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Le Grand Controle is absolutely stunning!

Of all the palaces one reads about all over the world, very few are as celebrated as the Palace of Versailles.

It was built by King Louis XIV of France, celebrated as the Sun King.


The Sun King’s reign represented the glamorous peak of the French monarchy. Because he did not like Paris, he turned an old hunting lodge a short distance away from the city into one of the greatest palaces ever built. It is a huge, stunning monument to royal excess and extravagance that makes all Indian palaces look like guest-houses.


   The Sun King (and his son and grandson) spent so much money on the palace that it soon became a byword for royal grandeur; a symbol of the power, wealth and prestige of medieval France. The palace was lit by thousands of candles and only candles made from expensive beeswax were good enough for King. As my guide to the palace told me proudly last week, a single candle cost as much as an entire week’s income for a French working man. (“That’s why they had the French Revolution”, I suggested though my guide did not seem amused.)


   Most of us believe that France had a monarchy toppled by a revolution and then became a republic. In fact, the French Revolution which led to the execution of Louis XVI, the Sun King‘s descendent and the sacking of the palace of Versailles was followed by the return of emperors and monarchs. In 1804, just 15 years after the egalitarian sloganeering of the revolution, the French turned to Napoleon who crowned himself Emperor of France. Louis XIV’s descendants returned for brief spells on the throne, Napoleon’s family also succeeded to the Emperor-hood and there were other small revolutions. (And many other republics: the current version is the Fifth Republic.)


   Many of the Kings and Emperors that followed restored bits of Versailles (Napoleon lived in the Grand Trianon, a small palace on the grounds of Versailles) but the story of Versailles is the story of the Sun King and his successors. They are no longer much-reviled figures and there is a great deal of sympathy now for Marie Antoinette. She was once accused of responding when she was told that the peasants had no bread, let them eat cake instead but it turns out that this was a made-up story.


   Versailles is now owned by the French government which has spent hundreds of millions on restoring it and it is rated as a world heritage site. The French do not offer the world too much access (Sofia Coppola’s film on Marie Antoinette was mostly filmed on a soundstage in Paris) but a TV series called Versailles (available on streaming services in India) was allowed to shoot inside the palace. The show is crap but the locations are gorgeous.


   I have been to Versailles — anyone can buy a ticket — but I have always found it too crowded with tourists. At its peak, before the Pandemic, Versailles hosted 28,000 visitors a day; now the government has put a ceiling of 15,000 a day which means that you have to book days in advance to get in.


   To be fair, however, this is not as bad as it sounds because Versailles is huge. The French had a strange monarchy where virtually anyone who carried a sword (which meant that you were a noble of some description) could wander around the palace and even the King and the Queen’s rooms were not closed off. Around 10,000 people lived and worked in Versailles so it was almost a small town.


   We have turned our Indian palaces into hotels. The British have country-house hotels. And the French have opened up the chateaux of the Loire valley. But Versailles has been treated as sacred. When visiting hours are over, the gates are locked and visitors are turned away.


   But around 2015, the French government, in a break with years of tradition, gave permission for a small hotel (14 rooms only) to be created on the grounds of the palaces. Le Grand Controle, as it is called, is located in the wing where the France Minister to Louis XIV used to live and it is — there is no other word for it — absolutely stunning.


"Then came the breakfast trolley with the best French Toast I can remember. They set it up on the terrace and we ate, overlooking the palace grounds."

   It took five years to restore the rooms. A lot of the original Versailles furniture had been lost during the revolution so they found antique furniture from the same period from other palaces and chateaus all over France. Antique chairs designed by Hubert de Givenchy and scores of contemporary painting from the peak of the Bourbon monarchy are all around.


   If you get a chance to run a small 14-room hotel in such a palace then you have to provide unparalleled levels of luxury. So the hotel has 115 staff for only 14 rooms, a ratio that would be impressive in Asia but is unprecedented in France. What’s more, all of the staff are like managers: knowledgeable, multi-lingual and capable of taking decisions on the spot.


   Though the hotel is run by the French luxury group Airelles, the overwhelming influence is Alain Ducasse. France’s greatest chef (and the man whose restaurants have something like 21 Michelin stars) has collaborated on the project. You notice this from the moment you walk in. The hotel has fresh flowers in every corner but next to them are plates of Ducasse’s macaroons. And the chief attraction is the food, which comes from the Michelin-starred restaurant Ducasse runs at the palace.


   We arrived just before lunch and enjoyed a light meal (a perfect cheese omelette, Ducasse’s Croque Monsieur etc.) on the terrace. Our room was huge and may well have been the best hotel room I have ever stayed in. It was decorated in period style with an airy private terrace overlooking the palace.


   We had hardly unpacked when it was time for the Ducasse tea; which began with champagne and continued through a series of savouries and desserts, all designed to give you a sense of what Marie Antoinette liked and ate. (Well, I have to say that there was quite a lot of cake….)


   At six, after the palace was shut to visitors, we were given a private tour. I had seen the palace before but it seemed completely different when it was free of the crowds. The spectacular Hall of Mirrors, perhaps the most famous room in all of France, is mesmerising when it is empty and you can see why the Sun King thought it was magical.


   But they also opened up parts of the Palace that were not on the janta tour. For instance, Marie Antoinette’s bedroom (which is part of the public area) had a secret door which led to her private apartment: her library, her sitting room and even her bathroom.


   The tour was followed by a Ducasse-style nine-course dinner paired with wine. We chose, unprompted, to sit on the largest table only to discover that this was called the royal table. So, before each course was served, a lady dressed in medieval costume would arrive, carrying a staff which she would bang on the floor of the restaurant to demand silence. Then, she would announce what was being served to the royal table. I, of course, had no idea what she was saying but my wife, who understands French, stiffened and looked self-conscious as the whole restaurant stared at us.


   What can you say about the food at a Michelin-starred Alain Ducasse restaurant that has not been said before? That it was complicated but delicious. That every ingredient had been carefully chosen. That it evoked the spirit of Versailles without reproducing the heavy cuisine the Burborns ate.


   The next morning, we had a royal wake-up call. Apparently, at royal palaces, footmen would not knock. They would only scratch on the door with their nails.


   So it was with us. After he had scratched, a footman arrived, as baroque music played, drew the curtains, gave us a traditional hot drink, curtsied and left.


   Then came the breakfast trolley with the best French Toast I can remember. They set it up on the terrace and we ate, overlooking the palace grounds.


   Breakfast was followed by a tour of the Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette palace part of which is usually out of bounds for tourists. This was followed a delicious Ducasse lunch (they paired pollock, a white Atlantic fish with Bearnaise sauce which worked rather well) that ended with the chef’s famous Rum Baba.


   And so on it went. Suffice it to say that it was one of the finest luxury experiences I have had in years: exquisite surroundings, the food of the world’s greatest chef, a peek into history and lots of pampering.


   It made you feel like a king. But you left before they brought out the guillotine!



Posted On: 25 Aug 2023 11:55 AM
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