CHATEAU DE FONTAINEBLEAU
Paris offers holidaymakers like us marvelous experiences of every description, including a daytrip to Chateau de Fontainebleau, 55 kilometers southeast of the city.
Boarding a mainline train from Gare de Lyon, we head to Fontainebleau-Avon station. The scenic 40-minute ride takes us to what has long been a favourite holiday destination for the French. Upon arrival, many enjoy walking the three-kilometers into town; we wait just a few minutes to catch the local ‘Ligne 1’ bus.
The driver takes us through the pretty, historic town. Fifteen picturesque minutes later, he drops us at the renowned chateau’s Main Gate. Sighting its grandiose horseshoe staircase prompts images of resplendent horse drawn carriages bringing elegantly dressed nobility and aristocrats to glittering events here.
Inside, audio guides introduce us to this monumental World Heritage palace surrounded by 130 acres of formal gardens; extensive woodlands lie beyond. Nowadays, Fontainebleau Forest provides residents over 25,000 acres of trails for walking, hiking and horseback riding.
Fontainebleau palace began as a much humbler royal hunting lodge in the early 12th century. And for almost eight consecutive centuries, kings, queens, emperors and empresses made personal ‘improvements, ’ starting with Francois I. He retained only its medieval keep, completely rebuilding the original lodge in 16th century Italian Renaissance-style. A 17th century ‘builder,’ Henry IV added Baroque-style wings, courtyards and extensive gardens. Gradually evolving into a lavish 1500-room palace, Fontainebleau became French nobility’s most beloved residence of all time.
Crowning himself Emperor in 1804, Napoleon I established Fontainebleau as his official premises, fondly calling it ‘house of the centuries, the true home of kings.’ Larger than life family paintings still line a long, polished marble hallway. An adjoining room displays a beautiful portrait of Marie-Louise, his 19-year old ‘queen.’ Glass cases in the small Napoleon museum enclose firearms, ornamental swords, hats, uniforms, cloaks, silverware and ceramics reflecting imperial family life between 1804 and 1815.
Two rooms suggest his precious son’s early life. Christened King of Rome, gilded portraits show a healthy young Napoleon II. A magnificent cradle reflects his regal infancy. Miniature soldiers, a working toy rifle and small swords help us visualize his childhood playtime.
Past the spectacular Trinity Chapel, huge sculpted wooden doors open into Francois I’s wonderful Gallery. Elaborate stucco-framed frescoes depict classical allegories and myths glorifying the monarchy. These renaissance masterpieces line the walls above fine oak woodwork. Decorative laminated wood ceilings stretch overhead. Francois’ kingly image hangs over a fireplace; his fiery salamander emblem remains etched on numerous panels.
In the Baroque ballroom, natural light streams from high windows. Themed paintings surround us, once reminding guests of ‘proper’ decorum…and dire consequences for social misbehaviours. Lush, cushioned seats border huge decorated alcoves, allowing discreet conversations and liaisons. An upper balcony niche at one end enclosed musicians; polished parquet floors seem perfect for dancing.
We discover that following the French Revolution, Fontainebleau was stripped of all its splendid furnishings and fell quickly into disrepair. Emperor Napoleon later re-established this enormous mansion, completely restoring and refurbishing it to earlier grandeur. Today, the Grand Apartments glitter with 18th century paintings, porcelain statuary, tapestries and brocade draperies. He also installed Egyptian-style furnishings and luxurious silk wall-coverings.
The Queens’ rooms boast gilded white paneled walls and furnishings upholstered with extravagant florals. Though the Revolution deprived Marie Antoinette from enjoying her new, sumptuous Turkish boudoir complete with canopied bed, the Empress Josephine certainly did! In contrast, Napoleon’s room contains a simple tented bed similar to the one he’d used during his many military campaigns.
The bedchamber of former kings became Napoleon’s throne room. Where royal beds once stood, golden eagles, ceremonial flags and wreathed N’s flank his imperial throne. Symbolizing industriousness, golden bees embroidered on rich, blue velvet draperies replaced the Bourbon fleur-de-lis.
In the last chamber, plush red chairs surround the small round white table where Napoleon signed his abdication agreement in April 1814. And in the entrance court near the horseshoe stairs, he bid his loyal soldiers adieu before departing for exile in Elba.
Returning to Trinity Chapel’s main floor, we learn that Napoleon’s nephew had been baptized here in 1810. Forty-two years later, he became Napoleon III, founding France’s Second Empire. He was this resplendent chateau’s last ‘royal’ resident.
Our ‘royal’ outing concludes with a leisurely stroll through shaded Diana Gardens, reserved at one time for queens alone. Francois I originally honoured the Goddess of Hunting with this perfect little garden; Napoleon updated it with natural, English-style landscaping.
French royalty loved palatial Fontainebleau. And so did we!
WHEN YOU GO:
• Fontainebleau: www.musee-chateau-fontainbleau.fr
• Direct service to Paris with Air France: www.airfrance.com
• See Eurorail schedules and book tickets: www.raileurope.ca/
1. Main gates at Chateau de Fontainebleau
2. Grandiose Horseshoe Staircase
3. Princely Cradle for Napoleon’s Son
4. Francois I Ballroom
5. Napoleon’s Throne Room 6. Trinity Chapel, Chateau de FontainebleauTravel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.TravelWritersTales.com
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