Article and photos by Scott S. Smith
The Courthouse Hotel-Shoreditch, built as a courthouse and police station in 1903, was recently restored and opened as a hotel.
In September 2016, just four months after its soft opening and while it was still adding features and functions, my wife, Sandra, and I spent two nights at the Courthouse Hotel-Shoreditch (337 Old Street, London, EC1V 9LL, United Kingdom, +44 203 3105555, www.shoreditch.courthouse-hotel.com, email@example.com) on the cusp of northeast London, United Kingdom. The hotel, the sister property of the five-star Courthouse Hotel in Soho, was established in the former Old Street Magistrates' Court and Police Station (1903-96), a few blocks from the Old Street Station of the Northern Line of the Tube (subway).
The lobby with the statue of a British guard at the top of the stairs
The restoration of the Baroque-style courthouse and station cost £40 million (about $64 million). The lobby provided an impressive welcome with its marble floor, grand stairway guarded by a golden statue of a soldier, and a clean and sparkling redesign. Although top hotels usually have employees eager to help, the ones we encountered at Courthouse Hotel-Shoreditch were exceptional in their friendliness and helpfulness. Although we arrived early in the morning expecting to leave our luggage with the concierge while we headed to the Tower of London, our room was ready and our first requests received immediate response.
We liked that the multi-lingual staff provided an overview tour of the facilities, and after we returned there was a more in-depth one. Not everything was fully functioning: the main restaurant was due to open soon, spa services were limited, and Internet access was available only at the front desk until the business center opens. We like to experience the emerging hot properties before everyone else discovers them, so the stay was to our taste.
From our sixth floor we looked out over the rooftop dining area and the historic Shoreditch Town Hall across the street, housing restaurants and a theater at the time of our visit.
Our sixth floor room looked out over the outdoor dining area on the fifth floor roof, directly across from the Shoreditch Town Hall, built in 1866 as a vestry, a building attached to a church used to store vestments and liturgical objects, with halls in which church and public meetings can be held. In 1888, it was the site of the inquest into the murder of Mary Kelly, Jack the Ripper’s last victim. The following year, the suburb was incorporated into the county of London, and in 1899 it became a metropolitan borough of London, with the town hall in operation until 1965, when the area was incorporated into the Hackney Borough. Shoreditch had been popular in the 16th and 17th centuries as a place for theaters, gambling dens, taverns, and brothels. When we were in London it had an edgy hipster reputation with abundant street art, galleries, nightclubs, and restaurants (the former town hall had some activities on offer, as well as a theater and event space. For more, check out the Top 10 Things To Do in Shoreditch (theculturetrip.com/europe/united-kingdom/england/london/articles/top-10-things-to-do-see-in-shoreditch/). Past area residents have included the playwright Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare’s lead actor Richard Burbage, who is buried in the church. More recent ones have been artist Damien Hirst and actor Richard Brand.
The Dalston King room was 26 square meters in size and had a comfortable bed.
We stayed in a Dalston King room, the first of three types of 86 guestrooms (the others were Magistrate King and Xscape). At 26 square meters (280 square feet), our room provided enough of space for the two of us. The bed was comfortable enough; though we prefer a slightly softer mattress and pillow, we slept soundly, which was all that mattered to us. Despite the nightlife in the area, our room was free of street level noise (finding a hotel in a quiet area has proven difficult in central London in the past). The insulation was also enough to keep us from being bothered by neighbors.
The best in-room feature was the Samsung 46 inch flatscreen hi-definition LED TV. It was larger than those at the other three hotels where we stayed and the only one that offered CNN. The television remote wasn’t responding, but that was a good test of the service: we called twice and had immediate responses. The first time the front desk sent someone who moved some wires in the back, which worked for a while. The second time, two technicians spent half an hour to provide a permanent fix. We also heard good things about responsiveness from other guests.
Our room had a desk and a table with chairs, plus bottles of sparkling and still water (other hotels provided two carbonated ones, so it was nice to have a choice). The small refrigerator was not yet being stocked as a mini-bar. We appreciated the fresh cream and good grade of instant coffee. The room had the usual upscale amenities, such as an iron and board, robe and slippers, and safe. Something we had never seen before was hangers with built-in lights so that at night or early in the morning we could see our clothes. We appreciated having a window that opened for fresh air (something top urban hotels sometimes lack), and we also liked the easy-to-use temperature controls. There was turn down service at night, but we declined.
