Before planning my week-long trip to Paris, I was only generally aware of the Chateau de Fontainebleau. It wasn’t an included stop on either of the two group tours of France I took as a teenager – we went to Versailles both times instead. But with the UNESCO-listed palace located a mere 56 kilometers from Paris, it was high time for a visit.
In short, Fontainebleau is stunning. The current 1500-room palace dates to the 16th century when Francois I decided that the original 12th century hunting lodge and country house weren’t grand enough his royal highness. Only one medieval tower survived the rebuilding and was incorporated into the design. The estate is surrounded by a 20,000 hectare forest rich in game, thus it was a favorite retreat of French rulers; members of each dynasty from Capetiens to Orleans have called Fontainebleau home.
We took an unaccompanied tour of the chateau, which allowed us to meander through the sumptuous rooms at our own pace. Unlike the more famous Palace of Versailles, all rooms open to the public at Fontainebleau are fully furnished. This is thanks to Napoleon I, who laid his imperial claim to the place and had it refurnished after the French Revolution (during which, sadly, everything of value was sold at auction). Fittingly, our tour began with the Napoleon I Museum, a series of room overflowing with items used by the emperor and his family.
From there we got a sneak peak of the breathtaking Chapel of the Trinity before heading into the aptly named Grand Apartments. This was the main living area of the palace, consisting of bedrooms and boudoirs, parlors and offices. The ballroom and Napoleon’s throne are also located here. One of the most impressive rooms is the Francois I Gallery, a Renaissance masterpiece that gives the Versailles Hall of Mirrors a serious run for its money! Designed for the king’s private use, it’s said that Francois wore the gallery’s door key around his neck.
I gave an audible gasp when I came upon the Diana Gallery, a corridor originally designed for the queen’s promenade. The ceiling is painted with scenes of Diana, goddess of the hunt, while the walls are lined with oh so many books; Napoleon III had the gallery converted into a library in the 19th century.
The queen’s bedchamber and salon was used by every ruling wife from Queen Marie de Medici to Empress Eugenie. The unfortunate Marie Antoinette had the room redecorated to her tastes in 1786, but her lavish new bed didn’t arrive until after she had been executed. Pity! Napoleon’s wives put it to good use in her stead.
Many important events in French and world history took place within Fontainebleau, including royal births, baptisms and marriage arrangements. Edicts were issued and peace treaties signed. Much of sovereign Europe passed through the palace; famous guests include the Archbishop of Canterbury, King James V of Scotland, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Czar Peter the Great, and Queen Christina of Sweden, who reportedly had her lover killed on the premises while King Louis XIV looked the other way. Kind of him, no?
Pope Pius VII stopped at Fontainebleau on his way to Paris to crown Napoleon Emperor of France. The Pope was later arrested and imprisoned at the palace for two years, while Napoleon abdicated the throne from the palace a short time later.
The gardens are the one area where Fontainebleau falls short of Versailles. Each successive monarch made alterations to the layout and, the more I read, the more disheartened I become. King Henry IV and his wife, Catherine de Medici, took the most care, designing beautifully planted flower gardens in the French and Italian renaissance styles. Sixty years later, Louis XIV had Henry’s hanging garden destroyed when he added a wing to the palace. Then Napoleon came along and swept it all away, as he favored open landscapes.
For reasons that escape me, the Chateau de Fontainebleau receives just 300,000 visitors annually – compared to over seven and a half million at Versailles! At times, it felt as though we had the palace all to ourselves. There was nary a flag-wielding tour guide with head-set wearing entourage to disturb our peaceful reverie, as opposed to the never ending stream that pushed past us at Versailles. Why do tour groups shun Fontainebleau, even though its opulent, furnished rooms are more visually pleasing? I’m not sure, but the gardens could play a part. You can read my blog post on Versailles here and compare the two and decide for yourself.
Have you been to Fontainebleau and/or Versailles? Do you have a favorite?
If you only had time to visit one, which would you choose?