Fountains of Versailles: A Little Chaos

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Not long ago we saw a little movie by Alan Rickman called ‘A Little Chaos’ which is the entirely fictional story of  a female garden designer who worked with Andre le Notre and designed the Ballroom Fountain.  And there was a little romance involved.  (In reality Le Notre would have been elderly during the time frame, not the dashing young misunderstood husband he is in the movie.)  Rickman played a delightful Louis XIV and Kate Winslet the fictitious female architect.  Seeing the fountain under construction in the movie made us want to see the real thing.  We had last been to Versailles nearly 30 years ago and while the fountains were running, I didn’t remember seeing the many and various fountains tucked away in little copses through the garden.

So one Sunday in late October we headed for Versailles to see the gardens.  It was lucky we didn’t plan on the chateau that day as we missed the train and so didn’t arrive till a bit after 10 by which time the lines snaked for many blocks for chateau entry.

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The lines for the garden were virtually non-existent and so we walked right in.  The tickets for entrance during fountain shows are 9 Euros and at least in late October the fountains run from 10 to 11 and then again from 4 to 5:30.  The Neptune Fountain goes off once at about 5:20.  With the garden entrance ticket you are free to leave the gardens and wander about the estate or go to the restaurants just outside the garden gates and then re-enter that day.

From the back of the chateau is a sweeping view of the gardens and the Grand Canal in the distance just outside the gardens and on the estate.  The Estate including the canal with its boat rentals is open without charge every day. This what the vista looked like to an artist in the early 18th century.  DSC03182  And here is what it looked like to us.  DSC03118

Here is a closer look at the Latona fountain at the end of the path down to the canal. DSC03119

Because  the Ballroom Fountain was our object, we first headed to the left in the direction of the trees enclosing the fountain.  On the way, it was hard to miss some modern installations by Kapoor.  With the exception of the whirlpool fountain, they are remarkably awkward and ugly.  This mirror/reflector mars the view from the Chateau. DSC03117

Kapoor’s enormous construction running down the center of the garden has been vandalized several times;  it is hard not to sympathize with the vandals.  The gold patches cover obscene graffiti suggesting  what this blot on the landscape looks like.DSC03246

Here is another shot of the hideous thing which consists of a pile of boulders surmounted by  a large metal horn like object and some phalic looking tubular structures.  Really ugly and out of place in this setting.

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The Ballroom Fountain, like many of the fountains,  is in a glade of trees and well screened from casual view until you actually find the pathway in to observe it.

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The garden once contained a marble island for dancing and the green banks are designed as seats for participants (woe betide any tourist who attempts to sit on them today however.)  This is a painting of the fountain that is hung in the Trianon elsewhere on the Versailles estate.

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There are lovely cascades, with large conch shells from Africa set in the stone steps through which the waterfalls run.  Originally a small orchestra was hidden by screens above the fountains; today music is piped in during the fountain shows.   A very pretty fountain.

There are so many fountains in the gardens that some of them are not even identified and named on the map you receive when you buy your tickets.  This is the Fontaine du Point du Jour which is a charming little fountain on the edge of the glade that contains the Ballroom Fountain.

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We didn’t visit every fountain because they only ran for an hour in the morning and an hour and a half in late afternoon and we arrived a bit late.  But we glimpsed many down tree lined paths as we looked for the route into see our favorites.  This fountain in the distance is the Saturn Fountain.

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Our goal at this point however was the Colonnade Grove which is shown here in another painting from the Trianon.  The design replaced an earlier grove designed by le Notre; this one was redesigned in the  late 1600s.

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The grove looks much as it did 300 years ago; it  is ringed by an arched colonnade and each arch contains a small fountain.