The bathroom had a bidet, the first we have seen in a luxury hotel.
We’ve reviewed many leading hotels and don’t ever recall one that had a bidet, evidence of management’s interest in attracting the international audience that shares French culture. We wanted to know how it worked. Although the drain was stuck it was fixed right away. The phone by the toilet was well-positioned. The counter space for makeup was larger than many hotels where we have stayed, but the lighting on the makeup mirror and overhead wasn’t as bright as it ideally should be (a weak area for even the best hotels). The shower had two nozzles that were easy to use: the standard showerhead and one for the overhead rain effect, which was pleasant.
The bar had semi-private rooms that formerly were jail cells.
The hotel retained some of the architectural features of the original building. In the breakfast dining room we saw signs of its use as a law library. The bar had several semi-private 5 by 15-foot rooms with reinforced metal doors. Those were originally holding cells which hosted the likes of East London gangster twins Ronnie and Reginald Kray.
The hotel had a large, heated indoor pool.
There was a small gym with equipment for cross-training, cycling, and weightlifting and a four-lane heated indoor pool with current. Like the original Courthouse, the hotel had two rare features, a private movie theater with capacity for 196, including armrests and foldout tables for a planned film club, as well as a two-lane bowling alley. Bowling was one of those sports the city people came out to Shoreditch to engage in hundreds of years ago, so it was fitting for the location.
The movie theater
The bowling alley fit in with Shoreditch's history.
We liked the unusual features of the Courthouse Hotel-Shoreditch and the responsiveness of the staff. When it is fully functioning I would consider it among my top five choices for a different hotel experience on a return trip to London.
By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox
Fontainebleau Castle from the gate
During a spring trip to Paris, France we visited the nearby town of Fontainebleau, in the Seine-et-Marne Department (www.turisme77.co.uk and www.paris-whatelse.com), known for its former royal residence and forest. There was too much to see in one day so we spent the night at La Demeure du Parc, a boutique hotel established in late 2015 that was conveniently located within easy walking distance from Fontainebleau Castle.
During our tour we walked past one of the water fountains named for Diana
Since our time was short and it was our first visit to the area we took advantage of the opportunity of a guided tour in English. We met Véronique Villalba (firstname.lastname@example.org), our licensed guide, at 10 a.m. in front of the castle for Les Grands Appartements Tour, a private two-hour visit of Fontainebleau. A graduate of the University of Nanterre specializing in art history she had 10 years of experience as a guide. It was her friendly demeanor and passion for history that brought the former castle stories to life and made our morning activity memorable.
The interior design varied according to the time period of construction.
When I asked her why the historic attraction was special she explained that it was the sole castle that housed French kings for more than eight centuries (taking into account an interruption due to the Hundred Years' War). In contrast, she explained, Versailles only served that purpose for four centuries and the Louvre had only become a royal home 650 years earlier.
One of the characteristics worth noting was that the castle retained period furniture
Fontainebleau Castle, established circa 1137, was large. The fortified complex occupied 46,500 square meters of space in 13 floors, which included 1,536 rooms. Of those, 6,000 square meters were open to the public. It had 130 hectares of parks and gardens with 42,500 plants, and employed 135 staff. Despite the chilly and rainy weather we encountered it was by no means devoid of visitors. On the plus side, with only 470,000 visitors in 2015 it was a much more serene attraction than the Louvre or Versailles, both of which had millions of visitors a year each.
The Grand Salon de l'Imperatrice
The attraction itself was made up of a hodgepodge of buildings, improved and modified on the whims and budget strings of its powerful owners over the years. Despite our brief visit we toured interior and exterior areas. That the interior rooms were frequently furnished with original pieces, she explained, lent the castle a notable ambiance absent in other castles and palaces where the furniture and art had been sold years earlier.
