Versailles is about 30 minutes outside Paris on the commuter rail, and my friend Eric lives near the chateau grounds. We went out for a Sunday picnic with him and his wife and utterly adorable kid. It must be admitted that there's nothing quite like a bottle of wine, a baguette and a jar of foie gras under a tree in Marie Antoinette's back yard (though I think in fact we were sitting in her former cow pasture, which takes some of the romance off). There are some beautifully parklike corners of the grounds and people from the city and the local towns (including a whole flock of Girl Scouts) were picnicking and playing soccer and whatnot. The more formally planted part of the grounds require a ticket to visit, and we went in to see the famous fountains, which these days are accompanied by Baroque music playing from hidden speakers among the trees. The fountains are pretty lovely, hidden among high box hedges trimmed into, if not a maze proper, a sort of series of lanes and byways in which a person could easily get lost.
The grounds are the ultimate example of the classical European garden, with topiary shrubs trimmed to within an inch of their lives, and everything planted in geometric lines and shapes. They open out to a terrace behind the chateau, and the following view:
No shade, acres of gravel; intolerable on a hot day, in fact, despite the plantings.
The question here is "Why?" and the answer appears to be "Because they (the kings of France) could." Like the Forbidden City, Versailles is an example of architecture which expands horizontally to express its dominance and power. American urbanites are accustomed to verticality as a sign of power and wealth, like the Sears Tower in Chicago. But the chateau de Versailles has only a few stories: it is rather its all-encompassing sprawl and the repetitiveness of its facade (which only emphasizes the way it goes on and on) that make the point of royal power.