During his 72-year reign the Sun King, Louis XIV, decreed that the gardens of Versailles were as important as the chateau itself. Spreading across 250 acres, the gardens were orchestrated by the Royal Gardener, Andre Le Notre, who spent forty years making the king's garden wishes come true.
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In addition to the formal gardens there's an even larger woodland park to make a combined area of nearly 2,000 acres (800 hectares) that includes forest, two formal French gardens, the Petit Parc, and the Grand Trianon estate. Chateau de Versailles' gardens and the large park beyond are a feast for lovers of all things royal and green, but there's one Insider's Secret often ignored — you can explore the elaborate gardens, the vast park, and the collection of magical fountains and waterways for free (most days). Let's pay a brief, if virtual, visit.
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Versailles with Priority Access + Gardens
Here's a tip that lets you see a part of the glory of Versailles for free. When you arrive at the Palace of Versailles and pass through the gates, go directly to the gardens by heading to the top left-hand side of the Cour d'Honneur. You will enter through the Courtyard of the Princes on the left-side of the Entrance A. Access to the gardens is free with a slight exception — there is a charge for the Fountain Show and for the Musical Gardens days, which take place from April to October.
Look through the central window from the Hall of Mirrors and you will view the Grande Perspective, a unique east-west vista developed by royal gardener Andre Le Notre. The Sun King enlisted a team of experts to take on the task of creating the most spectacular gardens in the world — including artist Charles Le Brun, finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert (someone had to pay the bills), and architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart to manage every detail.
To maintain their perfection, the gardens must be replanted every 100 years. Louis XVI did so at the beginning of his reign in 1775, as did Napoleon III in the mid 19th century. In December 1999 a devastating storm flattened the gardens and they had to be completely replanted. The gardens are now in their prime and look similar to what Louis XIV would have enjoyed.
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Beyond the gardens is the woodland park at Versailles that features two majestic water features — the Grand Canal and the Lake of the Swiss Guards. The 800-hectare park criss-crosses forests and fields and is a perfect venue for cycling, hiking and long walks.
Although some of the royal lands were lost during the French Revolution, the park's perimeter has kept its original border and surrounds Versailles with a belt of greenery. Entrance is free to the park (except during the summer weekend water & music shows). When you arrive at Versailles, make sure you get into the correct line to get your free ticket to the park.
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Just as Apollo, the sun god, controlled the light in the sky, Louis XIV attempted to control nature in his vast domain. Andre Le Notre (1613-1700) was a master in taking untamed land and molding it into the shapes of parterres (ornamental gardens with pathways), vistas, waterway,s and visual surprises.
Le Notre added formal gardens with geometric beds, topiary, and hedges inspired from Italian Renaissance gardens to contrast with natural landscapes. The most formal gardens are closest to the Palace of Versailles and were the settings for elaborate outdoor fêtes, ballets, operas, fireworks, and banquets.
Versailles wasn't the only feather in Le Notre's cap. He was also responsible for the gardens at Chantilly, Vaux le Vicomte, Fontainebleau and the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris (in the photo above). Le Notre was also the principal gardener for the king's brother Gaston, the Duke of Orleans, and the king's mother Anne of Austria. He also worked for Charles II of England designing Greenwich Park in London.
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The gardens & park at Versailles are open daily, even on Mondays when the Chateau is closed. During the summer months, we recommend you arrive bright and early to avoid the crowds. There is a charge for the gardens when the Musical Fountains Show is scheduled on warm-weather weekends.
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