The Palace of Versailles  

I believe a regular dose of travel beauty (and dreaming) can be good medicine. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is having in-person encounters with great art and architecture — which I’ve collected in a book called Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces. Here’s one of my favorites:

Around the year 1700, France was Europe’s number-one power, and the luxurious Palace of Versailles was Europe’s cultural heartbeat. For the king, money was no object and he packed it with beauty.

Visitors from around Europe flocked here hoping to get a glimpse of the almost-legendary king who built the palace — the great Louis XIV, known to all as the Sun King (ruled 1643–1715). They’d pass through a series of rooms, each more glorious than the last. There was the ornate Apollo Room, where the Sun King held court beneath a colorful ceiling painting depicting his divine alter-ego, the Greek god of the sun. They’d pass through the king’s official (though not actual) bedroom, where, each morning, the Sun King “rose” ceremonially from a canopied bed, attended by nobles who fought over who got to hold the candle while he slipped out of his royal jammies. Here in the home of the Sun King, bedtime, wake-up, and meals were all public rituals.

Finally, visitors would reach the heart of the palace: the Hall of Mirrors.

No one had ever seen anything like this magnificent ballroom. It’s nearly 250 feet long, dripping with glittering chandeliers, lined with gilded candelabras and classical statues, and topped with a painted ceiling showing Louis doing what he did best — triumphing. What everyone wrote home about were the 17 arched mirrors along the wall. Mirrors were a wildly expensive luxury at the time, and the number and size of these were astounding.

The sparkling Hall of Mirrors marks the center of this magnificent U-shaped palace. It’s where the king’s sumptuous apartments connected to the queen’s equally sumptuous wing.

From the Hall of Mirrors, you can fully appreciate the epic scale of Versailles. Visitors gaze out the windows onto the palace’s vast backyard. The gardens stretch, it seems, forever. It’s a wonderland of trimmed hedges and cone-shaped trees, hidden pleasure groves, and hundreds of spurting fountains. The extravagant gardens drove home the palace’s propaganda message: The Sun King was divine — he could even control nature, like a god. All in all, Versailles covers about 2,000 acres — twice the size of New York’s Central Park — laid out along an eight-mile axis, with the Hall of Mirrors at its heart.

The Hall of Mirrors was also the heart of European culture. Imagine a party here: The venue is lit by the flames of thousands of candles, reflected in the mirrors. Elegant partygoers are decked out in silks, wigs, rouge, lipstick, and fake moles (and that’s just the men), as they dance to the strains of a string quartet. Waiters glide by with silver trays of hors d’oeuvres, liqueurs, and newly introduced stimulants like chocolate and coffee. Louis was a gracious host who might sneak you into his private study to show off his jewels, medals, or…the Mona Lisa, which hung on his wall.

In succeeding generations, all Europe continued to revolve around Versailles. Everyone learned French, and adopted French taste in clothing, hairstyles, table manners, theater, music, art, and kissing. Even today, if you’ve ever wondered why your American passport has French writing on it, you’ll find the answer at Europe’s greatest palace — the Château de Versailles.