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Bougival is a cute small town near Paris, located at the banks of the Seine River. During the 19th century, the Impressionists chose this peaceful place as their favorite open-air workshop. People like Monet, Sisley, or Berthe Morisot spent long periods in this town trying to catch the beauty of the Seine River and its banks and soon Bougival’s landscapes became the subject of many of their masterworks.
But this “colorful revolution” was not the only revolution in Bougival. Two centuries before, a powerful king decided to build a fantastic and revolutionary engine in Bougival: La Machine de Marly.
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The Fountains of Versailles Palace: How do they Work?
Let’s go back in time to meet King Louis XIV. By the year 1680, he was busy with the design of the Versailles Gardens and its fountains.
The site chosen by King Louis XIV to build his magnificent Palace was far from the River Seine (the closest river to Versailles) and high in elevation so water supply was an issue. The King needed LOTS of water to feed all the Versailles Fountains and the Grand Canal so he asked his architects Mansart and Colbert to find a solution: “if water does not arrive at Versailles by itself we will have to carry it!“.
La Machine de Marly, the Eighth World Wonder
La Machine de Marly was built between 1681 and 1684 to pump water from the River Seine (10 km North of Versailles) to Château de Versailles and Château de Marly (Louis XIV’s weekend palace) to water the gardens of both palaces and feed their fountains.
La Machine de Marly was a civil engineering marvel located at the bottom of the Hill of Louveciennes, on the Seine River banks, in the town of Bougival. It was considered a World Wonder at the time and it may have been the largest system of integrated machinery ever assembled to that date.
The Machine de Marly consisted of a wooden building placed at one of the Seine River’s arms with fourteen wheels (14 like Louis XIV) moving 257 noisy pumps.
This industrial wonder could bring up 5.000 m3 of water per day, from the River Seine (+55m) to Aqueduct de Louveciennes (+195m) to finally reach Versailles Fountains and Gardens by gravity.
This super machine, also called the Eighth World Wonder, was visited by tsars, queens, and other very important people of that time.
La Machine de Marly worked until 1817. After this year other installations followed, using steam and later electricity to move the wheels.
The last Machine of Marly (1859 to 1963) was designed by Dufrayer, using the same principles as its predecessors but with new technologies. With only 6 wheels, it could bring up 18.000 m3 of water per day. This last machine stopped working in 1963, and then it was demolished.
Today, some remains of this machine are still visible in the towns of Bougival and Louveciennes. Let’s explore them.
La Machine de Marly at Bougival
In Bougival, located on the banks of the River Seine, there are still some remains of La Machine de Marly:
» The Neoclassical building (1825) built to host the steam engine;
» Some administrative offices, warehouses, stables, and lodgments;
» A little brick service building in the middle of the River Seine.
Just behind the neoclassical building, there’s a path to climb up to Louveciennes with more remains of the machine.
From the River Seine to the Aqueduct de Louveciennes – Le Chemin de Mi-Côte
Le Chemin de Mi-Côte was the path parallel to the pipes and pumps used to transport the water from the Seine River up to the top of Louveciennes Hill. This steep path (some parts have a slope of 20%) was taken every day by the Machine’s workers to repair eventual breakdowns.
Today le Chemin de Mi-Côte is a green walk with informative panels about the Machine.
These are the remains still visible along the Chemin de Mi-Côte:
» Small constructions for the pumps and the forge;
» La “Ferme de Mi-Côte”, a kind of wooden hut to host the forge for the Machine’s maintenance.
Years later, la Ferme de Mi-Côte was turned into a farm. This farm was the subject of one of Alfred Sisley paintings “Louveciennes, hauteurs de Marly”.
Be careful because this path can be very slippery, especially after a rainy day! This path can be tiring for some people but it is very interesting and once you get to the top of Louveciennes Hill the views over Paris and the Seine River are gorgeous.
Aqueduct de Louveciennes
L’Aqueduct de Louveciennes, located on the top of Louveciennes Hill, was built by King Louis XIV’s engineers in the 17th century with the purpose to deliver the water pumped by the Machine de Marly to Château de Versailles and Château de Marly.
