On my last full day in Paris, I was fortunate enough to join a small group from La Cuisine Paris and head out on their new-ish tour of Le Potager du Roi at Versailles. Not your typical Versailles tour, this one doesn’t lead you around the Château at all – rather you are shown something of a hidden gem – the King’s Kitchen Garden – then taken to the local market, then served a four course lunch at a typical French bistro.
After lunch, to walk off some of the calories, you are given a ticket to the Château so you can visit at your leisure – either that day or anytime for the next two years as that’s how long the tickets are valid. For the price of 180€ per person, it’s a little on the costly side (especially if you are a family) but if you factor in your transport, tickets to the Potager and the Château, the lunch (with wine!) and the guide’s services/ walking tour (which run around 90€ per person in Paris for a regular walking tour), along with the fact that you don’t have to think about the logistics, it’s something to consider, especially if you are short on time. Certainly the tour was sold out over the summer, so it appears the cost isn’t prohibitive (though it’s definitely something to save up for).
The group meets at the RER C station to travel our to Versailles (about a 25 minute ride) together. It was a great way to get to know each other – so many tours just start with no time to chat with fellow participants so this was a nice change. Arriving in Versailles, we made our way to the Château, said a brief hello to Louis XIV, then took a left hand turn in the direction of the Potager…
Developed between 1678 and 1683 by Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie, the director of the royal fruit and vegetable gardens, Le Potager is run today by the École Nationale Supérieure du Paysage, (the French school for training landscape architects). It is listed by the French Ministry of Culture as one of the Notable Gardens of France.
There’s a nice little background in English about Le Potager on the World Monuments Fund website: “The Potager du Roi, also known as the Kitchen Garden of the King, was commissioned by Louis XIV and built near the Palace of Versailles. The buildings, elevated terraces, stairs, and reservoir were built by Jules Hardouin-Mansart from 1678 to 1783. A special gate, known as the Grille du Roi, provided private entrance for the king to the potager. The finely detailed gate was created by Alexis Fordin, the greatest metalworker of his time. The potager is just over 23 acres with an arrangement of 28 smaller gardens on the periphery and 16 square gardens surrounding a central fountain. Jean Baptiste de La Quintinye, the director of the potager, designed an underground drainage system, introduced natural fertilizers, and cultivated plentiful fruit, vegetables, and exotic plants for the king with the help of 30 gardeners. Under Louis XV, the Le Normand family became the potager’s director, successfully growing coffee plants that provided café to the king and his guests in the garden. In 1874, the potager housed the École Supérieure d’Horticulture, until 1946 when it became the École Nationale du Paysage which still exists today.”
Certainly, your first views of the garden will take your breath away. It’s SO much bigger than I expected!
La Quintinie still watches over his creation…
This place is a gardener’s dream…
The gardens themselves produce 50 tonnes each of fruits and vegetables that are sold in the tiny store at the entrance. There wasn’t much on sale the day we went but it looked like there was plenty on the go in the garden!
There are about 5000 fruit trees (400 different varieties) and 300+ vegetables. The fruit trees are trained in espalier against the walls or along wires which not only looks pretty but is also part of the practical side of this gorgeous garden – the espalier create “walls” between the vegetable plots which shade them and the walls where many of the espalier are grown absorb the heat of the stone during the day meaning it’s not so cold for the plants at night. A team of only 10 gardeners (plus seasonal student workers) maintains the Potager which sounds like a lot but when you see the size of the place, it’s actually a huge job!
Our guide, Karen, an American living in Paris, filled the hour (plus) at the gardens with stories and facts about the history of the gardens and the plants growing there. She “read” the group well (we had retirees as well as teenagers in the group that day – so quite the variety of interests and knowledge about the gardens) and tailored the information to our level of interest and questions.
Some parts of the gardens (mostly outside the actual garden walls) are less manicured than others which I liked to see. Like this poppy garden near some of the maintenance buildings and greenhouses or the students’ garden plots on the right below.
After our garden tour, we headed out to the weekly Versailles market in the Place Notre Dame. An open-air market is surrounded by four halls – the Carrés aux herbes (greens), marée (fish), farine (grains), viande (meats). Nowadays the stalls inside are not strictly only those products and they are worth exploring!
We could have lingered a long time in this square…
But we had apéritif snacks (saucisson) and fromages to buy to round out our upcoming meal…
So off we went to a typical local bistro for a tasty four-course meal, some wine and lots of convivial conversation. And, of course, the snacks we had purchased at the market.
After lunch, the majority of the party headed off to explore the Château and grounds – lunch finished at 2pm so whilst it wasn’t the quietest time to explore, there certainly was a lot of time to do so. If you liked you could have made an entire day out of this essentially morning tour.
Verdict? This is not your typical Versailles tour, nor is it for everyone. If you are interested in food, history, food and history, and love exploring places that are a little off the beaten track and cost isn’t an issue, it’s definitely for you. If you’re more interested in checking out just the Château and want a whole day to do so, this will not be the tour for you, unless you save your ticket and go another day. I had a wonderful time, met some really interesting people and learned a lot about gardening and history (and food) from the delightful Karen!
Disclosure: I was a guest of La Cuisine Paris on the “Potager du Roi” tour. I was not asked to write about this, nor am I being compensated for doing so. All opinions are 100% my own.
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