I went to Versailles on a Sunday. The rain was drizzling and the air was cold. Few people had ventured to the castle, much less the gardens. I was standing alone in the deserted park. The place was drenched in melancholy and it dawned on me that my surroundings had rarely reflected my state of mind so closely.
My first time at Versailles, it was just my father and me. To be honest, I wasn’t impressed by the castle and don’t remember much apart from the Hall of Mirrors. To my impatient 12-year-old self, it was just an endless succession of room after old room. What I do remember vividly however was how enthralled my father looked.
My father was a living history book. I was impressed by his knowledge and as we went back to Versailles together 10 years later, our visit was made so much livelier by all the anecdotes he told me and my mother. I had grown fond of the place myself –Sofia Coppola’s Marie-Antoinette and Stefan Zweig’s biography of the queen probably helped. It was a beautiful day, one where we explored the whole estate and on which I’ve looked back on through photos many times.
As the years went by, Versailles became a regular meeting place for us between Normandy, where my parents lived, and Paris. We even made a day trip there when I worked in New York City and returned to France for the summer. It was a place where looked forward to seeing each other. We could forget about our daily lives and enjoy each other’s company among the things we loved: beautiful surroundings, art, history and good food. There are memories that make me smile, like the three of us running through the whole crowded castle to make it in time for lunch at Angelina’s before joining a guided tour. And then my mother and I kindly making fun of my father for looking like a kid in a candy store as our guide walked us through the kings’ private rooms.
The last time I spoke of Versailles to my father, sadness took over for a minute. I thought he was regretting not being able to go there anymore and quickly changed the subject. He passed away from cancer several days later.
I returned to Versailles with my mother a week after the funeral. It was one of these summer nights with fireworks throughout the gardens. The lit-up castle looked otherworldly and the golden gate stood like an entrance to another world.
On my last visit to Versailles, I remembered how friends told me my father would always live in my mind and in my heart. As I walked through the exquisite design exhibition he would have loved, I couldn’t help but think of what objects he would have preferred and what jokes we would have told each other. I realized I was lucky to have this beautiful place close to home where I could remember our time together and promised myself to return on his birthday.