Photograph by MICHAEL KAMBER, The New York Time
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The Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles "never fails to impress," says Camilla.
Photograph by MICHAEL KAMBER, The New York Time

Camilla’s Versailles

British national Camilla Gash (on Instagram @summerisntover) was infected with the global travel bug at an early age, having spent time in America, England, Cyprus, Sri Lanka, and Ghana during her adolescent years. Now a student of French at the University of Bristol, Camilla recently spent a year in Versailles—a city she describes “a magical and majestic place that combines history, beauty, and culture”—to fine-tune her accent while working at a local business school.

While most French-linguist undergrads opt to spend their third year in Paris, Camilla made a deliberate choice to base herself in nearby Versailles. To most people, the very word evokes one of the most splendiferous royal residences the world over. But the city where it can be found has so much more to offer.

“Versailles is a city of opposites,” she says. It’s “very touristy, but with a certain peace and tranquility about it; close to bustling Paris, but blessed with miles of green space; opulent, but with a relaxed pace.” Here are a few of Camilla’s favorite things about the city she once proudly called home.

Versailles Is My City

When someone comes to visit me, the first place I take them is to the Palace of Versailles (the Château), of course. The Hall of Mirrors and vast palace grounds never fail to impress.

September through March (except for Mondays, because the château is closed) is the best time to visit my city because the crowds are a lot more manageable than in the summer. You’ll need no excuse to warm yourself up with a chocolat chaud (hot chocolate) at Angelina.

You can see my city best from the street leading up to the palace. Walking from the train station, you turn a corner and suddenly get your first glimpse of Versailles in all its golden glory. It’s a pretty magical moment.

Locals know to skip the touristy restaurants around the palace and check out the huge variety of cuisines offered at the Marché Notre-Dame (Notre-Dame farmers market) instead. Some of my favorites include Le Cheese Club, L’endroit Thaï (try the ginger mojito), and Le Chat Qui Prise for its mi-cuit au chocolat, a sinfully rich chocolate pudding.

Aux Colonnes, a chocolatier that sells sweets and chocolates fit for a king, is the best place to buy authentic souvenirs. Head to the Notre-Dame marketplace for Macarons d’Antoinette–sweet, pale-pink goodies said to have been a favorite of the infamous queen herself.

In the past, notable people like Marie Antoinette, Louis XIV (the “Sun King”), and leading 20th-century philosopher Jean-François Lyotard have called my city home.

My city’s best museum is, unsurprisingly, the château. It’s well-run, the audio guides are very informative, and there’s something to interest everyone.

If there’s one thing you should know about getting around my city, it’s that you should validate your train ticket before you travel. A lot of tourists get caught without a validated ticket and fined, which is not the most fun way to start your day!

The best place to spend time outdoors in my city is without doubt the palace gardens. From the leafy avenues and wooded areas to the manicured lawns littered with statues, you can spend hours exploring the estate (and getting hopelessly lost in the process).

My city really knows how to celebrate Bastille Day (July 14 annually), which commemorates the Storming of the Bastille in 1789. The celebration starts the night before with a spectacular fireworks displays lighting up the night sky. On the following day, there’s a giant picnic at the palace where everyone must wear white.

You can tell if someone is from my city if they are sporting perfectly coiffed hair and fancy clothes (as the joke goes), but in reality the city has a real family feel to it and is home to a very varied crowd.

For a fancy night out, I would splurge on dinner at Gordon Ramsay au Trianon, the famous chef’s Michelin two-star restaurant at the beautiful Trianon Palace Hotel.

Just outside my city, you can visit Giverny, the location of Claude Monet’s former home and gardens, which inspired many of his paintings, including his famous Water Lilies seriesWater Lilies series. You can also visit the famous artist’s grave; Monet and many of his family members are buried in the village cemetery. And, of course, there’s always Paris, which you can get to in less than 20 minutes from Versailles via the non-stop train.

My city is known for being home to Marie Antoinette’s palace but it’s really a vibrant mini-Paris, offering so much more than tourists realize.

The best outdoor market in my city is the Marché Notre-Dame. This traditional market comes alive on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, from the early morning until the early afternoon (7 a.m. to 2 p.m.), and sells everything you could possibly need to create the ultimate French picnic—from cold meats and fresh fruit to baguettes, wine, and dozens of varieties of cheese.

La Cour is my favorite place to grab breakfast (their brunch is amazing), and Sister’s Café, serving up American-style burgers and milkshakes, is the spot for late-night eats (if you consider 11 p.m. late-night).

To find out what’s going on at night and on the weekends, check out the Office de Tourisme’s website. You’ll find listings for upcoming shows and concerts, many of which are put on by the palace.

When I’m feeling cash-strapped, I spend time at Au Facteur Cheval, a dusty second-hand bookshop on Rue des Etats-Généraux.

To escape the crowds, I wander along the beautiful Rue Royale, admiring the lovely houses with their sloping mansard roofs, then take a detour to the elegant Versailles Cathedral and Parc Balbi.

The dish that represents my city best is a simple chèvre chaud (broiled goat cheese) salad because it’s classically French, enjoyable all year round, and more than meets the eye. A warming chocolat chaud (allegedly a favorite of Louis XV) is my city’s signature drink. Sample them at Le Cheese Club and Angelina, respectively.

The Chapelle Royale is the best place to see live music (especially if you enjoy classical music), but if you’re in the mood to dance, check out one of the larger clubs in Paris; Versailles is not known for its nightlife!

An extravagant Kardashian rehearsal dinner could only happen in my city (though the locals might have thrown a fit at the prospect of the palace hosting a full-blown wedding).

In the spring you should rent bikes and discover Marie Antoinette’s estate and the Grand Trianon, before treating yourself to a crêpe at Le Blé Noir.

In the summer you should go to one of the palace’s musical fountains and fireworks shows at night.

In the fall you should take a long walk around the palace grounds and then warm up with a pot of tea at a cozy tearoom (I like Le Parnasse).

In the winter you should spend an evening at the ballet. The Opéra Royal hosts several shows a year, particularly around the Christmas season.

If you have kids (or are a kid at heart), you won’t want to miss the rental boats at Versailles. If you have younger ones, taking a ride on the little train is a great way to cover the palace grounds.

The best book about my city is The Sun King: Louis Fourteenth at Versailles by Nancy Mitford because it conjures up a glittering, chaotic image of court life in the golden days of Versailles, bringing the palace to life and transporting readers back to the 17th century.