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.
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.