The Chapelle de la Trinité
We visited the Royal apartments, Renaissance Rooms, one of Marie Antoinette's Boudoirs, Francis I Gallery, Galerie de Diane, Chapel of the Trinity, Chapelle basse Saint-Saturnin (only the upper level). We saw many of the masterpieces: The Duke of Orléans Commemorative Wedding Cabinet, Charlemagne in the Guise of Henry IV (in the Chapelle de la Trinité), The Royal Elephant (in the Galerie François Ier), Alexander Taming Bucephalus (in the Galerie François Ier), Odyssey Cabinet (in the Ancienne Chambre de la Reine), Beneman Commode (in la Nouvelle Chambre de la Reine), Marie Antoinette’s Bed, Napoleon’s Throne. Outside we walked through or caught a glimpse of its gardens and courtyards (sometimes from a distance): Cour Ovale, Cour de la Fontaine Cour d’Honneur, Cour des Offices, Grand Parterre (created by André Le Nôtre and Louis Le Vau and said to be Louis XIV’s greatest architectural achievement at Fontainebleau), Jardin Anglais, Jardin de Diane, Grotte des Pins, Pavillion de l’Étang, and Park. Should I return to Fontainebleau I would enjoy another visit to the castle, especially in the company of Véronique Villalba, for further discovery and leisurely exploration, including time in its gardens if the weather is clear.
By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox
The front of Atelier Maitre Albert Restaurant avec Guy Savoy
Despite its reputation as a culinary capital Paris, France is one of those cities where picking a restaurant at random may result in a memorable find or a disaster, and the price difference might be negligible. The more touristy the area the greater the chances of disappointment, so as a general rule I make a point of not going to unfamiliar restaurants in zones popular among visitors, especially in the vicinity of tourist magnets such as the Latin Quarter, Le Marais, Arc de Triomphe, Champs Elysees, and Eiffel Tower, for example.
Our light bites as amouse bouche
One way to reduce the chances of a less than stellar expensive meal is to sample restaurants owned by or part of the portfolio of a well known chef. This has been particularly true when I have sampled the cuisine at one of the restaurants already. Such was the case of the Atelier Maître Albert (1, rue Maître Albert, 75005 Paris, France, + 33 1 56 81 30 01, fax +33 1 53 10 83 23, www.ateliermaitrealbert.com, email@example.com), part of the Guy Savoy food constellation. Prior to going there I had dined at Guy Savoy's eponymous gourmet restaurant as well as Les Bouquinistes (see Latin Quarter restaurant nice neighborhood option) and Le Chiberta (see Le Chiberta, a restaurant find near the Champs Elysees), and had sampled the products of his new bakery outlet specializing in brioche. Most of those experiences had been rewarding so I was confident my meal at the Atelier Maitre Albert would also be worthwhile.
The menu was posted outside
Located at the beginning of a narrow street in the Left Bank across the Seine River from the famous Notre Dame Cathedral the restaurant was a pleasant surprise because while I had walked the neighborhood countless times I had no idea the restaurant was on that street, a 10 minute walk from my central accommodations. Except for the famed chef's name on the exterior wall, the modern facade revealed little of the restaurant's ambiance or its high quality comfort food.
Our seats were next to a large fireplace
As soon as we entered a young man with hip bleached blond hair welcomed us warmly. Moments later, after handing over our rain gear, we were seated in armless chairs next to the unlit fireplace in the restaurant's ground floor dining room. From our seats we had a generous view of the entire dining area and across to the open kitchen and its grills. There was also window side dining near the entrance with views of the street.
Paintings from the old Guy Savoy restaurant hung at Atelier Marie Albert
It took a few moments for our eyes to adjust from the bright midday exterior sunlight to the low ambient light indoors. The first decorative features we noticed were the familiar colorful clown themed paintings hanging on the back wall. Previous to that day we had last seen them at the Guy Savoy main restaurant. Since the restaurant had moved nearby and been redecorated the paintings had been transferred to their new home. Other salient decorative features were sleet gray marble tile, exposed beams, stone walls and track lights. It was pleasantly serene without being too quiet.
Artichoke soup and brioche from the Guy Savoy bakery
With our friendly English speaking waiter's help we made our selections from the menu including a glass of wine to match our choices. We both had the Velouté de l'Atelier "en verseurse," a light artichoke soup brought to the table in a pitcher and served with brioche. It reminded me of a similar soup I had tasted at the chef's gourmet restaurant. For mains, my lunch partner had the Volaille fermiére du Maine (a quarter chicken portion) for one, a free range spit-roasted fowl dish with a side of mashed potatoes. He ordered a light white from the Pays d'Oc on our server's advice.
