La Petite Venise: Louis XIV’s water obsession
Let’s assume everyone has heard about le Château de Versailles or as it is usually referred to, “Versailles.” Everyone’s heard about the man who commissioned it, Louis XIV “the Sun King” or as he was known all over Europe in his day, “le Roi” (the King.)
Whether visitors enjoy discovering Versailles (some don’t mostly because the château can be crowded and/or they didn’t do their homework first) everyone seems to agree the sprawling grounds are well worth a visit – or several.
Water is central to the appeal of the magnificent gardens once created by a powerful French king and a talented gardener, André le Nôtre. In Versailles Man proved he could tame Nature but nowhere is it more obvious than when we stroll around the organized, symmetrical, magical French-style gardens and hear the sound of water.
Fountains, waterfalls, ponds: Water is everywhere in Versailles. It was no small feat to bring it there from the Seine river you know!
The star of the show to this day is “le Grand Canal.” A must-see. A must try (on a boat if possible.) Illustration.
Before “le Grand Canal” was completed in 1679 Louis XIV wasted no time throwing magnificent parties complete with music and firework around it for the court and foreign dignitaries. It was important for the Sun King (he who threw Europe’s best parties) to highlight the strength of the French navy at a time when other European powers were dominating the world’s oceans.
Quickly “la flotille du roi” (the king’s flotilla) emerged and all types of boats could be spotted on le “Grand Canal” to guests’ delight. In 1689 several gondolas arrived in Versailles, a gift from the powers that be in Venice. They were an instant hit with the King and the court. Riding them was a privilege.
La Petite Venise: Versailles’ best kept secret?
The original gondolieri came from Italy and helped train locals in the art of building, maintaining and steering gondolas. Soon an area was created east of le Grand Canal “la Petite Venise.” It became a busy place where gondolieri, technicians and carpenters worked and lived.
As one might guess the French Revolution put an end to the Sun King’s nautical dreams. It’s hard to believe le Grand Canal was then emptied and turned into a field! It was brought back to its former glory in the 19th century by another king intent on turning Versailles into a shrine to “all the glories of France.”
But what happened to “la Petite Venise” once a bustling activity center on the Versailles grounds? Short answer: With the exception of a couple of buildings (listed as Historic Monuments of France) it’s gone.
Near the Apollo basin by the Grand Canal several eateries welcome visitors. A restaurant, a 1900 brasserie named “la Flotille” is a reminder of the canal’s glorious past. One can have decent meals there.
That’s not where I like to go.
My favorite lunch place in Versailles is an out-of-sight trattoria named “la Petite Venise.”
It occupies one of the surviving historic buildings and thanks to a tasteful restoration offers the best “cadre” (setting) and “ambiance” (atmosphere) in any eatery on the Versailles grounds.
Even if you don’t get to sit on the shaded romantic “terrasse” outside the restaurant, you’ll love the colorful and elegant interior.
The staff is young, professional, efficient and – how refreshing – so friendly!
The food? “C’est délicieux!” from pasta dishes to desserts (Affogato anyone?)
When I find myself in Versailles for the afternoon while my clients explore the grounds I only have two wishes: 1. to secure a table at “la Petite Venise” for a couple of hours and 2. for all influencers to show off their expertise (“Versailles it too crowded!”) and continue directing their devoted fans to other châteaux and gardens in the Ile de France.
After all some “petits bonheurs” are not meant to be shared… except with friends.
Happy 400th anniversary, Versailles!
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