VERSAILLES, France — In the gilded bedroom where three of France's greatest queens rested their powdered heads and bore numerous prodigy, I stepped through a door cleverly concealed in a wall covered with elaborate floral tapestry.
I was walking in the footsteps of Marie-Antoinette, who used this door to steal away to a serene octagonal room with two marble fireplaces and a satiny blue daybed — the only place in the 700-room Palace of Versailles where the Austrian who became queen of France at age 17 could be alone. It's also the door she escaped through when angry mobs stormed the palace on the eve of the French Revolution and killed her guards. She was later jailed and beheaded.
During a palace tour just a few months earlier, I'd stood shoulder-to-shoulder with mobs of shutter-bugging tourists behind red velvet ropes that kept us from getting close to many of the treasures of Versailles. The 2,100-acre estate in a leafy Paris suburb gets more than 3 million visitors annually, and for more than 100 years it was the political center of France and the seat of the royal court. But on this particular Monday — the only day of the week the house is closed — I nearly had it to myself. I was getting a behind-the-scenes tour of rooms that have been recently restored, some that are rarely seen, and was rubbing shoulders with Marie-Antoinette.
I followed my guide up a narrow staircase to another suite of private rooms, where the queen, who grew increasingly weary of the hundreds of attendants who followed her every move during her decade in the palace, liked to spend time with her closest friends and family members. I leaned into the cool plaster wall as I made my way up. Marie-Antoinette was famous for her poufy gowns — 300 new ones a year, by some accounts — and I couldn't imagine how she fit through the narrow passage without brushing against the dingy walls.
This was as close as I would get to the last queen of France, one of three who lived in the palace. The rooms were much more casual than the 24-karat Hall of Mirrors downstairs. They felt homey. The woodwork was painted, not gilded, and there was a painting of Marie-Antoinette's mother, the Empress of Austria, and a replica of the 647-diamond necklace that apparently helped spark the French Revolution.
When a friend heard that I was going to France, she suggested calling her friend in Paris, who might offer a private tour of Versailles. I was skeptical; who gets the keys to Versailles?
Five minutes after meeting him at a bustling square in central Paris, I was finally confident that the tour really was going to happen. Schork — a volunteer who has raised more than $200,000 for the restoration of the palace and its gardens — was clearly an expert. My tour for three cost $1,000.
About 40 minutes later, we stepped off the train in Versailles, which is normally packed with tourists making their way to the estate. On this day it was nearly empty. We bypassed the closed ticket office and went into a small office near the entrance to the palace. Schork talked, in French, with a woman behind a counter, who smiled and handed him the keys, oversized skeletons on a simple metal ring.
The tour's first stop was the lavish baroque Royal Chapel, where in my previous visit a velvet rope had kept me from entering. This time I wandered in and got close enough to see brush marks and fingerprints in the gilded bronze bas-relief sculptures that decorate its magnificent altar. Dim light shone through the windows lining the chapel's perimeter. Just above was an elaborate mezzanine level, where a succession of kings had observed daily mass. The palace was silent except for the hum of floor polishers.
In most places, I roamed freely in and out of rooms.
Near one of the grand marble staircases, Schork pointed to a rather unremarkable scale model of the palace, which started in 1624 as a U-shaped hunting lodge for Louis XIII. Originally, there were separate wings for the king and queen.
"It's the most precious thing in the palace," Schork said of the model.
He used it to show how the palace evolved somewhat haphazardly over the centuries.
"It was a complete accident; none of it was intended to be," he said.
The Royal Chapel, for example, had to be moved four times during major modifications to other parts of the building. During the mid 1920s, John D. Rockefeller donated a billion dollars in gold to help launch restoration efforts, which continue today. Somewhere down one of the cavernous hallways I could hear the tap-tapping of hammers echoing through the marble halls.
"Touch nothing: It's never been seen," Schork warned when we walked into a room that still smelled of fresh paint.
Throughout, cleaners diligently buffed, swept and polished the palace. A woman in a white lab coat used a canister vacuum to clean a recently acquired, glimmering marquetry cabinet, and I could smell fresh floor wax.
Marie-Antoinette would have been pleased. Schork said palace living conditions were primitive for much of its history. At one time, only 600 of the 1,700 fireplaces worked, and until the Rockefeller donations, the chateau lacked central heat. Only a few of the bathrooms were functional, and Marie-Antoinette had two of them.
"She was accustomed to being warm and clean — she was Austrian," he said.
She was also tired of the attention paid by her hundreds of attendants. Even the births of her children were witnessed by dozens, some there to verify that her pregnancies were not faked.
There wasn't much daylight left, so we quickly continued the tour outside. We walked for about 30 minutes to the Petit Trianon, a stone chateau built by Louis XV for his mistress, Madame de Pompadour. Restoration had just been completed. Louis XVI later gave it to Marie-Antoinette, which Schork said was the first time a queen owned something in her own name. She adored it because it gave her refuge from the court, he said, and during her reign she increasingly spent time there.
"She abandoned the palace and 4,000 people for this," he said.
Inside, Marie-Antoinette's presence was palpable even though she hadn't set foot on the estate for more than 200 years. I rubbed my hand along her gilt initials, which line a heavy metal stair rail leading to her private second-floor quarters. Near her "pouting" room was a portrait of Madame de Pompadour, and in an adjacent room was an embroidered chair and ottoman with the same upholstery that Marie-Antoinette once sat on. Most of the furnishings in the palace and surrounding buildings were removed during the Revolution, but many have now been restored.
On the way to the Grand Trianon, built by Louis XIV as a retreat for him and his mistress, our tour was interrupted by a tall iron fence and locked gate. Attempts to reach the security team capable of opening it were unsuccessful.
"Off with their heads," Schork joked.
I didn't care. I'd already seen more rooms than I could keep track of, Schork had a bottle of favorite Champagne chilling back at his apartment, and I knew this wouldn't be my last visit.
The 5 p.m. bells rang over the palace, and the sun was setting. As we drove through the estate toward central Paris, a few raindrops hit the windshield. We passed grazing sheep and children bicycling along narrow cobblestone roads that caused our car to chatter. I tried to imagine what it was like for Marie-Antoinette during her last, fateful ride out of Versailles.
CHATEAU OF VERSAILLES, BY THE NUMBERS
Roofing surface area: 27 acres
Floor space: More than 551,000 square feet Windows: 2,153
Furniture and objets d'art: 5,210