Special ribs still on the bone
At my request the chef served the pork ribs deboned and sliced
I had Travers de porc "marinés," marinated pork ribs and a side of Gratin d'épinards champignons (mushroom and spinach gratin). The gratin was a favorite. Both mains were moist and tender with a broth like flavorful sauce. At my request, the kitchen staff had removed the bone from my ribs so they were ready to eat when they were served, although the server was kind enough to show us the ribs before they were deboned. I had a red from Bordeaux. For dessert, I had the Choco pralin-feuilleté, anglais-chicoré, two slabs of dark chocolate and crispy praline with a small dark chocolate ice cream ball.
The chicken was served with a broth like sauce
The chocolate dessertOverall, our comfort food style lunch experience was outstanding. Kudos to Guy Savoy and his collaborators Emmanuel Monsailler, chef, and Laurent Jacquet, manager and their staff. From the soup and salami amouse bouche to the dessert we enjoyed all our courses. The dishes were perfectly prepared and worth repeating. The service was attentive, helpful and friendly. As a bonus, the restaurant was in a central location and convenient to visitors and residents within and near the Latin Quarter. What more could we ask from a neighborhood restaurant?
By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox
The Treschers Schwarzwald Romantic Hotel
While visiting the Black Forest Highlands of southwest Germany we spent two spring weekend nights at the popular Treschers Schwarzwald Romantic Hotel, part of the Romantic Hotel Group since 2002. The hotel was on the shores of Lake Titisee in the tourist village of Titisee-Neustad 850 meters above sea level. The main highlight of our lakefront Four Star Superior accommodations, 38 kilometers from Freiburg, was the lake view. We could catch a glimpse of the natural lake from the restaurant dining room, our 27 square meter Classic Double rooms and Titinova, the pool and sauna areas on the opposite side of the hotel.
The weather was cloudy and rainy during most of our stay
A view of the hotel from Lake Titisee
We experienced rainy and chilly weather for virtually our entire stay. From the sunny blue sky we saw briefly one afternoon to the thunderstorm that serenaded us at dinner and the gray fog enveloping the lake the morning of our departure the lake drew my eyes whenever I was near a window. I loved the lake greenery. Lake Titisee, our tour guide explained, was free from over development, and thanks to a ban on motorboats (only rowboats and electric boats were permitted), especially clean. One of my favorite moments was Saturday night, when from the comfort of my balcony, I watched a short fireworks display from a boat in front of the hotel, part of a wedding celebration taking place onsite.
Our Classic Double Rooms had a small balcony and a view of the lake
Marion Moninger, marketing manager, and Michael Moninger, hotel manager
The family hotel, the Hansjörg Trescher Michael Moninger families owned the property, was established in 1887. Although pets were not allowed, children of all ages were welcome. There were many families with well behaved children during our stay. There was a collection of valuable mechanical clocks in the lobby and lounge. I appreciated that some of the reception desk and restaurant staff spoke English. Many staff members were friendly and service oriented, especially our servers, such as Maike, at dinner.
The bathrooms were modern
To reach our rooms, 109 and 119, from the reception and lobby we had to pass through an open style restaurant facing the lake. It was there that we had the buffet breakfast between 7 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. a la carte dinner between 6:30 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. Lingering food odors, some of them stale, assaulted my nose as soon as we approached the restaurant entrance. The pungent food smells in the main building and restaurant hung in the air at all hours, reaching into the hallways and rooms of our building. It was unpleasant and disappointing, making it challenging to enjoy our time at the property.
The sauna's central area
The Himalayan Salt Sauna was a favorite
Hotel facilities included three restaurants (two open during our stay) that emphasized fresh seasonal products and sourced most produce locally, according to a property spokesperson. There were also: Flaschlehimmel piano lounge, fireplace bar, terrace overlooking the lake, Bellezza Beauty Spa, 72 square meter fitness room (with eight Life Fitness, Kettler and Germania machines), indoor and outdoor pools, Finnish sauna with a panoramic view of the Bärental, steam sauna, Himalayan-Salt Sauna, infra-red twin cabin, plunge pool with a waterfall Kneipp Treatment, gift shop and beer garden.