The water from the River Seine was pumped up to the Hill of Louveciennes (+195m) by pipes put on two paved inclines and it flowed into the reservoir located at the summit of the aqueduct’s east tower. From there, the water was transported by gravity to the two castles. The Aqueduct de Louveciennes worked until 1866.
Today it is possible to follow the aqueduct by foot and have a look inside the reservoir in the east tower. The second picture here below is taken from the water reservoir in the aqueduct’s east tower.
Bougival and Louveciennes – Practical Information
Bougival and Louveciennes are two towns located in the Yvelines department, in Ile-de-France. SNCF trains leave Paris from Gare Saint Lazare to Bougival and Louveciennes train stations every 20 minutes. The train journey Paris – Bougival lasts 38 minutes.
After a long journey, the water finally arrived at Versailles Gardens to water its grass and feed the fountains.
Versailles Gardens were designed between 1660 and 1670 by André Le Notre, the same landscape designer who designed the Gardens at Chantilly. Versailles Gardens are his masterwork, where he perfected the concept of “French Garden”.
The Gardens of Versailles are located on the west of Château de Versailles, surrounding the chateau on three sides. The gardens cover 800 hectares of land and are a key component of the royal residence. Actually, King Louis XIV considered the gardens as important as the Palace itself.
The Gardens at Versailles are made of different walks, parterres, and paths all enhanced by sculptures, fountains, and other water features for the pleasure of the eyes. The east-west axis became the “Grande Perspective”, dominated by the Grand Canal.
The Gardens can be visited for free, independently from the Château. There are many interesting ways of exploring Versailles Gardens, apart from walking of course! Some people do a Versailles Gardens bike tour while the Versailles Gardens Segway Tour is another fun way to explore the Gardens.
VERSAILLES TRIP PLANNER
- Versailles Palace & Gardens Quick Guide
- Versailles Gardens – Map and Top Sings
- All the Ways to Get to Versailles from Paris
The Grand Canal and Versailles Fountains
The Grand Canal
With the construction of the Grand Canal, André Le Notre transformed the Grande Perspective east-west into an endless, magnificent perspective. The Grand Canal measures 60mx 1700m east-west and 100m north-south.
During King Louis XIV’s kingdom, the Grand Canal of Versailles was the background of memorable parties and the King enjoyed sailing different kinds of ships along the canal.
In 1674, the Republic of Venice sent the King two gondolas, that’s why some people called this Grand Canal “La Petite Venise”. In the summer, the King’s fleet sailed along the Grand Canal while in the winter, the Grand Canal was left to skaters. The transversal arm was used to reach the Ménagerie or the Trianon by ship.
Today, visitors can also sail the canal on a row-boat. Row-boats for hire (30 min minimum) are found near the restaurant La Flottille.
Versailles Fountains are an important part of the Gardens at Versailles. They are spread everywhere in the Gardens featuring the seasons, fantastic animals, or classical gods.
The most famous fountain in Versailles is the Apollo Fountain. The Apollo Fountain in Versailles is based on the legend of Apollo, the Greek Sun-god, and the symbol of King Louis XIV. Apollo Fountain is located in the east-west axis, at the end of the Royal Alley.
The King’s daily walk in the Gardens was the only opportunity for the public to see the Versailles Fountains run. The King’s orders to the fountain men stated that “when His Majesty will no longer be in the little park, the fountain men will stop everything”. Actually, courtesans had to be very close to the King to see the whole show: as soon as King Louis XIV passed one fountain, the water was cut off to move it to the next fountain.
Fountain Shows at Versailles Gardens
Today it is possible to see all the Versailles Fountains work without the help of any king. From the end of March to the end of October, the Château of Versailles organizes different fountain shows:
Explore the Gardens and grooves while listening to Baroque music and watch a water display with special effects.
Days: Tuesdays (some dates), Saturdays, and Sundays.
Wander through the largest open-air museum, decorated with amazing sculpture, while listening to the beautiful sounds of Baroque music. This show does not include the water display of fountains.
Days: Tuesdays (some dates), and Fridays.