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Versailles: gardens, view south

The main axis to the west is foreseeable and interminable, with none of the poetry of the lake at Sceaux. But the southward view is much more exciting. It leads to the wooded hills of Satory, but the middle distance has disappeared. The formal parterres with their conical shrubs take off for the horizon. So there is an inducement to walk further; at the edge, you find that the ground has been cut away into a vast three-sided shape, with a lake beyond. The sides are ramped, and as you walk down you realize what has happened: this is the roof of the Orangery. And the Orangery, built in 1681-6, is Jules Hardouin-Mansart at his impersonal best, building up a powerful design of deeply channelled stonework and Ionic columns rather like Vauban designing the centrepiece of a fort. It looks like the substructure of the commanding chateau that Versailles might have been; but when you reach the bottom (a public road N10 to Chartres and Biarritz, no less) and look up above it, there is only the familiar vast platitude and timid ornamental snippets.

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Time or patience may probably take you no further than the Bassin d’Apollo on the main axis. Beyond this is the Petit Parc, defined by the Grand Canal and its two cross-arms northwards to the Trianons, southwards towards N10. Cars are allowed into this section, and never were two new francs better spent.

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The Trianons are accessible separately, via N184 which runs from Versailles to Saint-Germain, and they are by a long way the most amiable section of the park. The Grand Trianon is an elaborate stage-set built by Hardouin-Mansart in 1687; it was designed as a country retreat for Louis XIV when his own palace ritual got too much for him Now old de Gaulle has got it. A single-storey comfit in pink and ochre, it consists of two pavilions linked by an arcade, added later by de Cotte, which gives a view of the trees beyond. The effect is ultra-artificial and completely successful, like a beautifully made-up film star.

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The Petit Trianon, which looks so engaging in photographs, is a sad disappointment. It was built by Gabriel in 1763 in emulation of the English Palladians, and it seems a sadly plodding effort after the sharpness of Lord Burlington’s Chiswick House, where each relationship of window frame to wall is underlined and overstated. But to the north of it is the best section of the gardens. It was designed by Mique for Marie Antoinette in the 1770s and 1780s, and it is good not just because it is an informal jardin anglais: it does much better in its genre than the formal designers did in theirs. Mique must have had a very gentle, sensitive temperament; his reward was to be guillotined in 1794, whilst all the authoritarian exponents of design who caused the trouble had died peacefully in their beds twenty years before. The best-known section is the Hameau, a mock-rustic collection of cottages – their equivalents are still being built around Versailles today, thatched roofs and all – and here Mique overplayed his hand a little, putting too many picturesque touches too close together around his lake, now equally over-full of goldfish.

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But farther south, towards the Petit Trianon, there is a smaller lake, and here Mique went less far and fared much better. An inoffensive mound of rocks, a beautifully reticent classical temple (the Belvedere): they make up with the pocket-handkerchief of water a sweet and as it turned out terribly vulnerable harmony, vulnerable equally to client and designer. If there is no Heaven in which M. Mique can enjoy his reward, at least we can affirm, two centuries too late, that this is the single humane corner in all those square miles.

Western view of Versailles

This is on the minor road (D7) between Saint-Cyr-l’Ecole and Marly. Just beyond the railway, iron railings span a huge avenue. At the end is the familiar chateau frontage; with the sides screened by trees it for once looks almost human. Beyond the fence, the avenue is as straight as Le Notre could make it: but on this side, there is someone’s vegetable patch, the third estate having its own back.

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14. By 1970, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts is due to move here, into a building designed by Wogensky and Le Corbusier. It will make a neat revenge for the former enfant terrible of French architecture.

15. And also ‘Holy Trinity Church’, looking as though it had just floated in from Wimbledon.

16. The original tree cafe was called ‘A Robinson’ after Robinson Crusoe, and the name stuck.

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