The indoor pool had two levels of seating
The pool bar
Given the foul weather a spa visit was especially in order. Although the hotel spa was fully booked, with the owner's assistance, I managed to try the San Vino Facial, one of the facility's signature wine based treatments. My visit was not without challenges as the spa menu was only available in German and the hurried woman at the spa reception spoke no English and showed no signs of wanting to try. On the plus side, my facialist was friendly and welcoming and I enjoyed the gentle treatment.
My therapist was friendly and the treatment was worthwhile
The entrance to the spa featured a display promoting the local wine facial treatment
After making sure I was comfortable, she began the treatment by rubbing a mix of shea butter and grapeseed oil on my hands. She used a cleansing milk and tepid water to prepare my face for the facial, which began with a peeling product. While the mask hardened she massaged my feet. After removing the mask with a warm liquid that smelled of vinegar she applied a day cream followed by eye cream, which for once didn't irritate my eyes.
A deli plate including black forest ham and boiled egg was one of my favorite items
Trout with vegetables
Before dinner at the waterfront restaurant, I donned the hotel branded cotton bathrobe and slippers from my room making my way across a long underground passage with automated lights beneath the restaurant to the Titinova on the other side of the hotel, where I spent a short while at the indoor pool, warmed to 31 degrees Celsius, and sauna area. Both had pretty lake views. In the sauna, for adults and children 14 and older, no clothes were worn. There was an ample supply of towels. I started at the Himalayan salt sauna (a favorite) heated to 45 degrees Celsius before moving to the infrared sauna for two heated to 55 degrees Celsius. From there I went to the Finnish sauna, heated to 95 degrees Celsius, before spending a few minutes relaxing on a lake facing lounger. Both had lake views. It was raining and chilly so I gave up my plans to swim in the outdoor pool.
The hotel employed 120 staff and had 155 beds in 82 rooms ranging from Classic to Family Apartments. In June 2016, the property received a Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor. Should we return to Lake Titisee we would consider a stopover at the Treschers Schwarzwald Romantikhotel Titisee (Seestrasse 19, D-79822 Titisee-Neustadt, Germany, +49 7651 8050 / +49 7651 8116, http://www.schwarzwaldhotel-trescher.de, firstname.lastname@example.org).
By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox
Our view of the Eiffel Tower as we cruised by on the Seine River
Often friends and acquaintances, knowing my fondness for Paris, France ask for dining recommendations. It is a question I never take lightly, especially for first time visitors. One of my top recommendations is Le Jules Verne in the middle of the world famous Eiffel Tower because of the romantic setting, gourmet offerings and spectacular views of the city. It is the type of setting that memories that last decades are made of and the perfect place for special occasions.
The boarding area of the yacht Don Juan II
On my most recent visit, I discovered another completely different yet equally romantic, elegant, and memorable venue, the Yachts de Paris Don Juan II (Port Henri IV, 75004 Paris, France, +33 1 44 54 14 71, http://donjuan2.yachtsdeparis.fr/ , email@example.com ), a 50 meter long by 7 meter wide yacht. Aboard the vessel, which could seat 38 guests (far fewer than the famous iconic tower), five staff served an appetizing set menu made from fresh ingredients while the boat cruised 26 kilometers along the Seine River past the Eiffel Tower and back to its departure dock, a stone’s throw away from the Ile Saint Louis in the heart of the city. There were only 12 of us that night, which made the experience ever more intimate and special.
Before our departure we sat on at a comfortable spot on deck to enjoy views of Notre Dame while sipping a bubbly aperitif
Below deck the bar was stocked with several types of champagne
Despite our early arrival we received a warm welcome by the English speaking staff. We were immediately invited to board. Black rattan furniture with red cushions was spread around the open space atop the Don Juan II. Below deck pretty tables were set and awaiting our arrival. The elegant tableware was designed by Safran and the furnishings were by Pierre Frey. The single stall head was spotless. After a quick tour one of the staff invited us to have an aperitif topside while we waited for the rest of the passengers to arrive.
Another Yacht de Paris vessel passed just as we pulled out onto the river
Moments later, we were sipping chilled champagne and munching on mixed nuts (pistachios, cashews, pecans, walnuts and Brazil nuts) and enjoying views of Notre Dame Cathedral, the Institute du Monde Arab, and the Left Bank as the rest of the guests began to arrive. Francois, an attentive staff member, offered me a synthetic fiber red blanket to ward against the night chill. He brought us bite size morsels of salmon with beetroot, tomato and radish. Greg, the cruise photographer, introduced himself and with our permission took some photos. When it was departure time our server invited us below deck. We headed to our window side table for dinner.
