“House of centuries, true abode of kings”
The thing that struck me first and most about Fontainebleau is perfectly conveyed in the above words of Napoleon I. Versailles gets all the attention for its over-the-top splendor and decadence, its sprawling and perfectly manicured gardens, and its racy history of being the home to the Sun King and the Louis who got his head cut off. Fontainebleau, on the other hand, is the source of almost no hype yet it is equally as impressive as Versailles and has a much richer history.
The day of the visit began at Gare de Lyon. After just a forty-minute train ride, my three comrades and I found ourselves in the quaint village of Fontainebleau. It had all the makings of a charming French town, with winding cobblestone streets, an incredible patisserie and a bustling farmer’s market. The kings of France appreciated the area for its hunting and to which the extensive forests that still surround the town are a testament. The décor of the chateau reflected this outdoorsy spirit; carved wood, paintings of bucolic settings and floral patterning abound.
The first part of the chateau we visited was the Jardin de Diane. We came upon a few fabulous peacocks poking about in the grass that impressed me very much. We speculated that they were royally requested to be brought to the chateau and have since called Fontainebleau home. Whatever their history, I greatly admired their beauty and felt immediately that they anticipated the elegance and brilliance of the chateau.
We made our way to the front courtyard and were instantly floored by the sheer size of the chateau. I certainly hadn’t expected it to be as large or as grand as we found it to be. The most prominent frontal feature was the horseshoe staircase, built in the 17th century that adorned the front of the building. It looked as though it had come directly from Beauty and the Beast. Expectations for the interior were high yet they were exceeded as we explored room after room of the home of kings.
Because the chateau had been passed down from Francois I and inhabited until the exile of Napoleon to Elba, many rooms had decorative elements from multiple centuries. For example, richly carved wooden and bronze wardrobes form the 17th century could be found in a room that was mostly redecorated by Napoleon, who had decided to keep some previous elements. This mixture of époques and evidence of centuries of design choices made the furnishings present more significant. They had truly stood the test of time.
Sumptuous furnishings and decorations were not lacking in the least bit. The ballroom was breathtaking. It featured enormous arched windows, walls covered in frescoes, an intricately and masterfully carved wooden ceiling, and a history of fetes since its completion in 1550. The Queen’s chambers were equally as impressive. Bedroom to the queen since the end of the 16th century, its current bed was chosen by Marie-Antoinette but wasn’t slept in until the Empress Josephine came to Fontainebleau with Napoleon I. The rich textures and ornate patterning stretched from floor to ceiling and wall-to-wall, and almost made me dizzy. It rivaled the elaborate chambers of Versailles.
The Trinity Chapel was equally incredible. Its curved, vaulted ceiling was decorated with beautiful paintings of cherubs in gilded frames. The parquet shone in the late-afternoon sun that streamed in from the windows. We stopped in this enormous room to discuss what we had seen that day and tried to imagine calling Fontainebleau home. There was something about it that felt welcoming.
For me, I think it had to do with the chateau’s incredible history. It felt more like a home that has been renovated, redecorated, updated, and lived in. One bedroom was turned into a staircase in the 18th century; Napoleon switched the children’s room into a bathroom; Francois I built a connecting gallery so he wouldn’t have to walk outside to go to church. These changes were among the infinite tweaks Fontainebleau’s residents have made in its 700 years of history.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see much of the gardens. Although it was a relatively nice day outside, the temperature wasn’t exactly balmy and strolling about didn’t seem too appealing. After seeing birds-eye view paintings of the chateau during its heyday, it is clear that the gardens were (and are) vast. In the back of the chateau lies the Parc et Grand Parterre, described as a “quintessential French garden.” The 1200-meter canal in the center is the striking feature that took eight days of continuous watering to be filled after its completion in 1608.
The artistry of Fontainebleau comes from its past. If walls could talk, I would want to hear what those in Fontainebleau would have to say. From the interior decorations to the gardens, each detail of the chateau has a story that likely spans centuries. The history hangs thick in the air. With just one breath, I felt intoxicated.