A lot of gardeners – myself and perhaps you included – turn up their noses at the mention of the gardens of Versailles. There are no flowers. No movement. No soul.
After being force-marched with thousands of other tourists through the jammed corridors of the castle, the sight of all those clipped trees and boxwood and endless stretches of soul-numbing lawn had always left me cold. But since I would be driving right past it on my way to the Loire Valley, the idea of not stopping, even for a short visit, seemed somehow ill-natured. Besides, in the midst of planning my trip I had stumbled across two features of the gardens that intrigued me. The first was le Potager du Roi – the King’s Kitchen Garden.
It turns out that in addition to absolute supremacy, and a long line of mistresses, the Sun King’s passions extended to the growing of fruits and vegetables. Of course, although he did, apparently, try his hand on one or two occasions at trimming the fruit trees, his horticultural activities consisted mostly in taking visiting royalty on tours of his potager and sending requests to la Quintinie, the beleaguered gardener in charge of it all, to produce more and more exotic fruits and vegetables for the royal table.
In spite of the swampy land he was given to work with – he would complain bitterly over the years about how inferior it was compared to what le Nôtre was assigned – la Quintinie achieved extraordinary results. With a team of 30 gardeners he drained the swamp, built an underground drainage system, and introduced a wide range of horticultural practices that are used to this day. Manure from the castle stables gradually improved the poor soil. Cloches and other glass structures protected tender plants. He introduced the art of espalier, essentially training trees to grow ‘flat’ along horizontal wires. Thousands of fruit trees were espaliered among the vegetable beds, creating living walls to shade the vegetables. Others were trained along high stone walls which retained the sun’s heat overnight.
For a king who considered the domination of nature a symbol of his supreme power, la Quintinie’s success in defying the seasons was especially valued. Strawberries at the end of March, cherries in May and melons in June were the highlight of the king’s meal.
And then there were les petits pois (green peas). To the dismay of his doctor, who blamed the Italian novelty (they were introduced to France from Genoa in 1660) for many of the ailments afflicting the royal digestive system, the king loved them. Mme de Sévigné, a frequent visitor would later write: ‘Le chapitre des pois dure toujours. (The chapter of the peas continues.) The impatience to eat them, the pleasure of having eaten them and the anticipated joy of eating more of them are the three topics dominating the conversation of our ‘princes’ for the last four days.’
Given the outrageous excesses of the royal court, I was surprised, and reassured to learn that any fruit or vegetables not up to the standards of the royal table were not simply discarded, but distributed to the poor via a little pass-through known as ‘le Public‘.
Since la Quintinie’s day a number of changes have of course been made. One of the changes lies behind the otherwise inexplicable name for some of the sections of the garden – les ‘onzes‘ (the ‘elevens’).
In spite of la Quintinie’s efforts, parts of the garden remained on the soggy side. To improve the air circulation in the eleven (onze) gardens along the north terrace, in 1785 some of the walls were torn down. There were now only five gardens. But in the sometimes inscrutable workings of French culture, they are still called ‘les Onzes’.
All the changes notwithstanding, I think la Quintinie would still be quite pleased to see the potager today. While dedicated to preserving some of the ancient practices, like espalier, today’s gardeners employ the latest techniques in modern biological gardening. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are being reduced in favour of more environmentally sustainable practices. Experiments with extracts of exotic plants, pheromones and the introduction of ‘friendly’ predators are ongoing.
I would have loved to spend more time checking out the various strategies, but it started to rain. Actually it had started to rain the day I left Paris and it continued to rain for the next ten days. And not just a pleasant, misty kind of rain, but heavy averses and orages (showers and thunderstorms). Fortunately my guardian angel must have been sitting on my shoulder as I planned my trip, for I had booked 8 days for the Loire Valley, allowing for some time off from the castle gardens to go check out the vineyards. In the end, summoning up great restraint, especially given my fondness for the fermented fruit of the vinis vinifera (already noted by some of you), whenever the rain stopped – and sometimes when it didn’t – I visited gardens. The winery tours would have to wait for another trip.
The other thing that had intrigued me was le Hameau, Marie Antoinette’s refuge from the stifling formality of court life in the castle. It was a make-believe hamlet of a dozen or so rustic cottages where she could play at being a peasant. This was, of course, terribly offensive to the real peasants who had to make it all work – modern-day opponents of ‘cultural appropriation’ would have a field day with this one – but it still intrigued me.
Since the only way to get to Marie-Antoinette’s fake village was through Louis XIV’s ‘real’ garden, I decided to make the most of it. I spent a lot of time fiddling with my itinerary so that I would be in Versailles for les Grandes Eaux Musicales (Musical Fountains Show). Along with thousands of other tourists, I spent that Tuesday afternoon dodging downpours.
I was so miserable with the rain I almost laughed when I reached the site of the Fontaine Latona. According to the guide book which I read later in the shelter of a café, I learned that this was the most spectacular of the garden’s 1400 fountains and the hydraulic heart of Versailles.
