Today we drove about 60 miles south to visit the Palace of Fontainebleau, one of the largest of the Royal Residences. It has been inhabited by kings from Louis VII to Napoleon III, from the 12th Century to the 19th. It was originally built as a hunting lodge due to it’s location within huge wooded areas that were rich with game and near to a spring/fountain in the forest. Over the centuries it has been greatly extended into its current huge size within a park of around 200 hectares.
I have visited here only once before, in about 1977 and I was intrigued to see it again after so long. Since that early visit, it has become a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s strange how memories play tricks. I remember a very rural palace in a wooded setting. I remember standing on the famous double curved stairway up to the main door very clearly. That was the main entrance and I remember being admitted by a lady and then left to wander around on our own.
Well… for a start…. it’s in the middle of the town of Fountainebleau. There is a wood around that, but not around the chateau itself. Today, you enter through one of the side wings, and sadly the famous staircase was semi shrouded in protective scaffolding as it is being repaired. What is this famous staircase? Well, the Palace is very much associated in its later days with the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, who lived here with Josephine and his second wife, Marie Louise of Austria when he wasn’t off campaigning. On 20th April, 1814, Napoleon assembled his senior officers and chosen soldiers in the great courtyard in front of the chateau, carrying the Eagle standard.. The army commissioners were waiting with carriages to take him away to exile. He stood at the top of the double staircase and addressed his men with great emotion and dignity and was then driven away to Elba. It is therefore called The Courtyard of Adieu.
During WW2 it served as a German HQ and afterwards the Allies used it as an HQ. It was also used as a hospital and a military school in historical times.
Entry was 12 euro each and unfortunately today the audio tour was not available for covid reasons. Such a shame. The rooms are well signed and labelled however. There are guided tours in the afternoon which are no doubt interesting but we enjoyed having the place almost to ourselves again. I had no memory of the rooms at all.
The rooms are nothing short of magnificent so I am surprised I don’t remember them. There are quite a few open: all the Royal Apartments, the Napoleon Museum, the Chapel Royal. The apartments run in style and decor from the early: Francois Ist; through Louis IV and Marie Antoinette, to Napoleon and the imperial era and Napoleon III. Some of them are hung with the most magnificent Gobelins tapestries. The shutters of the rooms are kept almost closed and they are lit by dimmed chandeliers and simulated candles, not just for effect but to protect the decor. The colours and richness are remarkable. Beautiful ceilings and painted wood panelling; stucco work. Gilding. Some rooms following the influence of Pompeii which had been discovered and was very fashionable in the time of Marie Antoinette. Napoleon’s rooms had the simpler, more “classical” Empire style and many nods to the Roman Empire. All absolutely beautiful and so interesting.
There is even a small private theatre there which I saw in the 70s but was not open this morning. It has been restored since I saw it and looks amazing, you can even see the original scenery flats and screens.
It took us a good 2 hours to tour the palace and then we came out to explore the gardens which are extensive. First a coffee. We were enjoying that overlooking a lovely boating lake when I got buzzed by a wasp. I don’t like them at all. Have I mentioned before how many more wasps there are in France than there are in England???? I have no idea why but it is very noticeable here. More like England used to be in the 70s where there were lots around every bin and bench… anyway, it made me jump so much I spilled coffee down my dress and had to go back and wash it in the Ladies loo. Which wasn’t easy because it had been covidised and there were no paper towels, and the door was wide open. I improvised with loo roll which was messy but I got it all out and lucky it was warm, if overcast, and it quickly dried.
We walked around Diana’s Garden (goddess not Princess) and then around the Grand Parterre garden. I assume that back in the day, the parterre garden had box hedges but they have disappeared here. We walked about 3 miles in all. Then the sky started to look a bit dramatically black so we hightailed it back towards the car where we had left our macs.
Got to the car just as a few drops of rain fell, but it was literally just a few drops. We drove out of town to the Bois du Roi (King’s woods) and pulled off the road to eat our packed lunch. What a lovely visit! I highly recommend Fontainebleau for a visit. You can reach it by train from Paris (how I did it in the 70s) and there is plenty of parking around the Palace if you choose to drive. After the crowds generally at Versailles, it is a very welcome change to have time to see the rooms on your own.
Covid wise: everyone was wearing a mask both inside and outside the Palace and in the town. There was plenty of hand sanitiser throughout.
On the way back we took the “rural route” coming through lots of small villages and past a couple of castles. Tonight we are having a thunder storm which has threatened all afternoon. Yesterday, I should mention, was sunny and warm and as scheduled we lazed around the pool all day and topped up our tans.