In the visitor's mind’s eye, the name Versailles evokes the golden glitter and magical sparkle of the Hall of Mirrors... But not every visitor is aware that the city around the palace, with its lovely avenues lined with magnificent plane trees stretching out their arms in greeting, was designed at the same time, as a sumptuous setting for the famous palace...
Versailles before the kings:
Versailles once was a small medieval seigniory, whose name was recorded as early as the Eleventh Century. But recent archeological digs in the Old Versailles district have led to the finding of Merovingian tombs, which indicate a far longer past. At the time, the village was clustered round a small castle and the Saint-Julien parish church, to the south of the present palace. It lived from trade on the trading routes crossing it, such as the one between Paris and Normandy. During the Renaissance, the family of the lords of Versailles having died out, the land passed into the hands of a Huguenot. Confiscated during the Saint Bartholomew massacre, they were given to Albert de Gondi, a favorite of Catherine of Medici. It was he who received Henri of Navarre, the future Henri IV, in his Versailles manor. Jean-François de Gondi, his son, the archbishop of Paris, turned the seigniory over to the royal domain when he sold it to Louis XIII in 1632.
Under Louis XIII and Louis XIV:
Louis XIII, who loved to hunt, had already had a hunting lodge built on the neighboring butte. For convenience during his stays, he had several outbuildings installed in the old village, but died soon afterward, and the estate sank once again into obscurity. Its star rose again in 1660, at the time of the marriage of the young Louis XIV. From then on, the king undertook to enlarge the hunting lodge for his pleasure visits, and had its surroundings beautified: laid out to include the Place d'Armes and the three major avenues facing the palace, a new city was created (Notre Dame district), the old village was transformed, etc. Clearly in love with his estate, Louis XIV settled there in 1682, with his entire court, leading to a need for new infrastructures, such as the Royal Stables or the new kitchen garden. This is when the overpopulated palace took on its ultimate dimensions, and acquired its finest embellishments: the Hall of Mirrors, French formal gardens…
Versailles in the century of good living:
The court left Versailles for some time after Louis XIV's death and only returned in 1722. Court life became even livelier under Louis XV, and the Saint Louis district, planned under his great-grandfather, began to take shape. In the old village, the current rue de l’Indépendance Américaine was gradually lined with prestigious buildings: Hôtel de la Guerre, Hôtel des Affaires Etrangères, Contrôle des Finances… creating a veritable administrative city near the palace. In the latter, little apartments replaced the Ambassadors' Staircase, a sign of private life's newfound dominance over pomp. And the cultivation of pleasures came back in force with the building of the Royal Opera.
When Louis XVI became king, the city appeared to have attained its ultimate dimensions. In fact, however, it gained the village of Montreuil under his reign, incorporated into the royal city in 1787. Several significant buildings also came into being, such as the Montansier Theater, while the city facades were losing their red brick tones to acquire a more neoclassical aesthetic. But the most memorable episode of the period was definitely France's entry into the American War of Independence in 1780. The peace negotiations concluding it took place at Versailles and earned the city the lasting friendship of the United States.
Versailles is full of memories of the Revolution because it was to the royal city that Louis XVI called together the Estates General in the spring of 1789. The sessions were held in The Hotel des Menus Plaisirs, up until the famous Tennis Court Oath, and the Court is still there. The National Assembly constituted at the time continued to meet at Versailles, which is where first the Abolition of Privileges, then the Declaration of the Rights of Man were voted on. The deputies then followed the royal family to Paris after the October Days of 1789.
With the court’s departure, the city gradually emptied, but proudly maintained its recently acquired self-reliance: a municipality had been created in 1787, whose administrative offices were set up in the Conti Hotel, which became the city hall.
Durant the Revolution, Versailles was able to preserve its remarkable heritage from destruction, while the buildings deserted by the court's administrators were gradually turned over to the army, whose presence shaped the face of the city in the Nineteenth Century.
Versailles becomes the capital again:
Shortly after the palace was opened to the Museum of the History of France as Louis-Philippe had wished (1837), Versailles once again glittered with the liveliness of the government's presence. During the war of 1870, the city was occupied and the King of Prussia installed himself in the new Hôtel de la Préfecture. This is when he had himself proclaimed emperor of Germany in the palace's Hall of Mirrors. After he left and the siege of Paris was lifted, the Revolt of the Commune broke out in the capital, leading the government authorities to flee to Versailles. Thus, the city went in a few days from 50,000 to 140,000 inhabitants, leading to a readily imaginable disorder… The Third Republic took its first steps there under the leadership of Adolphe Thiers and the Maréchal de Mac Mahon, and then of Jules Grévy. During the period ending in 1879 with the government's return to Paris, the Salle du Congrès was built in the palace's south wing, where presidential elections continued to take place until 1953. It is still used today for revisions to the Constitution.
Abandoned by the government, Versailles successfully took up the challenge of modernity: surrounding the palace and the preserved sector, with its 246 hectares, quarters were built, punctuated with interesting examples of contemporary architecture. More than 4 million visitors come to Versailles every year to enjoy its outstanding hospitality, top-notch accommodations, restaurants and attractive businesses, thus making Versailles one of the four most visited spots in France.
In the tradition of the royal spectacles of yore, the city continues to offer a full program of theatrical performances, concerts and other festivities, while the Académie du Spectacle Equestre has given new life to the Grande Ecurie du Roi, with creations combining tradition and modernity. Faithful to the refinement of the Eighteenth Century court, the Osmothèque--the International Perfume Conservatory--invites visitors to enjoy a fascinating range of olfactory discoveries. And in a world preoccupied by environmental concerns, the city's extraordinary green spaces provide an ideal setting to relax and contribute to the quality of life for which Versailles remains famous.