The fierce winter storms that pummeled Europe in December 1999 were bound to take down some property -- but did it have to be France's imperial showplace?
Known (for good reason) as the Sun King, the French monarch Louis XIV devoted 50 years to remaking his father's hunting lodge into a royal residence so fabulous, the name "Versailles" still connotes luxury living. Here, he typically hosted some 3,000 courtiers and their retinues at a time. Given the constant entertainment and lavish banquets, few turned down the chance to join the glittering throng -- to gossip, dance, plot, and flirt away while the peasants on their estates sowed the seeds of the Revolution. It all caught up with later monarchs Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who were eating cake at Versailles on October 6, 1789, when they learned that citizen mobs were converging on the palace. Versailles became a museum under Louis-Philippe (1830-48) and has remained so ever since.
When the 1999 storm hit, hurricane-force winds peeled layers of lead from the roof and blasted out thousands of windowpanes-but those were quickly repaired before the rain could get at the priceless interiors. Today, visitors can tour the State Apartments, loaded with ornate furniture, paintings, tapestries, vases, chandeliers, and sculpture. The most dazzling room -- a long arcade called the Hall of Mirrors, with windows along one wall and 357 beveled mirrors along the other -- is where the Treaty of Versailles, officially ending World War I, was signed in 1919.
The gardens, though -- that's another story. The Gardens of Versailles were the ultimate in French formal garden design, with geometrical flower beds, terraces, pools, topiary, statuary, lakes, and some 50 fountains. An estimated 10,000 beeches, cedars, junipers, and firs were flattened in the storms, 90% of them over 200 years old. Among the trees lost were a Corsican pine tree planted by Napoleon and a tulip tree from Virginia given to Marie Antoinette. Although new seedlings were planted, it will take years -- centuries -- before those leafy avenues look the way they did.
Most of the trees were not only old, they were too tall for their root systems -- Versailles was built over a swamp, and the water table is so high, trees never sink deep roots. Versailles' gardeners see the replanting as a long-overdue chance to restore the park's original design. However, since the days of the Sun King, Paris's suburbs have overtaken his country hideaway. With the trees gone, you can now see apartment towers from the royal terraces -- hardly the effect Louis intended.
Contact: Château De Versailles (tel. 33/1/30-83-78-00; www.chateauversailles.fr).
Where to Stay: Hotel de Fleurie, 32-34 rue Grégoire-de-Tours (tel. 33/1/53-73-70-00; www.hotel-de-fleurie.tm.fr). Hotel Lord Byron, 5 rue de Chateaubriand (tel. 33/1/43-59-89-98; www.escapade-paris.com). Timhotel Le Louvre, 4 rue Croix des Petits-Champs (tel. 33/1/42-60-34-86; www.timhotel.fr).