My wife and I arrive with suitcases packed with clothes, trying to look as rich as possible. At the newly opened hotel the Grand Contrôle, the first ever on the grounds of the Château de Versailles, we are greeted by staff members dressed as 18th-century servants. We have been granted temporary membership of today’s 0.1 per cent so as to relive the lives of the 18th-century 0.1 per cent. Call it Marie Antoinette with plumbing.
We were ready for a bit of luxury. A typical day in the eight-month Parisian winter had been: work, scurry home for the 6pm curfew, finish dinner before 7pm, then bed at 10.30pm, because what else were you going to do? Now we had gone from sensory deprivation to extreme overstimulation in the original luxury destination, Versailles.
The Grand Contrôle opened in June, 18 months behind schedule, with 14 suites and rooms starting at €1,700 (plus a 14 per cent “destination tax”). The building began life in 1681 as a mansion for the Duke de Beauvilliers, essentially Louis XIV’s party planner. By 1789, it was the home and office of Jacques Necker, the Genevan banker who served as general controller of finances for his next-door neighbour, Louis XVI. After the revolution, the building fell into long disuse, and eventually became a shabby army officers’ mess. Finally, in 2016, the Airelles hotel group leased it from the state and spent €50m turning it into a hotel.
A luxury hotel on state property flies in the face of the sensibilities of a nation that once guillotined its 0.1 per cent, so Airelles is cautious not to come across as nouveau riche. It has used a surviving inventory from 1788 to restore the building to something like its old self, albeit with the chapel converted into a bar.
Airelles has bought 900 objects from the period, everything from portraits to chairs made by the same artisans who supplied Versailles. An historical committee of experts evaluates the authenticity of the set-up. Some of the hotel’s mirrors have genuine 18th-century black mercury spots. Julien Revah, the general manager, reverentially shows me the Bordeaux-red leather pouch in which Necker carried his frequently misleading documents to the king about France’s dreadful financial situation. The hotel bought the pouch from descendants of Necker at auction. The thing will end up behind glass in one of the rooms, but I am allowed to don white gloves and handle it.
Did Airelles benchmark the Grand Contrôle against other luxury hotels? Revah gestures at the château’s bulk, towering just above the hotel terrace where we are drinking an introductory glass of 15-year-old Maury wine. “I want to stay humble,” he says. “There are no real comparators.”
Today’s 0.1 per cent has higher standards than Louis XVI’s lot — “life at court was atrocious, horrible”, says Revah — so the 1788 experience has been upgraded. We start with a five-course lunch on the terrace, which is lined with little orange trees to match the ones in the château’s Orangerie just beneath us. As in the kings’ day, the trees with their inedible fruits will be moved inside in winter. Today it’s 30C with blue skies, possibly arranged by the hotel.
I’d like to say I lunched like a king, but in fact I probably lunched better, given that Louis XVI never had the benefit of an in-house Alain Ducasse restaurant in his château. (Ducasse is a partner in the hotel.) One thing the king would recognise are the plates: ours are copies of his. Most of the sounds in our ears would also have been familiar to him: Bach and other Versailles-era evergreens play on a loop from the sound system, and there are church bells, fountains, the chatter of passing couples, and only rarely the tinkle of a phone. We have a soothingly distant view of the plebs at the Lake of the Swiss Guards across the road.
All the hotel’s guests are assigned a personal butler, but we soon lose track of ours, because we are constantly being swarmed by staff members (there are more than 100 in total) who are determined to make us feel like a king and queen very much of pre-guillotine days.
Outside our room is an antechamber with backgammon and chess boards where Necker’s daughter, the writer Madame de Staël, held salons for what we would now call thought-leaders. After lunch, my wife and I sprawl in our four-poster bed. Here is my guess as to what she is thinking: in this moment, the entire marriage, with all its attendant disappointments had, almost, been worth it.
We take an evening stroll in the château gardens, almost empty but for a few local joggers in football shirts, some couples, and a film crew. (The hotel also offers the option of trundling the grounds Donald Trump-style, in an electric cart.) Glancing up at the château, a mythical place suddenly become the house next door, I catch myself thinking, “It looks just like Versailles.”
That evening, footmen serve the assembled guests a “royal banquet”. I count about eight courses, including an 18th-century starter of vegetables in aspic. At one point the servants entertain us with a playlet about the king. Dessert (three courses in all) is heralded by a footman banging his staff on the ground and shouting, “The delicacies of the king!” In one evening, I drink several of the best wines I’ve ever had. It is the highest level of wellbeing I have felt in 15 months. I almost want to cry. For two days I will walk around with a sugar rush and permanently semi-sloshed, which is probably a fairly authentic Versailles 1788 experience.
As we stagger back to bed, staff ask us to stay for some parlour games. Since we aren’t French aristocrats forced to spend our lives hanging around the king just so he can be sure we aren’t plotting revolution, we make our excuses and plough on roomwards. You can imagine the tedium of the endless Versailles charades: “Louis always does ‘Jaws’, so I shout, ‘Jaws!’, and then he — ”. I will later discover that we missed a game of whist.