Close by, gardeners, looking as miserable as the tourists, were at work. They would toss the potted annuals into the area outlined by the boxwood hedges and then the fellow in the green raincoat – the boss? – would poke them around with the long pole.
When Louis XIII commissioned a hunting lodge in the early 1600’s in what was then a country village, all he wanted was a place where he could relax and kill some of the local fauna. The fact that there was no source of fresh water anywhere nearby and that the property was surrounded by marshes was of little concern to him.
Louis XIV however, had other aspirations. Like the Medici’s in 15th century Tuscany, the young king viewed the gardens of Versailles as a propaganda tool, a spectacular physical representation of his absolute power over his subjects. There were to be no more Fouquet incidents. No more rebellions like la Fronde (a short-lived revolt while Louis was still a child in which the nobles attempted to limit the ever-increasing powers of the royal government).
The modest hydraulics installed by his predecessor were vastly inadequate for the watery extravaganza he had in mind. Twenty years of heroic efforts by an army of the best fountain makers and engineers, and the creation of almost 1800 acres of artificial ponds, and 170 kilometres of piping and 40 kilometres of underground aqueducts attempted to rectify the situation. But there was never enough water for all the fountains to be going at once.
So the Fountain Masters hit upon an ingenious system. As the king strolled along the long alleys that led from one Bosquet to the next, they would whistle to one another to warn that the King was approaching. The fontainier in charge of the fountain about to receive His Majesty would quickly open the spigots and the fountain would be in full swing by the time the King rounded the corner.
Nowadays there still isn’t enough water, but since there is no need to fear the king’s wrath, instead they just take turns. It’s really quite fun to keep an ear out for where the music is coming from and head in that direction.
This was my favourite. I stayed around to watch it a couple of times. The shapes that were created and the way the jets followed the music was absolutely enchanting.
Like the Medici’s, Louis XIV also used the myths of the ancient Greeks to convey his political message. The members of the royal entourage would have immediately understood the Bosquet de l’Encelade as a warning to any who sought to usurp, or even diminish the king’s power.
If Greek mythology is not your forté, here is how the story goes.
After the war of the Titans, a short-lived period of peace was shattered by the rebellion of the Giants, who were the outsized offspring of Heaven and Earth. The Giants sought to overthrow Zeus, King of the gods. With up to 100 serpent-like arms each, they hurled gigantic rocks at the gods. Rocks that landed in the sea became islands and those that fell on dry land became mountains. Zeus was worried. An ancient oracle had predicted victory for the Giants unless the gods enlisted the aid of a mortal, so he summoned Hercules and in no time the Giants were defeated. Not content with mere victory, Zeus threw them into le Tartare, in the deepest depths of Hell (I never have been keen on ‘steak tartare’), where eternal torture awaited all who dared offend the gods. One of the Giants, Encelade, tried to escape. But if hell hath no fury like a spurned mortal woman, the wrath of an offended Goddess is beyond description. An enraged Athena hurled an enormous rock – Sicily – which burst into a thousand pieces before burying Encelade, who lies forever fuming under Mt. Etna.
The underlying symbolism may escape us modern day visitors, but for the nobles of the Sun King’s court it was as clear as day – the King was Zeus and they were Encelade.
What with all the rain, there were many parts of the garden I didn’t get around to. Frankly, even if the weather had been glorious, I wouldn’t have had the energy or the will. Three hours is about my limit in any one garden. After that, my brain turns to mush with sensory overload. But I didn’t want to leave without seeing le Hameau.
Even though I had to seek shelter for a while under this cottage, I was glad I had persisted. Even if politically and culturally ‘ incorrect’, it was absolutely charming.
In his memoir, ‘The Gardener of Versailles’, Baraton devotes a section to what he calls the ‘seven plagues’. Among them are the usual challenges – disease, insects (he favours natural solutions, nothing that would harm the birds), heart-wrenching decisions about trees that are reaching the end of their life span; gamins (kids) who run around on the grass (not allowed! there are signs everywhere – ‘Interdit de marcher sur la pelouse‘. Walking on the grass is prohibited).
And then there are ‘les cars du troisième âge’, buses full of seniors. The women far outnumber the men. All dressed up in their Sunday best, hair inevitably in various shades of blue, they lead the pack. ‘Elles hument, commentent, s’extasient‘ (sniff, comment and rhapsodize). And then, they pull out – sauvagement – entire plants! What can even the Head Gardener do, in the face of these grandes dames, who point out to him in no uncertain terms that having lived through two wars they are not going to tolerate a mere child of 48 years lecturing them on les bonnes manières? They are les reines de la rapine (queens of thieves) and he adores them.
I wondered what would happen if they made it all the way to the potager in le Hameau.
Le Hameau is where Baraton finishes his imaginary tour of Versailles. I was surprised to read that the man who had been Head Gardener of Versailles for over thirty years considers this area ‘l’endroit le plus agréable’ of Versailles, but I too found it the ‘most pleasant place’ and was glad that this was where my tour of Versailles ended. And that I had seen another side to the ‘Garden that gardeners love to hate’.