Dear Smitty

Our authors write Smitty, our travel editor, about their journeys

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Our Travel Editor, Smitty

Although British by birth like his namesake James Smithson, Smitty is a gadabout who is at home anywhere from a palace to a rain forest. He sends our writers and photographers around the planet—he'd much rather be sending himself, of course, but someone has to stay home and mind the store. Still, Smitty likes to be kept abreast of what's going on in far-flung places, and so our authors write him letters about their journeys.

Dear Smitty:

On the surface, Versailles appears to run like clockwork. Tagging along backstage with a few of the unsung heroes who keep the gilded machine ticking, I discovered a palace and park hidden from most visitors.

Not that I enjoyed every minute. At one point, Jean-Louis Lebigre, the affable chief of fountains, who has a macabre sense of humor, locked the rusting iron door behind us as we plunged into one of the ancient tunnels threading beneath the domain.

"Wouldn't want someone to lock us in from the outside," said Lebigre with an inscrutable little laugh. "Don't worry. If I lose the key, I'm sure someone will find us—our skeletons at least." He held up a portable phone and grinned.

"Insurance," he said laconically.

Leading the way with his flashlight, Lebigre delivered a running commentary on the mid-19th-century lead pipes feeding the fountains. He stopped at one point to shine the beam on a particularly tricky bit of soldering joining a larger pipe to a smaller one.

"There are only a handful of fountain workers in the world capable of making that kind of repair," he boasted. "Three of them are here and there are another two—or maybe only one—at Tsarskoye Selo, the Catherine Palace near St. Petersburg." Later on, a coworker allowed that Lebigre might have been exaggerating a bit. I didn't mind; I liked his style.

Picking our way farther down the clammy tunnel, we emerged into a subterranean gallery with a ceiling 20 feet high. Lebigre's light danced across the walls, illuminating extraordinary, exuberantly Baroque stone sculptures.

"Where are we?" I asked, marveling.

"Directly beneath the Latona fountain, with all the gilt frogs," Lebigre replied. "What you're looking at is called stereotomy. That's where the 17th-century stonecutters let their imaginations run wild."

"Did anybody see their work?" I asked.

"No, no," he replied. "They just made these pieces to show off their techniques to one another, for the sheer fun of it."

Back in the blistering sunshine, Lebigre guided me across the garden intending to show off another, more public marvel—the Baines de Apollon, where marble statues of snorting stallions vie for attention with a statue of the Greek sun god being attended to by nymphs. As we rounded the corner, Lebigre's customary grin collapsed into dumbfounded amazement. Instead of waterfalls cascading out of artificial grottoes, the baths were bone-dry, baking in the sweltering heat.

"If the clay bottom cracks, we're in big trouble," Lebigre explained. "It's man-made and we'll have a hell of a time fixing the leaks. We'll have to call off the fountain shows here."

Urgently, he fished the portable phone out of his pocket and called his secretary to find out why the pond was empty. After a few minutes, she called back to explain that it had been drained to plant new islands of greenery in the decorative pond.

"Ah bon?" he said, his eyes momentarily clouding over. "Well, tell them to do the job fast, if they don't mind, and refill it."

Pocketing his portable phone, he turned to me in mild exasperation. "Poor guys. They work from 8 in the morning till 11 at night sometimes, manning the fountains for the fireworks. I can't be too hard on them," he said.

Passing by a half-hour later, we heard the sound of water splashing into the baths. "It's a lucky thing we came by," Lebigre sighed. "This garden never lets you rest."

Inside the château, 62-year-old Daniel Mornas keeps equally busy. As master of the clocks, the courtly watchmaker is in charge of winding all of Versailles' 200 mechanical clocks and keeping them in running order.

Among the most elaborate is the 1706 Pendule de Morand, a glass-and-gilt pendulum clock over seven feet tall. On a Monday, when the château was closed to the public, Mornas unhooked the velvet rope in the Mercury salon to set the magnificent contraption in motion for my benefit. Gilt doors opened to make way for a pair of royal fools and two cherubs who gently bopped them on their heads. As bronze and silver bells chimed, an angel emerged from the mechanism to lay a crown on the head of a golden king.

As I nodded in appreciation, Mornas stood back admiringly. "No Y2K problem here," he quipped. "When I go on vacation, I stop all the clocks. Of course, since I'm the only one allowed to maintain the clocks, I don't take many vacations," he added, somewhat ruefully.

Mounting several flights of creaky stairs, Mornas led me into an attic equipped with the whirring works that operate the giant clock overlooking the Cour d'Honneur. Next door was a cramped, low-ceilinged room dominated by a smoke-blackened forge.

"Louis XVI used to escape the court up here when he wanted to tinker," said Mornas. "He loved making fancy locks and keys and was pretty talented at it."

Up one last staircase and we were out the door onto the roof, inspecting three massive forged bells that chime every quarter of an hour. The view over the parterres, fountains and canals from this aerie 50 feet above the ground was breathtaking.

The spry clockmaker recalled that on the eve of the millennium he had clambered up onto the roof to enjoy a bird's-eye view of a stunning fireworks display.

"I thought someone else would've had the same idea," he said, "but I had the place all to myself. It may sound silly, but I felt a twinge of pride that I had helped keep the château's clocks ticking into the new millennium."

Jean-Eric Ougier, the creator of the New Year's eve fireworks and the summer sound-and-fireworks spectacles, is another man behind the scenes. I spoke to him as the cast for the outdoor performance settled into their wigs, gowns and riding costumes in a staging area behind the Bassin de Neptune. When he was in his 20s, Ougier, now 43, abandoned a career in finance to devote himself to his first love—fireworks—and found a kindred spirit in the Sun King. "Louis was drawn to fireworks because he was seduced by the idea of having a technique that could be seen by thousands of people at the same time," explained the showman. "It was a way to allow the gardens to be appreciated at night in a manner completely different from the daytime.

"The more I read about Versailles, the more I realize that Louis XIV never stopped building, tearing down, reconstructing and tearing it all down yet again. This was a boy who was not as sure of himself as history would have it. He passed his time reflecting and rethinking everything. We have the final results, but not a single trace of the state of his soul nor his emotions as he was dreaming of his creations.

"The idea of this spectacle is to try to imagine those dreams and present them to the audience. The first two are nightmares—one portrays the period when the nobles tried to usurp the throne during Louis' childhood; and another represents his unhappy first marriage to Marie-Thérèse of Spain. At the time, he was crazy in love with Marie Mancini, the niece of Cardinal Mazarin. The third dream, about the garden, comprises four parts—hunts, festivals, loves for his various mistresses, and glory in battles. The final dream is his legacy of Versailles to the country."

I'm not sure I followed the twists and turns of the assorted nightmares and dreams. I doubt Louis himself would have. But as I shuffled out toward the parking lot, past a jazz club and boisterous café patrons spilling out onto the boulevard, I could imagine the grand splash the royal impresario's fetes must have made more than three centuries ago.

 

About Richard Covington

Richard Covington is a Paris-based author who covers a wide range of cultural and historical subjects and has contributed to Smithsonian, The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, among other publications.

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