We visited the gardens of Versailles for the Grands Eaux Nocturnes this Saturday. It turned out to be rather different from what I'd expected.
First of all, the attendance. About ten thousand at a guess. The closest experience I've had to it in five years was the great anti-war march in London back in 2003; it was that packed. And yet, if you strolled just off the main pathways, you could find yourself almost alone.
Secondly, the sheer size of the gardens. Each of the individual 'bosquets' is a good sized garden in itself. We had two hours, and we still left five or six gardens unvisited.
Thirdly, garden mind games. Now this was definitely encouraged by the scenario of the lighting and effects (whispers coming from the bushes, strange flashes of light in the trees, overheard conversations), but it's there in the design of the gardens. Look at the map, and you think the grid layout is clear; enter one of the bosquets, and you find that the entrances have been angled cleverly so that when you get to the centre, you can't actually see any of the ways out; or find that there's no direct approach, you have to go at an angle. Quickly, despite your conviction that the grid pattern will keep you on the square, you're lost. It's not a formal maze, a maze that says it's a maze, like Hampton Court; it's worse, a maze you thought was a formal grid, a maze that suddenly arrives with its ambiguity and threat like a flashback in a Buñuel film.
Then there's the inside/outside mind game. Is the centre of the Bosquet inside or out? It's outside - a clearing, an open space, unroofed - and yet at the same time it's inside - a drawing room, a salon, a defined space. And then there's the forest, contained within green trellis walls - the forest creates the wall; is that an inside or an outside? You actually never see the forest, unless you peer through the trellis; but it's there, an indefinable presence. You're never quite sure where you are, once you wander off the main axis of the Grand Canal and chateau.
Of course that main axis is everything I had expected; formality, grandeur, that you could have anywhere - a German Archbishop's residence, an Italian villa, a Russian palace. But it was the informal spaces that were the real surprise for me.
The Grands eaux nocturnes is not a cheap experience; tickets cost 17 euros. But it's impressively worked out, with audio visuals including a recreation of a project for a globe floating on one of the fountains, which was never built; baroque dancers; amazing glitterballs throwing light on to one of the clearings; and some charming baroque music; as well as one glade devoted to the sense of smell, which, unfortunately, we didn't get round to. The whole thing is just balanced nicely on the edge where French art excels - so nearly pretentious, but not quite.
And you get a first class fireworks display at the end. Not lots of big bangers and garish colours, but a well paced display of shimmering silver and green rains, interlaced trails of golden fire, and a little surprise at the end, which I won't spoil.