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The statue in the center was done in 1699 by  Girardon and shows Pluto ravishing Proserpine.
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This is a lovely grove and a good place to take a break and just enjoy the beauty of the place.  There are few spots to sit in the gardens but the stairs here do afford that opportunity.

foncoledWhen we left the Colonnade Grove we came to the last major traditional fountain in the garden, the stunning Fountain of Apollo’s Chariot.  Somewhere in cardboard box in our storage is a negative of a gorgeous photo I took of this fountain with the chateau looming in the background 30 years ago.  But for now here are two snapshots from this trip.

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DSC03143 (2).jpgIn the lawn between Apollo and the Grand Canal is another Kapoor installation and IMHO the only one in the gardens that really fits.  It is a mesmerizing whirlpool, a sort of reverse fountain.

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We crossed the Royal Walk, the pathway from the Chateau down to the Grand Canal, and started back up the other side.   One of the first fountains we sought out here was the Enceladus fountain; Enceladus, god of the giants, is erupting from the earth and throwing rocks.  Alas the water was not running here by the time we reached this fountain which like many others is hidden away in a grove with limited access and surrounded by trellised fencing.

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Nearby is the Flora Fountain sculpted by Truby and representing the first season, Spring.  She is surrounded by children and wears a crown of flowers.

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Our next stop was to be the Water Theater Grove which we anticipated looking like this. Designed by André Le Nôtre between 1671 and 1674, the grove  located in the gardens, between the Star grove and the Three Fountains grove, was originally one of the most elaborate and complex in the gardens.DSC03179

But here we found another modern installation that recently replaced the older fountains in the grove.   An international competition was held to restore the Water Theater Grove.  Louis Benech and Jean-Michel Othoniel were chosen and installed a contemporary design.  The winning project created a robust set of fountains less fragile than the original designs and quite odd in the context of these antique gardens.  The fountains  are beautiful when the sun shines through the beads.

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On our way to the Three Fountains we discovered the Dragon Fountain which represents a myth of Apollo killing a dragon/snake.  When it is working, it shoots a column 90 feet into the air but not for us this day.

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The Three Fountains complex was one of our favorites.  These fountains were designed by Le Notre with considerable input from Louis XIV himself.   This is the depiction of the Three Fountains shown in a painting at the Trianon.  We entered at the top of this picture and walked down towards the fountain seen in the foreground here.

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While it is called Three Fountains and there are three main fountain areas, there are really more like six separate water features involved.  It was a great way to end as it is interesting and elaborate.  The first fountains near the entry at the top looks like this.

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This leads to the middle section with elaborate sculpted waterfalls and then cascades.

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DSC03276These are followed by a square pool with tall jets and then additional waterfalls on either side of the path down.

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And finally there is a fountain shooting fine jets in many directions.

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We decided to end our day with the Three Fountains .  We had had a long day, had a long trip back to Paris and had spent a few hours traipsing around the rest of the estate between fountain shows.  We decided to forego waiting for the Neptune Fountain show at 5:20 and head back.

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4 Responses to Fountains of Versailles: A Little Chaos

  1. melcoo says:

    I’ve also just watched the movie A Little Chaos and was googling to see the real ballroom garden, I wasn’t sure if it existed, glad to see that part of the movie wasn’t fiction, its beautiful, really want to visit gardens of Versailles after watching this movie.

  2. Edna Kelly says:

    Thank you so much for your description as it helped us with our Tuesday visit to the fountains. As we are not early risers, we did not arrive in time for the 11-12 display. We headed to the Ballroom fountain first to find it not working. An attendant there told us that the south side fountains go in the morning, the north side in the afternoon. Although La Girandole was going in the afternoon. It was a wonderful day enjoying the fountains which shut off promptly at 4 pm. The crowds were enormous in mid-June so we were glad to only be visiting the fountains.

    • Janet says:

      Oh I am so sorry that I didn’t know that. We had a few fountains that weren’t working, but not that many and I remember returning to the Ballroom fountain in the afternoon – but perhaps it was different then or I am remembering wrong. Hope it was a great day anyway.

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