Saturday, July 1, 2006


arie-Antoinette’s newly restored pastoral paradise, tucked away amid the opulence of Versailles chateau, has reopened to the public after four years of extensive restoration.

French Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres on Monday inaugurated Marie-Antoinette’s estate, where the young queen sought to escape rigid court protocols. It served recently as the backdrop for several scenes in the upcoming biopic “Marie Antoinette,” directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation”).

The hamlet, which is on the grounds of the Petit Trianon building by the side of a lake, dates from 1783 and cost $3.7 million in the first step of a renovation program.

It opened yesterday, complete with its farmhouse and dairy, where the queen and her friends would milk docile, newly washed cows and gather eggs.

It was here that Marie Antoinette sought to taste rural life far from the confines of the court and where even her husband, Louis XVI, had to ask permission to visit.

The theater where she performed onstage also has been renovated, along with the English garden, replanted with its original herbs after being damaged in the 1999 storms that tore down about 3,000 trees in the chateau’s immense gardens.

The Temple of Love as well as the Grotto from which the queen fled in 1789 as the French Revolution reached the gates of Versailles also have been restored.

This is a “step in the life of Versailles”, says Christine Albanel, the chateau’s director.

“We are not inventing things, but we are highlighting existing places which are perhaps less well known by the public,” she adds.

Of the 4 million annual visitors to the sumptuous chateau (located southwest of Paris) fewer than 300,000 find their way through its grounds to the Petit Trianon, which was Marie-Antoinette’s country mansion, and its treasures, including the hamlet.

One part of Versailles is “Louis XIV (the Sun King) and Marie-Antoinette is the other,” Miss Albanel says, adding that the grounds given to the Austrian-born queen — who was beheaded in 1793 — were magical places of “intimacy and refinement.”

Designed by the architect Gabriel, the Petit Trianon was given to Marie-Antoinette as a wedding present in 1774 by her husband, Louis XVI. It is a perfect example of the “18th-century spirit of the picturesque marriage of architecture and vegetation, which aimed to create a haven of serenity and harmony,” Mr. Donnedieu de Vabres says.

Nicolas Hayek, managing director of the Swiss watch company Suisses Breguet, says the company will give $6.2 million to restore the Petit Trianon as well as other places beloved by Marie-Antoinette, such as the French Pavilion.

The minister says Marie-Antoinette’s Estate is a “new concept, a new pole for a visit, a new way of spreading the influence of Versailles.”

Miss Coppola’s film — a fun-filled romp featuring Kirsten Dunst in the title role and with a pulsating modern soundtrack — was booed by audiences when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, but it attracted a strong audience in France of more than 681,000 people in its first two weeks.

The director was given unrivaled access to film in Versailles and its parks, lending the movie a touch of authenticity. It opens in American theaters in October.

Entry to the Marie-Antoinette Estate is free through tomorrow and afterward will cost $11.38 per person.

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