Versailles by private collectors or foreign countries.  Many have not been restored and are in remarkably good, if a bit threadbare condition.  I was impressed to learn that when a set of chairs is reupholstered or curtains replaced it is the original maker of fabrics, using the original dye formulas and patterns,who provides the replacement cloth!

Elissa looking under the chairs for the maker's mark

The rooms which made the greatest impression on me were the places Louis XVI frequented:  The bookshelf lined, very spacious Private Council Room and the very personal Lock Making Room.  It was in the Council Room that Louis XVI decided to fund the American Revolution which ultimately bankrupt France and brought an end to the French Monarchy.  No one knows what happened to the thousands of books which lined the walls of this great room; Burned most likely.  The huge carpet covering the parquet floor is the actual one that Louis XV and XVI (and probably General LaFayette, among others) paced.  It is a recent acquisition and we were among the first to actually see it - but not walk on it.

Minister's stairway to the Private Council Room
The Private Council Room of Louis XV and Louis XVI
The actual, and original 18th century Council Room carpet
Doorway leading to the Lock Making Room and a newly acquired piece of Louis XVI's toolbench
Standing in these quiet, unlit rooms it was possible to feel, if only for a fleeting instant, the way it might have been nearly 300 years ago during an undisturbed moment gazing out the window on a rainy day.  The halls and great rooms below may have been filled with nobles and citizens hoping for a glimpse of their majesties or "La Barry" (as Mme du Barry was called) but here, upstairs, all was calm and private, sub rosa.

Three hours goes by very quickly when you are lost in a time capsule and all too soon it was time to rejoin the real world below.  We had passed through what had once been royal bathrooms - the tubs long gone...

That white 'sculpture' heated the room and two tubs sat against the wall where the white tiles are
Notice the drain hole near the floor, it contains a pipe to evacuate bathwater
We had traveled back in time through passageways and up/down stairways never seen by the general public

a glimpse of 'Them', out there, while we hid in the inner sanctum

We eventually returned to the ground floor, the final door unlocked as we were ushered back out to the main hall then locked tight behind us; No longer sheltered from modern life in an 18th century cocoon... We were free to wander the rest of Versailles, to mingle with visitors from all over the world, gathered here to experience what once had been beyond reach for the 'common person'.  Talk about a harsh return to reality!  We headed toward the garden canal for lunch and a glass of wine at La Flotille to soften the shock.

By the time 4:30 arrived, Aladdin was waiting at our pre-arranged rendez-vous outside of Le Petit Trianon. He whisked us home to Paris with no fuss or muss after our long day of time travel.

In case you are wondering, yes, Elissa is available to assist with private tours of Versailles.  You can contact her directly here: Trust me, Elissa is a fabulous font of 18th century knowledge and while the private tour is pricey, it's worth every centime in her company!

A bientot mes amis,


Mark Craft said...

That's fabulous! Makes even a rainy day seem bright. We've just been writing about VIP tours of Versailles that also get you private access. I'm doing that for the next visit to the palace.
-Mark Craft

MadAboutParis said...

What a fantastic opportunity - simply stunning photos Madame Z!!!

Marie Z Johnston said...

The smaller the group and the more passionate/informed your group leader is on 18th Century French history, the more your Versailles Guide will 'give up'. Elissa Shaw may be the best money spent if you are a Versailles fanatic!

Thanks For the compliments MG... I had a fabulous time!

ChaumiereLesIris said...

What a wonderful way to see Versailles. Thanks for sharing.

Louise Boisen Schmidt said...

These photos are amazing! I really envy you the opportunity to see what goes on behind closed doors :)
I run a blog on Versailles and the life of l'ancien régieme and was wondering whether I can use some of these photos ? You will be credited of course

Marie Z Johnston said...

Hi Louise,
Please contact me via Thanks, Marie

Baroque In Babylon said...

Oh how wonderful! I would love to see that one day. I am just loving the photos and this whole post.

Lauren said...

Thank you so much for sharing! Seeing these private quarters give me such a thrill. I long to see rooms where real life was conducted.

Lauren said...

Thank you so much for sharing! Seeing these private quarters give me such a thrill. I long to see rooms where real life was conducted.

Marie Z Johnston said...

Hi Lauren, You are so very welcome - It was a wonderful experience... Versailles will never be the same for me again! Highly recommended! MzJ

SandraRegnier said...

I'm very impressed. Thank you for your interesting blog with these lovely photos. Is it possible to get a visit like that by myself? I'm going to visit Versailles in a view weeks for research for my new novel. It would be great if I can get some help.
Thank you

Caroline Pyne said...

This is exactly what my friend and I want/need for Versailles. How can we go about doing something like this? We will be there next July. Caroline pyne

Marie Z Johnston said...

Hi Carolyn,
It is possible to go directly through the Versailles website. They have small-ish group tours (up to 20) for the private quarters as well as 'Private' tours (such as the one we did) for individuals up to a party of 15... meaning that you can include whomever you want to come along, thus reducing the cost. We went with an American historian who's time period is 18th Century France... so she knew a lot about the time and asked engaging questions to our (bilingual) French tour guide. This made for a far more interesting visit. Either way, it's an amazing experience and worth every centime!

Anthony BaxterBennett said...


I stumbled across this marvelous post and would love to know who the tour was through? I have visited the chateau many times and am going back again in August. I have done all the tours through the official website, Marie Antoinette private apartments etc but i would love to see the mistressess apartments and the attics! I can't see any details on the chateau website for private tours of this nature?

Many thanks in advance! x

Marie Z Johnston said...

Hello Anthony,
This tour was organized through Versailles by historian Elissa Shaw who organized the driver and added a great deal by engaging with the English speaking Versailles historian giving the tour. Drop me a line at and I'll be glad to give you more details.