One of the largest Royal Chateau in France, Fontainebleau has a rich history dating back to when it was a medieval palace during the 12th century all the way to Napoleon III in the 19th century. Just a short train ride from Paris, it a treasure-trove of architecture and well worth a visit. Unlike Versailles, which can be packed with tourists, Fontainebleau is much less crowed, especially during the week which is when I chose to go. There were very few tourists in the Chateau which allowed me to enjoy each and every room at my own pace. They also have a wonderful audio guide which is run on an iPhone and lets you scan a code in any room to hear the general description and then offers additional more detailed descriptions as you please.
A detailed history would be far too long, so for this post I will simply say take the time to visit this beautiful chateau. You will be treated to a myriad of styles that have been well preserved or restored with many of the original furnishings intact. The gardens are also beautiful and well maintained. And with very few tourists, it is easy to simply get lost in the day. Here are a few of my favorites from my recent visit:
As with most French Chateau, the Jardins at Fountainebleau are amazing. Its manicured lawns, fountains and box cut shrubs gently give way to dense forrest which were once filled with game for the Royal Hunts. There is also a 1200 meter grande canal built by Henry IV and later enhanced by André Le Nôtre, and Louis Le Vau. I don’t know why, but whenever I stand at one end of these amazing canals, I am literally transported to another world. For me they create a sense of serenity. I can walk around them or simply stand in one place and almost see the world in their reflection. Perhaps that was the point and if so, I am grateful to André Le Nôtre and Louis Le Vau for allowing me to have such a profound experience.
The Gallery of Francis I is for me one of the highlights of Fountainebleau. Built in 1528 as a royal passageway, is wasn’t until 1531 that the finest Italian craftsmen we brought in to decorate it in what was then the ‘New’ Renaissance Style. The lower part of the gallery is all carved wood depicting the France Coat of Arms and a salamander – the emblem of the King. The upper part are Frescos depicting mythological scenes illustrating the virtues of the King. It is an amazing work of art that predates the famous Hall of Mirrors at Versailles by 150 years and yet rivals its beauty and grandeur.
The Queen’s Bedchamber is distinguished by the fact that every Queen and Empress of France from Marie de Medici to Empress Eugenié slept in this room. In fact, the bed that currently occupies the bedchamber was ordered by and made for Marie Antoinette. Unfortunately due to the Revolution, she was never able to see or use it. The doors and panels above them were also made for Marie Antoinette prior to the revolution. Many of the elements in the room date back to specific Queens of France and have been restored to their original beauty which makes this room even more special for those, like me, who love French history. An added benefit is fact that there are so few people who visit Fountainebleau which allows you to enjoy each room at your own pace without the crowds of people pushing to get the best picture.
For me personally, my interest in French history ends at the revolution. I was never much interested in the Napoleonic periods or the restoration. However, Napoleon’s Throne Room may have changed that a bit. Perhaps it is because it is the only Throne Room in France that still exists today exactly as it did when it was used by Napoleon. There is something ‘romantic’ about being in this room and seeing the exact Throne he sat on and trying to imagine what it must have been like to be here during that time. I had seen the actual chair at an exhibit earlier in the year and thought it was nice, but seeing it here in its home, where it belongs, was quite a different thing. It is also interesting to note that Napoleon, in his strategic wisdom, did not refer to himself as King but rather Emperor. He also placed his Throne in what was once the King’s bedchamber in the exact place where the King’s bed used to be. Napoleon knew that the King’s bed, in the old regime, was considered a symbol of Royal authority. Thus by placing his Throne in the same place, he was asserting his own authority in a less than subtle way.
These are just a few of the highlights of my visit to Fountainebleau. It was a trip that I know I will make again as there is much to see and take in and visiting again always enhances the experience. I hope you enjoy the additional photos below.