The aft view of the river
From the Port Henri IV we motored past the Ile Saint Louis and Ile de la Cite islands passing many historic buildings such as the Conciergerie, Musee du Louvre, Grand Palais, small Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower (at the top of the hour to see the twinkling lights), the Musee d’Orsay and finally Notre Dame Cathedral. The Don Juan II glided gently along the river most of the way, so that but for the passing scenery and the occasional wake from a fast moving boat we might have forgotten we were on the water.
We had an outstanding view thanks to the yacht’s large windows
The bread cart was one of several luxury features of the dinner service.
Our five course set menu dinner began with a pre-starter of Crab, white radish pickles, chips and crisps. There were two types of butter, salted and seaweed flavored. A server came by our table to offer us bread from a cart: country, fruit and nut, Italian bread sticks, brioche. Whenever our bread plate was empty she would return to refresh it with our selections. Lobster with fresh greens and creamy nage was next. The main course was Suckling Lamb, roasted and cooked with bay leaf, organic asparagus from the Landes with juice and Parmesano di Reggiano cheese. A Saint-Nectaire cheese course followed. For dessert we had Flower of flowers, lime and strawberry cremeux and juice of an infused hibiscus. Chocolate bites, presented in individual boxes for us to keep, completed the repast. Our meal was paired with a 2012 Louis Jadot chardonnay from Burgundy. We appreciated the souvenir printout of our menus. It included a map of our path along the Seine.
The art like pre-starter featured bites of crab
The suckling lamb
The photographer took our photos with iconic buildings in the background such as Notre Dame while we were docked and later the Eiffel Tower when we went topside to enjoy the light show during the cruise. At the conclusion of the cruise the photos were available for purchase. Our two favorite photos became a lovely keepsake that enhances our wonderful memories of the evening.
Among the sightseeing highlights were the Pont de Grenelle replica of the Stature of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower
The restaurant, opened March 2003 and managed by François Giroud, was one of eight small vessels owned by Yachts de Paris. The meals were created by Guy Krenzer, executive chef, who was recipient of the recognition Double Meilleur Ouvrier de France and creative director of well known Lenôtre culinary enterprise. The wine and food pairings were selected by Olivier Poussier, recipient of the Meilleur Sommelier du Monde 2000 award.
The colorful dessert of Flower of flowers, lime and strawberry cremeux and juice of an infused hibiscus
A cart of sweets to wrap up the meal
In addition to the well presented gourmet dinner we enjoyed and the exacting service, there were a myriad luxury touches, such as the blankets, cloth napkins with our amouse bouche, the orchid on our table, artistic dinnerware like the sea urchin shaped appetizer plates, quality nut snacks, perfectly timed courses to allow us to profit from the best views, and friendly and professional staff who kept us informed during the brief journey, that made the evening special. I would gladly take another cruise aboard the Don Juan II and recommend it to friends living or visiting Paris to celebrate a special occasion or just because.
By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox
Our meeting place for the tour was the entrance of Les Invalides metro stop in Paris
Over the years I have visited Versailles, the famous palace established by Louis XIV near Paris, France, several times on my own and with large group tours. While the attraction itself was impressive the crowds were oppressive and the logistics to visit it cumbersome. On my most recent stay in the City of Lights, I tried a new approach. I placed myself in the hands of an organized small group program that started and ended in Paris. When I visited Versailles in the past I had to make my own way there from Paris. This time all I had to do was reach the meeting point in central Paris in the morning, and make my own lunch arrangements. The tour company took care of the rest. At the conclusion of the tour our small group returned to Paris together. I was pleased with the results. I appreciated and enjoyed my visit to the 787 hectare palatial estate much more than on most of my previous visits, and was able to discover areas open only to small escorted groups such as ours.
At the train station in Versaiilles
We met Herve Rudrauf, our English speaking French tour guide, by the entrance to Les Invalides RER train station in the tony seventh arrondissement near the heart of the city early morning on a spring Friday. It was pleasantly chilly. The sky was gray and overcast, threatening rain. We were thrilled to discover there were only four of us in the daylong (eight and a half hours) tour. The other two participants in the Full Day Versailles VIP Behind Locked Doors program, organized by City Wonders Tours (6-9 Trinity Street, Dublin, 1-800-358-1942, www.citywonders.com, Info@citywonders.com) were from the United States.
