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Getting The Royal Treatment En Route To Versailles

Dec 8, 2012
Originally published on December 8, 2012 2:39 pm

The opulence of the court of Louis XIV ... on a commuter train from Paris?

That's the surprise awaiting some lucky visitors to the Palace of Versailles. The cars of about 30 trains traveling between Paris and the palace have been completely decked out to reflect the sprawling and stately residence of former French kings, providing a sneak preview of sorts.

On a recent morning in downtown Paris, we run to jump aboard one of the newly decorated commuter trains to Versailles, which is located about 12 miles west of the French capital.

Bertrand Gosselin of the French state rail company, SNCF, says the idea for the trains, which began running in May, came up in a joint meeting between officials from the palace and the rail line that serves it.

"We decided to make something different," Gosselin says. "Why not make something inside the trains to be already in Versailles when you take your train in Paris?"

Train Cars Transformed

The rail cars are decorated in seven different motifs reflecting different areas of the Palace at Versailles — including the famous Hall of Mirrors, the queen's bedroom, the lavish gardens of Marie Antoinette's estate, the library of Louis XVI, the decor of a royal carriage and the peristyle of the Grand Trianon, which Gosselin notes was a private room where the king could have "some relations with women."

The special seven-car trains run on the inner city rail line that links Paris to Versailles and other suburbs. From central Paris, it takes about 30 minutes to get to Versailles.

Approximately 500,000 people use the line each day, including commuters and tourists. About one-quarter of them will be lucky enough to board the Versailles train, whether they're headed to the palace or not.

Joe Hastings and his wife, Christina Kunadin, tourists from San Francisco, had just ridden on one of the special trains out to Versailles.

"I think it's well done because it's beautiful, it makes you realize the elegance that you're going to be entering," Hastings says.

For photo-snapping Turkish tourist Beliz Kudat, the train is a little taste of home.

"It's gorgeous. It's beautiful," Kudat says. "Actually we're from Istanbul, so it's a bit like [the] Orient Express."

Each rail car is transformed into a section of the chateau through the use of sticker-like wall coverings made of a special plastified film. The vivid images are cut perfectly to conform to the double-decker train's shape and surface areas.

And it's not just the tourists who are agog.

Roscoe Acher is holding a broom and gazing at the paintings on the ceiling. Acher, a janitor on his way to work, calls the cars "a real joy," saying the decorations are so much nicer to look at than the graffiti.

Mostly Good Reviews

Back in her office at the chateau, Catherine Pegard, the director of Versailles, is happy to hear such reports. She says that's one reason why the trains haven't been defaced.

"We're very proud that there's been basically no graffiti or tags on these trains," she says. "And I think it's because beauty demands respect and makes people happier. So maybe there's less of a desire to do damage."

On the way back to Paris, Ingrid Lefebvre reads her newspaper in the bibliothèque (library) car, surrounded by images of the books of Louis XVI, the last French monarch to reside at Versailles.

She says the designs are incredible, adding that even though it's fake, it's well done and makes you feel a little closer to history.

But not everyone is moved by the decor. In a city often described as an open-air museum, the abundance of art and beauty has apparently left some of its denizens a little blasé.

"I'm indifferent to it," says Bernard Nevio. "After all, it's nothing but a copy. And an ersatz copy at that."

Copy or no, for this reporter, riding through Paris in Marie Antoinette's boudoir beats taking a regular commuter train any day.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, BYLINE: Now, from a city of austerity to a place of opulence - on the outskirts of Paris where a train has been outfitted to evoke a kingly French residence, the Palace of Versailles. Of course, Louis XIV never took that train ride. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports how their Versailles train amounts to a mobile sneak preview of the palace for tourists, which still stand as a symbol of the riches of a past age.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Oh, we cannot miss it. Oh, vite.

It's early morning in downtown Paris as we run to jump aboard one of the newly decorated commuter trains to Versailles.

BERTRAND GOSSELIN: Welcome in Versailles.

BEARDSLEY: That's Bertrand Gosselin, with the French state rail company, the SNCF. Gosselin says the idea for the trains came up in a joint meeting between officials from the palace and from the rail line that goes there.

GOSSELIN: And we decided to make something different. Why not make something inside the trains to be already in Versailles when you take your train in Paris?

BEARDSLEY: The rail cars are decorated on the inside in seven different motifs depicting the grandeur of Versailles. There's the Hall of Mirrors, the queen's bedroom and the lavish gardens. Gosselin elaborates.

GOSSELIN: You have the Grand Trianon.

BEARDSLEY: Which was what?

GOSSELIN: Which was a kind of private room for the king to have some relations with women.

BEARDSLEY: It's a little early for that.

There are 30 decorated trains running on the inner city rail line that links Paris to Versailles and other suburbs. Around 500,000 people a day use the line, commuters and tourists. About a quarter of them will be lucky enough to board the Versailles train, whether they're headed to the palace or not.

JOE HASTINGS: My name is Joe Hastings. That's my wife, Christina Kunadin. We're from San Francisco. And we just took a train to Versailles and found this beautiful covering. Yeah, I think it's well done because it's beautiful and it makes you realize the elegance that you're going to be entering.

BEARDSLEY: For Turkish tourist Beliz Kudat, the train is a little taste of home.

BELIZ KUDAT: Lovely. We began to take some photos. It's gorgeous. It's beautiful. Actually, we're from Istanbul. So it's a bit like Orient Express.

BEARDSLEY: The wallpaper that transforms the inside of each rail car into a room from the chateau is made from a special plastified film. The vivid images are cut perfectly to conform to the double-decker train's shape and surface area. And it's not just the tourists who are agog.

ROSCOE ACHER: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Roscoe Acher is holding a broom and gazing at the paintings on the ceiling. Acher is a janitor on his way to work.

ACHER: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: This is so much nicer to look at than the graffiti, he says. It's a real joy.

In her office at the Chateau, Catherine Pegard, the head of Versailles, is happy to hear such reports. She thinks that's the main reason the trains haven't been vandalized.

CATHERINE PEGARD: (Through Translator) We're very proud that there's been basically no graffiti or tags on these trains. And I think it's because beauty demands respect. And beauty makes people happier. So maybe they have less of a desire to do damage.

BEARDSLEY: I leave the chateau and head back to Paris.

We're changing cars because we want to see all the different decorations. So, Mr. Gosselin, ah, where are we now?

GOSSELIN: The bibliotheque of the...

BEARDSLEY: The library.

GOSSELIN: The library of the king.

BEARDSLEY: Oh. What books did he have? Can we go see?

In the library car, we find Parisian Ingrid Lefebvre reading her newspaper, surrounded by Louis the 16th's books.

INGRID LEFEBVRE: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: It's incredible, she says. Of course it's fake, but it's well done and it makes you feel a little closer to history. But not everyone is moved by the decor. In a city often described as an open air museum, the abundance of art and beauty has apparently left some of its denizens a little blase. Bernard Nevio is one of them.

BERNARD NEVIO: (Through Translator) Frankly, I'm indifferent to it. After all, it's nothing but a copy, an ersatz copy.

BEARDSLEY: Still, for this reporter, riding through Paris in Marie Antoinette's boudoir beats taking a regular commuter train any old day.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, aboard the Versailles train in Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: How do you get an assignment like that? You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.