Biographies & Memoirs

Marie Antoinette’s Paris

I actually intended this book as a ‘beach read biography’ (I know, I’m sorry, but this description made sense at the time) but if you’re anything like me then there’s a fair chance that you’re much more likely to be reading this book in a rented apartment or hotel room in Paris. I love to read books in the cities where they are predominantly set and this had led to many an impromptu walking tour over the years as I read about a street where the book’s subject once lived and have to go and stand in their footsteps for a while.

Quite a few of the places associated with Marie Antoinette, like Meudon, Saint Cloud, the Tuileries and La Muette, have either vanished thanks to the ravages of revolution, war and town planning or been changed beyond all recognition by the relentless march of time. However, enough remains for the modern Paris visitor to be able to get some unforgettable glimpses into the world that she inhabited both before and after the extraordinary events of 1789.

Assuming that you made it to the end of this book, I’ve added a small list of some of my favourite Marie Antoinette spots along with some details about opening hours as they are in 2015. Maybe one day, if I become very rich, I’ll devote a whole book to places associated with Marie Antoinette - how fab would that be?

(I’d recommend checking opening times and so on before you visit. They’re accurate right now in May 2015 but might have changed by the time you visit!)

Compiègne

The Château de Compiègne is one of the finest surviving examples of Gabriel’s elegant neo-classical styling, which can also be seen at the Petit Trianon. The woods nearby were the location of Marie Antoinette’s first meeting with her husband, the Dauphin and it would become one of their favourite summer residences both before their succession to the throne and afterwards with Louis XVI having the royal apartments extensively renovated after the birth of the Dauphin in 1781. Marie Antoinette’s rooms were on the terrace in the new wing, but only her splendid games room, where she played cards with her circle, have been restored to their original sumptuous appearance although there are lots of original decorations in the other airy and very pretty rooms of the apartments, which are mostly furnished as they would have looked during the residence of the Prince of Rome, son of Napoleon. The rest of the palace’s royal apartments have been restored to their approximate appearance during the residence of Napoleon and the Empress Marie Louise, who was Marie Antoinette’s great niece, but you can still get a strong sense of how the palace interior must have looked in the time of Marie Antoinette. Compiègne is open to the public on every day except Tuesday between 10am and 6pm.

Versailles

The gilded monstrosity and mausoleum to excess that is Versailles has been written about at length in this book and remains one of the most famous and written about buildings in the world so almost certainly requires absolutely no introduction from the likes of me. Huge, amazing and rather overpowering it is an absolute must see and is an unmissable treat for anyone even slightly interested in the life of the last Queen of France. Marie Antoinette’s rooms have been restored to their former splendour and you can also visit some of the secret rooms that lie behind her state apartments. I once almost fainted in her bedchamber during a visit in 1990 and was taken out through the secret door beside her bed and along the passageway through which she frantically escaped in October 1789. My wedding and the birth of my children aside, I would say this was one of the highlights of my entire life so far.  A particular highlight is the gorgeous chapel where Marie Antoinette and Louis Auguste were married in May 1770. It’s absolutely sublime. Versailles is open to the public on every day except Monday between 9am and 6.30pm. There are special tours to visit Marie Antoinette’s private apartments and the rooms where the aunts lived and span their web of gossip.

Petit Trianon

Although the Petit Trianon lies in the grounds of Versailles it has a completely different vibe going on which makes it feel like it’s far away from the gilded monolith at the other end of the park. No doubt this was its appeal for Marie Antoinette as well. Lots of money has been spent on restoring the pleasure pavilion to the way that it would have looked during the Queen’s residence and new rooms and parts of the gardens seem to be opening up all the time, which is great. It’s a lovely spot and, usually, much quieter than the main palace so you can enjoy a nice leisurely walk around. The Petit Trianon and Marie Antoinette’s estate have the same opening times as the main palace.