Herve Rudrauf, our tour guide, in the palace gardensFollowing greetings, introductions, and instructions Herve handed each of us an RER train ticket and we descended the stairs to the station platform. A few minutes later, we boarded a crowded two level suburban train. It was necessary for our group to split up in order to find seats. Once at the Versailles train station, we found each other and walked together to the palace entrance where, thanks to our tour, we skipped the long admission line. We also had special access to select rooms, such as Marie Antoinette's private theater, open only to escorted visitors. A staff person provided our group exclusive access.
The Royal Chapel at Versailles
Despite the expedited entry and private visit, the interior of the palace was overcrowded with tourists, sometimes making it challenging for our small group to remain together, hear our guide, take photos and walk from one room to another without being separated. That was not surprising given that some 7.5 million people visit the opulent former royal residence each year, according to a Versailles spokesperson. Although the interior was 63,154 square meters large and the attraction employed as many as 1,000 staff, only 23,072 square meters of the former palace were open to the public, and some of those rooms and halls could only be visited with a guide. A representative from City Wonders indicated that as much as 70 percent of the palace interiors may be visited via an escorted tour.
Our private visit of the Royal Opera was memorable.
Because of the uncertain and overcast weather it was a relatively quiet day, our guide explained to our surprise when we commented on the number of people all around us. As we made our way within the storied interior the cacophony of noises competed for our attention. Our eyes and imagination wondered. It was easy to become distracted. Thankfully Herve was efficient at keeping a speedy yet comfortable pace (although restroom breaks were limited and there was no time for the gift shop) while at the same time sharing engrossing information about the former royal residence and its famous occupants.
The palace gardens did not look their best because it was cloudy and rainy.
Anticipating a two hour break for lunch we had made reservations in advance at a gourmet restaurant in the village of Versailles. Unfortunately, by midday we were in the heart of the estate and too far away to return to the village for lunch so we begrudgingly cancelled our booking. Instead we made our way to one of the crowded restaurants within the property. While the service was speedy and efficient lunch was the most disappointing meal we had during that month long trip. We were so hungry after leaving the restaurant we attempted to buy something else at the nearby cafe only to find a slow moving long line and a limited selection of fast food items that appeared no better than what we had already sampled at the restaurant.
Part of what made the tour worthwhile, in addition to our tour guide's knowledge and enthusiasm, was the access our small group had to areas of the former palace reserved for escorted tours such as ours. Despite huge crowds we had a chance to step behind the cordon at the Royal Chapel for a brief look. We had private visits of the Royal Opera in the main building and the Queen's Theater in Le Petit Trianon, among of my favorite sections.
A painting of Marie Antoinette at Le Petit Trianon
One of the houses in the Hamlet, part of the Versailles estate
After lunch we walked around the gardens, discovering a hidden grotto where the famous queen was said to spend quiet time alone. We also visited Le Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette's home away from home while at Versailles; and ambled around the Hamlet, a make believe village within the estate.
Perhaps because before studying to become a licensed tour guide Herve spent several years working as an actor his discussions about life at Versailles were engrossing and entertaining. His interest and passion about French history (he wrote his thesis on the representation of royal power in France), the royal families, and the intriguing stories of inhabitants of the former royal palace were contagious. By the end of the tour, our fellow travelers were asking him for recommendations of books about the history of Versailles and its previous inhabitants.
The ceiling of the Queen's Theater at Le Petit Trianon
At the conclusion of the Versailles portion of the tour, a taxi, slightly delayed due to strikes, dropped us off at the Versailles train station where we boarded an RER return train to the city. City Wonders Tours, owned by Simone Gozzi, offered the Full Day Versailles VIP Behind Locked Doors tour Fridays and Saturdays only for a maximum of 15 people. The company won the award for the best Guides and Products in Paris 2016 from Get Your Guide. The highlight of the tour was Herve, our friendly, knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guide who brought the history of Versailles alive. We especially liked the well orchestrated tour logistics, intimate size of our group, and access to private areas. In the future we would be well inclined to book another tour with the same company and the same guide.