All images courtesy SNCF.
Come winter, not all Paris travel is comfy. As skies darken, attractions such as the Château de Versailles tend to recede on the visitor’s to-do list. But this winter, the national railway is wooing visitors back—with a royal ride to the palace.
Last May, the château and the RER Line C combined their forces to jazz up the 12-mile journey. Says the RER’s Bénédicte Tilloy, “The inside of every train car has a transparent plastic coating which, because of graffiti, we change at intervals. This time, instead of making it clear, we re-created Versailles.” The train cars were decorated to replicate seven of those spaces château visitors see.
The national foundation at Versailles handled graphic design. But it took seven specialists from Technicentre Ardoines to successfully complete the installation. Using almost 200 feet of printed film per carriage, they brought the “royal” RER to life in just 10 days. The results are stunning; even the battered seats now look “vintage.”
The first car was launched with an exterior sign that read, “Take your camera along for the ride. Otherwise no one will believe you.” When jaded Paris travelers loved it just as much as tripists, the SNCF commissioned four more château trains. All autumn, they are being deployed, to carry a quarter of all the passengers bound for Versailles.
The trains boast a splendor Louis XIV would recognize (and rooms in which Louis XVI could feel at home). Among the spaces reproduced are the château’s Hall of Mirrors, its Hall of Battles, Marie Antoinette’s bedroom and the private library. There are also bucolic scenes such as the Trianon’s Temple of Love and its octagonal belvedere.
The regal trains run between two stops: Bibliothèque François Mitterand (in the 13th Arrondissement) and Versailles Château Rive Gauche. Part of the second longest line in the Ile de France network, the RER C carries a huge number of daily commuters. All of them endure overcrowding, regular delays and, in summer, the dreaded Travaux Castor. This renovation, which runs through 2017, annually shuts down their commute for over a month.
So the SNCF tries hard to coddle its regulars. You’ll notice each RER C train has a name (MONA, VICK, ROMI, SARA, etc.). Customer relations for the line also runs a blog and the admin team has engineered unique surprises. During the autumn’s Fête de la Gastronomie, for instance, it had TV chef Thierry Marx serve 400 travelers dinner. The Friday night surprise lasted half an hour, with three courses.
The railway also recently launched RER C coaches whose interior design was picked out by commuters. Twenty-five thousand riders had taken part in the vote, which chose vivid stripes over several solid colors. The result is clean and fresh and will appear in 80 cars. But style the way Louis XVI liked it has proved even more popular; the trompe l’oeil RER Cs are due to be used for two more years.
Anyone on the route has a one-in-four chance of the royal ride. So it’s time to put Versailles back in those Paris travel tips!
Before you visit, bone up on daily life at court. Use the history section of the Château de Versailles website, Antonia Fraser’s biography Marie Antoinette or Patrice Leconte’s delightful film Ridicule.
Château de Versailles
Technicentre Ardoines at work (video)
RER C blog
Chef Thierry Marx’s surprise onboard dinner (video)
The first Château C (video)
Editor’s note: Today is la Toussaint, or All Saints’ Day, a holiday in France. Post photos of your celebrations or your Halloween shots on our Facebook page today.