Fontainebleau

Often ignored in favour of Versailles, Fontainebleau is equally enormous, with over 1,500 rooms, and was the favourite Autumn residence of the French royal family, which means that it was usually the location for Marie Antoinette’s birthday celebrations every November. Although Louis XVI was mostly concerned with the excellent hunting in the surrounding forests, Marie Antoinette loved to entertain on a lavish scale at Fontainebleau and there would be a constant round of parties and balls, while Comédie Française actors would travel over from Paris three times a week to put on performances. Like Compiègne, Fontainebleau has been restored to mostly evoke the memory of the Bonaparte era but there are still strong glimpses of Marie Antoinette in the palace. Her two boudoirs have been beautifully restored to their former glory and the bedroom reflects her taste even if it has been restored to its 1805 appearance. The bed however, bearing Marie Antoinette’s MA cypher, was commissioned for her but not completed until the late 1790s. Fontainebleau is open every day except Tuesday. Opening times vary depending on time of year.

Château de Bagatelle

Built in 1777 as the result of a bet between Marie Antoinette and her favourite brother-in-law, the Comte d’Artois, the Château de Bagatelle, nestling in a beautiful pleasure garden in the Bois de Boulogne is, like the Petit Trianon, a perfect little gem of a building and a great example of the work of architect Bélanger. It really is a lovely spot and well worth a visit even if the opening times are somewhat restrictive. Bagatelle can be visited every Sunday and on public holidays at 3pm when there is a guided tour.

Rambouillet

Originally a residence of the Princesse de Lamballe’s father-in-law, the Prince de Penthièvre, Louis XVI purchased the château in 1783 so that he would have somewhere to stay when he went hunting in the surrounding forest. Although Louis loved it there, Marie Antoinette was much less keen and referred to it as a ‘gothic toad hole’. Hoping to win her over and knowing how much she loved to frolicking in her farm at the Petit Trianon, Louis surprised her with a delightful little dairy in the grounds, which he presented to her in June 1786. Marie Antoinette was delighted and rightly so as it is a charming spot, but alas she would pay her last visit in the summer of 1787. Rambouillet château and the Dairy of Marie Antoinette can be visited every day except Tuesday. Opening hours vary.

Conciergerie

The Conciergerie is a familiar, brooding site alongside the Seine in Paris. Its fat turrets give it the appearance of a fairytale palace, which is ironic considering its past as the most feared prison during the Terror where prisoners were transferred when they were about to be executed, thanks to the fact that the infamous Revolutionary Tribunal met in the adjoining Palais du Justice. The prison has changed since the days of the Terror but it is still possible to view the cells and the chapel where the prisoners prayed and where there is now a small memorial to Marie Antoinette on the site of her second cell, of which only the original floor remains. A neighbouring cell has for a long time been decked out as a reconstruction of her first cell and is suitably eerie with a model of the Queen and peeling fleur de lys bedecked wallpaper. The Conciergerie is open every day between 9.30am and 6pm.

Chapelle Expiatoire

The beautiful Chapelle is one of the places that every Marie Antoinette enthusiast should make an effort to visit as it really is extremely beautiful and really serene and peaceful. The statues depicting the martyred Louis and Marie Antoinette are very touching and somehow the luminous and elegant ambience of the building’s interior brings the Petit Trianon to mind. Possibly this was intentional and planned as a gentle tribute to the unfortunate Queen who is, hopefully, now at peace. The Chapelle Expiatoire can be found at 29 Rue Pasquier  and is open during the summer months on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays between 1pm and 5.30pm. Check that it’s open before you set out though as they are apparently prone to closing it without warning.

Saint Denis

I love visiting the basilica at Saint Denis – it’s so unapologetically gloomy inside despite the sumptuously beautiful stained glass windows that allow rainbows of light to tumble onto the cold stone floor. It’s full of royal tombs, some stately but most relatively simple, all arranged with very little thought to aesthetics and basically crammed into every conceivable nook and cranny of the transept. It’s one of the real hidden gems of palace, which seems like an odd thing to say about an enormous basilica which acts as necropolis to the royal tombs of France. However, not many visitors seem to want to get the train out to Saint Denis for some reason, which is good as it’s never crowded so you can get a good look at all the wonderful royal tombs. Sadly most of the royal graves were desecrated and emptied during the revolution before being hastily reinterred higgledy piggledy a few years later. Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI have wonderful memorial statues here and their tombs lie in the crypt alongside those of Louis XVIII and Charles X as well as memorials to Madame Élisabeth, the first sad little Dauphin and Louis XVII, whose heart was interred here not all that long ago. The Basilica of Saint Denis is open every day between 10am and 4.45pm.

