By Chris Graeme
A CAPRICIOUS, frivolous, superficial gambler and spendthrift, or a loyal, caring, charming, graceful, witty and courageous wife, mother and friend? No character in French history has inspired more heated debate among historians than Marie Antoinette, the Austrian princess who came to France at the age of 14 to marry the future King Louis XVI.
In fact, in a poll carried out in 1993 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, she was voted, along with Napoleon, as the most important figure in the country’s history.
If you plan a long weekend in Paris and have already done the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay, this could be an interesting and fascinating theme, along with the usual musts that are the Champs Elysées, Printemps, Galleries Lafayettes, Moulin Rouge and a trip down the river Seine.
My starting point was at the Palace of Versailles on the Friday, where I arrived from Montparnasse station early enough to avoid the inevitable crowds of Japanese and Chinese tourists. Buy a day pass, which will cost you 20 euros (15 euros off-season) with audio commentary tape, and this will give you access to the fabulous State, King’s and Queen’s Apartments, the Apartments of the Mesdames (the sisters and daughters of Louis XV), the Petit Trianon, Grand Trianon, the Parliament and, of course, its gardens, and the Hameau, or Hamlet.
In the Queen’s Apartments, you will see an ostentatious ensemble of four rooms where Marie Antoinette lived out her public life, including giving birth to all of the royal children in the full glare of all the courtiers!
Of course, the Queen, whose taste was marked by elegant simplicity, preferred to spend time at a smaller neo-classic designed house in the grounds known as the Petit Trianon. It was originally intended for Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour, but Louis XVI gave it to Marie Antoinette in 1774, and it became her favourite residence. Here, she made an English style garden, workshops and a rustic hamlet with working farm nearby, reflecting the late 18th century, romantic taste for everything rustic.
Here, there are certain clichéd points that need to be cleared up: Marie Antoinette never dressed up as a shepherdess, milked cows, ran the farm, said ‘let them eat cake!’ (about the starving poor) or paraded around in extremely ostentatious diamond necklaces. Neither is there any evidence that she was a lesbian.
In fact, she was the epitome of simplicity and the champion of ‘less is more’, preferring simple, flowing, white muslin dresses, taking an active interest in the upbringing of her children and genuinely caring for the poor.
Having said that, the Hameau, or rustic Hamlet, she had built is fascinating and shows how interested she was in the latest agricultural techniques brought by England’s Agrarian Revolution. Built in the Normandy style, it consists of 12 charming thatched cottages, complete with vegetable plots arranged around a lake and a farm with pygmy donkeys and goats. It truly sums up the taste for nature, which originated in England and was made fashionable by Rousseau and his sensibilité philosophy in the 1780s. Versailles will take you an entire day!
On the following day (Saturday), if you get up bright and early, go to the infamous Conciergerie prison in Paris (Palais de Justice), where Marie Antoinette spent her last fateful weeks. A nine euro ticket gets you round the prison and the incredible Chapelle with its fabled stained glass windows.
You will see part of the cell where she was kept before being taken to the guillotine, and the different types of cells reserved for commoners (les paillettes, or straws), gentlemen (les pistolets) and the aristocracy, who had their own private cell with a bed and writing table. You can also see the enclosed women’s courtyard, where she took her daily walks and the door through which she passed to the waiting tumbrel, or cart.
The last place on our journey in the footsteps of France’s tragic last Queen is the Cathedral of Saint Denis, a 15-minute train ride from Paris Gare du Nord in the suburbs. Here you can see the white marble mausoleum dedicated to Marie Antoinette and Loius XVI in 1815, along with the black marble graves in the Bourbon vault, where their remains were transferred after the Napoleonic Wars.
A political and diplomatic pawn from start to finish, Marie Antoinette must rank as one of Europe’s most unfortunate scapegoats who, in October 1790, wrote: “Oh my God, if we have committed faults, we have certainly paid for them!”