Breakfast on the terrace is flawless, bar the warm vegetable bouillon, with which, for some reason, Louis XVI started his days. Later, the serious business starts, the Grand Contrôle’s unique offer: a private tour of the château. In an inevitable 0.1 percenter reaction to the age of mass tourism, hotel guests can visit it after public closing-time each day. Today, in an only-in-France moment, there is a scare that a strike by château staff might ruin our luxury experience, but a resolution is found and there we are, a handful of us with an expert guide, inside the château.
I last saw the hall of paintings on my previous visit nearly 20 years ago, but only distantly through a crush of fellow-tourists. This time, when the rest of my little group has moved on to the next room, I stand alone for minutes in front of Jacques-Louis David’s painting of Napoleon crowning himself emperor — David’s own replica of his original that hangs in the Louvre. I even have time to choose a favourite face in the crowd: crafty old Talleyrand, survivor of all French regimes. In another room, there’s a 1784 portrait of Marie Antoinette with her doomed children. In the Hall of Mirrors, where weeping Germans signed the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, we gaze around unbothered in a way that Louis XIV probably never could.
Then we hit peak exclusivity: a visit to Marie Antoinette’s private apartments, permanently closed to the public. Frankly, these dingy little rooms with fireplaces that would barely have cast a metre’s heat aren’t a patch on our hotel. At least she lived better than the aristocrats, who had to exchange their country châteaux for 25sq-metre apartments.
We see Marie Antoinette’s boudoir with its little canapé where her children would visit her, and the relatively sunlit and cheerful dining room that she took from the staff in the 1780s. Her beloved billiard tables are dotted around the apartments, and there’s a little bust of her with, beneath it, an ode to her hymen. The queen at Versailles was perceived as a sort of walking womb. As in Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette, she even gave birth in front of a watching crowd, after which the baby was placed on a platter and displayed to everybody present. When Marie Antoinette fainted after a 12-hour labour, it took a while for anyone to notice.
We visit the queen’s private marble-floored bathroom, which she never got a chance to use: it was completed in 1788, just before the revolution. “Private” in Versailles, of course, is a relative term: the bathroom is just off the château’s marble courtyard. The courtyard, overlooked by the king’s balcony, is deserted this summer evening bar some swooping swallows. This is how the world’s mightiest family should have lived, in peace and quiet.
The next day we have a private tour of Versailles’ royal mansions: Louis XIV’s Grand Trianon, a place of male power, where centuries later President Charles de Gaulle would receive guests, and the Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette’s jolly home-from-home where she liked to flee the prison-like rules of court. (The notion that she played the shepherdess there is, says the guide, as much a myth as that she ever said, “Let them eat cake.”) The two Trianons are open to hotel guests in the morning, before public opening times.
Afterwards two hotel staff in 18th-century footmen’s gear drive us in a Mercedes van to a bucolic picnic spot nearby, where they set a table for us and unpack our hamper: bottle of rosé, madeleines with honey jam, oeuf parfait and so on. By this time, we have given up asking whether they are hot in their outfits.
Almost any member of our hotel staff can reel off erudite off-the-cuff discourses about Versailles history, but it’s invariably told from the point of view of Marie Antoinette, and never, say, of her chambermaid. You end up identifying with the queen, casting her as the heroine of the story. The whole feel of the Grand Contrôle is a wishing-away of 1789, whereas half the country outside the gates is a monument to 1789.
Two days in, I feel like a semi-invalid, short of sleep because of incessant drinking and Fear Of Missing Out on our unending range of luxury experiences. Of course, I am the perfect victim. I observe in our fellow guests, genuine 0.1 percenters, that luxury experiences are a bit like heroin: after you have had a certain number of hits, an ever greater dose is required to achieve a high.
My wife and I recover in the hotel spa, where I drift off during a 90-minute massage and awake feeling rejuvenated, though I have always found that the best anti-ageing device is to use a byline photograph from 2009. In the afternoon, a macaroon tree is delivered to our room. If I were a true 0.1 percenter, I might carp that the service wasn’t always hyperefficient. However, that must be normal so soon after opening, and the staff are unfailingly friendly and generous. In fact, this is the only place in France where I have ever felt that the customer was king.
Happily, we manage to leave without breaking the mirror with 400-year-old gilt decorations in our room. I arrive home wondering: are we about to relive 1789 now, with France’s gilets jaunes protesters as the new sans-culottes? Is Versailles an omen for our time, with the Grand Contrôle offering costume parties where guests can literally dress up as Marie Antoinette? Well, if 1789 is coming up, then I imagine hedge-funders on the scaffold mentally totting up their Ducasse dinners, and thinking, “It was worth it.”
Simon Kuper was a guest of Airelles Château de Versailles, Le Grand Contrôle. Double rooms cost from €1,938 including a dedicated butler, daily tours of Château de Versailles and the Trianon, access to the Palace grounds — including use of boats and golf carts, and breakfast, afternoon tea and minibar