Image via Lian G Flickr
It’s better than Versailles, I promise. Fewer tourists. More stuff. Versailles Palace was ransacked during the French Revolution and is just a series of empty rooms; Fontainebleau offers a true trip into the past.
Game Room, Château Fontainebleau
Located less than an hour south of central Paris (55km or a 30min RER ride from Gare de Lyon), Fontainebleau gives the feel of a tranquil, small town but with big time sights.
The Château de Fontainebleau, historically a medieval castle, turned posh hunting lodge, turned lavish palace, dates back to the 12th century and is steeped in history with more stories in every eave and cobweb than one can imagine!
It was first built in the mid 12th century as a keep/castle of the town and then used as Louis VII’s hunting lodge because of the abundant game and natural springs (fontaines in French, hence the name!) found in the forest that surrounds it. Louis VII and every successive ruler of France up to Napoleon III (1873) has stayed here and added to it, (a time spanning over 700 years!) and transformed it into the astonishing palace it is today.
This chapel was added to the building in the 12th century when it served as Louis VII’s personal hunting lodge.
The Ceremonial Gallery lined with frescoes by Italian artists Fioretntino and Primaticcio.
Notable historical events that have happened here:
- Napoleon signing away his power in the 1814 Treaty of Fontainebleau and being exiled to Elba. There is even a room dedicated to this, where he signed, and the grand courtyard is named ‘the Courtyard of Goodbyes’ to commemorate a particularly moving speech of adieu to his guardsmen after his signing.
- In 1812, Pope Pius VII was held prisoner of Napoleon and did not leave the palace for 19 months straight! The apartments where he was confined are fittingly called the “Pope’s Apartments” and occupy a wing of the palace you can visit today.
The ‘Courtyard of Goodbyes’, where Napoleon said farewell to his armsmen before leaving for exile in Elba.
The bed of Marie Antoinette, made for her just before the Revolution and never used; given to Josephine, the wife of Napoleon.
Throne Room of Napoleon.
Including the palace, Fontainebleau is also known for its expansive and scenic forest. Deemed a national park of France, one finds it easy to lose themselves to nature (or just lose themselves in general) in this vast wooded region of central France. The forest is so big, and almost completely surrounds the Fontainebleau Palace, that you can pretty much use it to walk to the palace from any of the surrounding small towns! And turn a hike through the forest into some very worthy sightseeing. My friends and I packed a lunch and turned it into an all-day excursion with celebratory beers at the end. (We took the train back, thankfully only ten minutes)
We’re not in the city anymore, Toto.
Things to do:
- See the Chateau (duh!)
Image via Corentin Fourcaut, Flickr
It’s, um, breathtakingly beautiful. I recommend strolling through every room as if you were a guest of the king during a lavish ball and pretending all the exquisite furniture is yours to sit upon. (Remember, it’s not.)
- Wander through the forest
Get lost and enjoy the fact that you can look around and not see one man-made thing.
- Rock-climb (or just climb) the big rocky structures in the forest
These big, rocky structures are famous for boulderers in the area and during the French Revolution, Fontainebleau’s name was even changed to Fontaine-la-Montagne, meaning “Fountain by the Mountain”, referring to them.
Image via Sirenz Lorraine, Flickr
- Ride Horses
Did you know Fontainebleau hosted the horse-riding section of the 1924 Olympics? So, whether it be real ones or just the unicorn on the carousel (riding a carousel is one of the frenchest things you can do!), get on a horse and enjoy the beauty of being outside. Fontainebleau has many stables to choose from and endless routes through the forest especially for horse riding.
Even the police here ride them!
Whether you are more interested in the palace of the Fontainebleau or its forest, it offers a remarkable escape and memorable experience.