My wife and I retired to France from the U.S. in 2016. We avoid visiting over-touristed destinations, so a tour of Chateau Versailles is normally off the menu. But when I heard about the re-opening of Versailles after Covid-confinement, I rushed to make reservations.
Chateau Versailles is one of the most excessively visited monuments on the planet, with 10 million visitors each year. On a typical high-season day, 30,000+ tourists enter the main gate. But after 3 months of confinement, the re-opening would come with Covid-19 rules: masks required, social distancing enforced, and a one-way route through the Chateau. The crowds would be limited to 500 visitors in the Chateau at any one time, and a maximum of 4,500 each day. Most important: access via timed ticket only, to control the flow of people through the Chateau.
Most hotels and restaurants were closed on June 6, the first day of the reopening. But in the subsequent two weeks, France would experience a re-awakening. We monitored the weather report and booked 3 nights, starting June 22, at a hotel in Versailles.
Our previous visit to Versailles was almost forty years ago. At that time, we were herded off tour buses and marched through the Chateau en masse, an opportunity for the peasants to gawk at the royal palace. Despite the grand expanse of the "Hall of Mirrors", it was unlikely a visitor could see their reflection over the heads of the crowd. While it was possible to gaze at the canopy over the King's bed in the King's Grand Apartment, there was little chance of taking a photo of the bed itself. Watch the 2 minute video from Rick Steves at the bottom of this EMAIL if you want to see what it was like pre-Covid restrictions.
This time would be different. The route through the Chateau was one-way, but there wasn't any specific timing. We could explore the details at our leisure.
The sixteen 17th century fountains at Versailles are a destination in themselves. We saw a news segment showing workers applying fresh gold leaf to the fountains, in preparation for the re-opening. The result shines as brilliantly as they did in the days of Louis XIV, the Sun King. It's said he had a river diverted to supply the needs of his estate, something you can pull off if you're an absolute monarch. Water flows from these fountains only a few hours a week. We were lucky enough to be present on a sunny day, with them gushing in all their glory
We scored tickets to two group tours (limit: 20 / tour). These tours have access to areas that aren't open to the general public. We toured the King's Private Apartment (where he actually slept), which included a rare visit to the Opera House. We also had a tour of the Hamlet of Marie-Antoinette, which just recently re-opened after five years of renovation.
Before Covid-19, 80% of the tourists were foreign, led by Asians and Americans. During our visit, 98% of the tourists were French -- seizing the opportunity to see their own treasures without the maddening crowds.
The EU borders are gradually opening up, so more foreign tourists will begin flowing in. But the Covid access restrictions will still be in place, at least through August.
It's unfortunate that this all comes as a result of the on-going, worldwide tragedy of Covid-19. We like to view this as a small bright spot in otherwise very dark times. And it has given over-touristed cities such as Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Paris an opportunity to step back and consider how to make their cities more liveable, while still welcoming visitors.
Our apologies to our American friends, particularly the ones that had to cancel planned trips due to Covid-19. But this was an opportunity of a lifetime, which we couldn't pass up.
This time, we felt like royalty.
Take care and be safe.