Variety, I’m told, is the spice of life. So I thought I’d delay the next swash-buckling, tea-drinking episode from this year’s Tina Turner World Tour. Instead, I give you a world-class tourist attraction: The Palace of Versailles, Paris.
That is Paris, France, not Texas, for the Americans amongst you. Now, while we’re dealing with ambiguity, Joan of Arc was not Noah’s wife. This is blindingly obvious to most of us but I remember Radio Two once mentioning that an enormous percentage of a certain nation had got the wrong end of the stick.
Anyway, hurtling along the banks of the Seine on Paris’s C-line, a family of swarthy musicians hide accordions behind their moustaches, serenading the passengers. My phone beeps. Oh blast, I’ve only forgotten my ex-girlfriend’s birthday…that was four days ago.
She is, and has always, been known affectionately as “The Old Boiler”, at least among my pals. This is a gentle reminder from her – a playful nudge in the ribs, if you like – with a kiss at the end of the text message. Why are men so crap at remembering birthdays? Even when we lived together I had to write ‘Buy Boiler a present’ on endless scraps of paper in the lead-up month to the big day.
Yet a year and a a half after we’ve gone our separate ways, she’ll still say things like, ‘don’t forget it’s your mum’s birthday on the 22nd.’ Men are from Mars, women are from Venus. It’s true.
Versailles is one of the few major attractions in Paris that I haven’t got round to seeing, yet it’s on the must-see list. A Saturday in July, though, is optimistic; one simply cannot move for tourists. The palace is huge – ridiculously so, actually – yet barely a square inch of courtyard is free from the milling throng.
Next to a statue of Louis XIV – that’s the fourteenth; xiv is not a rare surname – I start counting tour buses. When I reach 34, I whimper a little and brace myself for a hellish afternoon of queuing. This is going to be hard work. Louis has an interesting hairstyle, by the way: hair in a bun, but no crumbs on his shoulder. Yes, I guess I should stop listening to Morecambe and Wise while I’m driving.
If you don’t like queuing, come here out of season – it’s as simple as that. But now I’m here… Aha, you can bypass the palace (with its interminable queues) and go straight to the garden round the back. ‘Les Grandes Eaux Musicales de Versailles’ sounds ever so grand, doesn’t it?
All it means is that a Tannoy blasts a soothing Sarabande across your bows as you trudge in Louis’s footsteps. And they turn the fountains on twice a day for a couple of hours. There are no lasers across water jets if that’s what you’re expecting.
It’s jolly pleasant, though, sampling an organic sorbet on the grass as rowers dip their oars in the Grand Canal. Meanwhile, the speakers dispense a tinny fugue comprising dexterous harpsichord fingering, and…
There is also a comforting reverberation of not-so-distant gunfire. And there’s another crackle, if anything a little closer this time. I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about. Probably just a cheese-eating poacher shooting a horse for his dinner. Ah, the banter between the French and the English, eh?
‘Treading in the footsteps of Louis XIV on his daily walk…’ says the sign. Well, what are all these lazy blighters doing in golf carts then? It’s hardly authentic. I mean, you didn’t see hurdy-gurdy players catching the bus down to the fountains for a rendition of the latest hits, did you? (That was a test to see if you knew that the hurdy gurdy came a little later than Louis’ reign. I do that occasionally – to check you’re reading properly and not skimming.)
No, there is no better way to appreciate Versailles’ gardens than on foot: a quick loop of the Bassin de Bacchus and you’ve earned an ice-cream. Or an orange if you’ve got one.
But oh no, hoi polloi must turn up by bus, park a hundred yards from the front door and hire a buggy. And film the whole experience with a blasted videocam. Is it me or is that just bone idle?
These are the people that drive two minutes to work, then drive another minute to the gymnasium, all the while complaining of time constraints. Solution: why not walk the one mile to work (come rain or shine), and scrap the fitness centre? Throw in a nightly press-up and you’ve got the body of a demi-god. Namibian, my pal from the Tina Tour, has a similarly pitiless regime, though I still check on him each morning – to make sure he hasn’t expired during the night.
Sorry, I digress again. It’s just that, having sauntered down through the tiers of lush plants – along the purple trail laughably marked ‘difficult/very difficult’ – a little train bursting with the able-bodied pulls up. People spill forth, saturating the cafe, ruining my chances of getting an ice-cream within the next hour.
It sets me wondering whether there should be a priority lane at refreshment stalls – for those that have arrived by foot. No bead of sweat from exertion? ‘Sorry, I’ll have to serve this nice young man who has walked, before you.’ Talking of exertion, these two (photographed) may have taken canoodling in the groves a step too far.
That all reads a bit negatively now that I read it back. It makes me think twice about including this lovely quote from Michael Simkins: ‘The only thing that France is adept at hosting is an invasion.’ Whoops, I’ve included it.
He’s on the money, but we don’t want negativity, do we? Well, how about this for a plus, then: signs are in English at Versailles. Believe me, it’s rare in France, a nation still at war with us roastbeefs.
But beware: credit cards, unless you are a French national, are void here. Imagine if they whacked up a reciprocal sign like this at Chatsworth House or Hampton Court in jolly old England. ‘Only British Credit Cards’? There would be uproar from the Frogs, for one, and there would probably be a Euro enquiry, suing us for millions in the name of discrimination..