Monday, November 9, 2009


 Trees and ease

Say "Versailles" and most think "château," but Versailles is also a city where the quality of life appeals to even the most hardened critics of the Ancient Regime's excesses. Louis XIV's innovative and harmonious urban planning is still a model three centuries after he first laid out its wide avenues and imposed building restrictions.

Historic preservation and controlled growth have given the town a look all its own. Unperturbedly classic, human in scale, Versailles has a very livable, old-fashioned aspect that its residents adore.

Modern urban amenities keep life simple and uncluttered: underground parking, buried electrical and telephone cables, and a highly developed public transportation system with 37 city bus lines and five train stations. Today the tree is king and the city keeps careful track of all 180,000 of them; whenever one is to be cut down, it must be replaced.

It's inevitable that a provincial city which figures as a cultural counterweight to Paris and selected repeatedly by magazines as one of the best places to live, inspire clichés. And clichés abound about Versailles' 85,000 souls who go about their business as ten million visitors stream through the town yearly on their way to the château and park. "B.C.B.G." or "bon chic, bon genre," synomous with good taste and tradition, is a platitude for the archetypical Versaillais deemed to have a family of four or more well-behaved children dressed in navy blue with claudine collars or in scouting uniforms.

The cliché also calls for a wicker shopping cart--the indispensable accessory for going to the public market, which at Versailles is so packed with people that celebrities who shop there get lost in the crowd.  Be it "Old France" or "traditionalist," this is not a city where fashion elegance is a moral imperative; ostentation is generally avoided and low key is the local style.

Regardless of the conformist image, Versailles has space and oxygen to raise creative, cosmopolitan talent. Like filmmaker and master of intimate comedy, Bruno Podalydes and his brother Denis of the Comédie Française, or fashion designer, Agnés b, who grew up here. International trip-hop electronic duo of Air, Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicolas Godin, went to school together here, as did members of the pop-rock-soul-funk electronic group, Daft Punk. Then there's the singularly curious figure of the French hip-hop scene, the Klub des Loosers, an anonymous one-man act that local teenagers have called Versailles underground. His cult hit, "Born under the Sign of V" caricaturizes teenage disillusionment and boredom in Versailles. A common complaint, but as one youth quips, "We may not have a bowling alley or a mini-golf, but we can go sculling on the Grand Canal!"

Or if really bored, the kids can play the special Versailles edition of Monopoly. "Where are you going to install your hotels, in the Quartier Saint-Louis or the Quartier Notre-Dame? Good question, for a legendary gulf separates these prime neighborhoods. Mention it to long-time resident, Christine de Saint-Exupéry, countess and mother of four, and she knowingly smiles. "The Quartier Saint-Louis is more traditionalist than Notre-Dame; it's a city within a city and the people there feel they are more 'Versailles' than Versailles."

"As for traditionalists," she continues, "Versailles has a high concentration of old, aristocratic families. Half of the town is in the Bottin Mondain! It's a genealogical listing of French aristocracy--the bible of Versailles," she adds, grinning.

A quiet revolution is going on in Versailles as its officials seek to transform the city into the economic motor of the western Parisian area; Versailles Satory district is the new site for the Vestapolis research center to develop the car of the future. With these prospects and an increasing number of young Parisian families moving to Versailles seeking trees and ease, a socio-demographic mutation is guaranteed. Like gilding, will the Versailles sense of tradition rub off onto its new faces? That would be hard to predict, but with its rich history, Versailles can surely bank on a future in gold.

What was true then, is true today; the above text is a slightly revised republication of a magazine article I wrote which appeared in France Today, March 2006. 

To the list of new musical talent that has sprouted in Versailles, add the alternate rock group Phoenix. I like the comment a friend, Adah Rose Bitterbaum, from Washington, D.C. of the Studio Gallery had: "I saw a great rock 'n roll band from Versailles called Phoenix. They were adorable and good. Lots of Versailles Angst which is a real oxymoron."


  1. This brings back such fond memories of my visit with you in Versailles and the touring you so graciously provided. Thank you so much.

  2. Underground utilities and 180,000 trees would be enough of a draw for me even without all the other charming characteristics you've pointed out. Lovely photos!

  3. Thanks, Jean. After living here for so long, it always feels strange to go to cities where the cables are above ground! We're spoiled here...!

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