Some other Parisian locations that may be of interest…

The Hôtel de Biron - now the Musée Rodin at 79 Rue de Varenne, this beautiful Parisian mansion used to be the residence of the handsome and extremely dashing Duc de Lauzun, one of Marie Antoinette’s cotérie of male admirers. Sadly the charming Lauzun was guillotined in December 1793 and his wife followed him to the guillotine in June of the following year.

The Hôtel de Soubise - now the Musée des Archives Nationales at 60 Rue des Francs Bourgeois in the Marais. This extraordinarily lovely mansion was the birthplace of the Princesse de Guéménée, Marie Antoinette’s friend and the governess of the royal children until her fall from grace as the result of her family’s bankruptcy.

La Force prison - the prison is long gone but was located at what is now the junction of the Rue du Roi de Sicile and the Rue Pavée. It is at roughly this spot that the Princesse de Lamballe was murdered in September 1792.

Rose Bertin’s shop -  described by some as the birthplace of modern couture as we know it, the shop and studio of Mademoiselle Bertin, who was nicknamed Marie Antoinette’s Minister of Fashion and was responsible for her most beautiful and extravagant outfits, was located at 149 Rue de Saint-Honoré. In 1789 she moved to different premises at 23 Rue de Richelieu.

Residence of the Princesse de Lamballe - the Princesse de Lamballe resided at the stately Hôtel de Toulouse, one of the mansions belonging to her father-in-law, the Prince de Penthièvre, at 48 Rue Croix des Petits Champs, which is now the headquarters of the Banque de France. Later in 1783 she moved to a mansion at 17 Rue d’Ankara, which is now the residence of the Ambassador of Turkey.

Temple prison - the prison where Louis XVI and his family were kept captive after August 1792 and where his son Louis XVII died in 1795 was demolished at the start of the nineteenth century. It’s rough location can still be discerned at the Square du Temple, a pretty landscaped garden at 64 Rue de Bretagne.

Palais Royal - the central Paris residence of Louis XVI’s cousin, the Duc d’Orléans, who rented out the arcades to cafés, shops, restaurants, theatres, gambling dens and brothels and the rooms above as flats. It was the most fashionable place to be seen in 1780s Paris. Marie Antoinette visited here more than once when she and the Duc were still on relatively friendly terms and he even threw a fancy dress ball for her in the palace. However their relationship soon soured and rather a lot of the terrible lies about her emanated from the Palais.

The Comédie Française - housed in the Théâtre de l’Odéon on the Place de l’Odéon, this was one of Marie Antoinette’s favourite haunts where she would come to watch her favourite actors and actresses perform. It was here that she came to see The Marriage of Figaro by Beaumarchais. Camille Desmoulins and his wife Lucile Desmoulins, who grew up on a nearby street, lived in an apartment directly opposite the theatre.

Residence of Madame de Polignac - Marie Antoinette’s beloved Yolande bought the Hôtel de Marle at 11 Rue Payenne but probably didn’t spend all that much time there as the Queen liked to keep her close. It is now the Swedish Cultural Centre.

Place Louis XV - now known as the Place de la Concorde, this was the location of the guillotine for much of the Terror and Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Madame Élisabeth and countless others were all executed here. The precise spot where the scaffold stood is not marked but it was close to the statue of Rouen in the corner of the square.

Montreuil - the beloved country house of Madame Élisabeth, the King’s sister until she was forced to leave it behind forever in October 1789. It’s not far from Versailles but even so her brother wouldn’t let her sleep there alone until her twenty fifth birthday, which as it fell in May 1789 didn’t give her much time to enjoy this. It can be found at 73 Avenue de Paris in Versailles and the park open every day between 11am and 8pm while the house can only be accessed as part of a guided tour.

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