The Château of Fontainebleau: French Elegance or Scandalous Extravagance?

  You’ve been to the Château of Versailles, and you still want to see another chateau. In that case, the Château of Fontainebleau is the answer. In fact, very many of those who visit it think that this château is much more beautiful than that of Versailles. I thought so too, now I wonder whether […]

 

Fontainebleau Chateau (Copyright Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

Fontainebleau Chateau (Copyright Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

You’ve been to the Château of Versailles, and you still want to see another chateau.

In that case, the Château of Fontainebleau is the answer.

In fact, very many of those who visit it think that this château is much more beautiful than that of Versailles. I thought so too, now I wonder whether – as I say in the heading of this article – it is not proof of scandalous extravagance? Royal extravagance that is.

In 1528 the French monarch Francis 1 (François Ier) started to expand a hunting lodge which had been constructed in 1137 by King Louis V11 of the Franks (France as we know it today did not yet then exist) in a hamlet within a forest known to the Romans by names such as Fons Bleaudi and Fontem Blahaud; Fons and Fontem meaning ‘spring’ and the Bleaudi and Blahaud versions of someone with the Germanic-Frank name of Blizwald.

Francis, ‘only’ born the great-great-grandson of a king – Charles V of France – but because of several childless succeeding monarchs, and a wise marriage to the daughter of Louis X11, had inherited this most coveted throne of France on January 25, 1515.

Having come into the world at the Château de Cognac in the town of Cognac, once he was monarch, he wanted something much grander to call his own.  Therefore, he hired the Italian architect, painter and sculptor, Francesco Primaticcio (1504-1570) to assist in the expansion of the hunting lodge which by then had had a chapel added to it and which had become known as Fontainebleau.  Like Louis V11, Francis loved to hunt – all France’s monarch did, evidence of their killing today adorning many walls of France’s châteaux – and there was an abundance of wildlife in the forest around the lodge.

Francis died in 1494, not at the Fontainebleau château, but at the Château of Rambouillet: The Fontainebleau one having become his residence only for when he wanted to hunt.

From Francis through to Napoléon III – Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (1808-1873), nephew of Napoléon 1 – the Château of Fontainebleau had undergone enlargement and refurbishing.

Between these two monarchs were altogether nine monarchs, among them Louis XIV, known as the Sun King (1638-1715) – in French le Roi-Soleil, Louis XV known as Louis the Beloved – in French Louis le bien aime (1710-1774) and the fateful Louis XVI who had on January 21, 1793 died, decapitated on the guillotine as plain and simple, and despised, Louis Capet. And of course there was also Napoléon 1, who I will, for the sake of simplicity, from now on, refer to just as Napoléon Bonaparte.

In fact, today, the Château of Fontainebleau is linked most closely to Napoléon Bonaparte.

It was at the château that he had abdicated in 1814 and stepped out into a courtyard to bid farewell to his Great Army after his defeat by the forces of what has become known as the ‘Sixth Coalition’ – the armies of Great Britain, Russia, Prussia, Austria, Sweden, Spain and Portugal for exile on the Medidterranean island of Elba. (He had, of course, escaped from Elba and had returned to France, but only to immediately make war again against a coalition of European armies commanded by the Duke of Wellington and to be defeated at Waterloo on June 18, 1815, which had resulted in another exile, that one to the Atlantic island of Saint Helena from which he was to return to Paris only as a corpse.)

A visit to the Château of Fontainebleau makes a great outing for a day or to spend a night in one of the town’s very many hotels, one of them – the Hotel de Londres – facing the château.

(You may wonder why I keep on using the word château and why I do not say castle or palace? As a friend who is a copy editor pointed out to me some years back: the word château is not to be translated to the word castle nor to that of palace because a castle is a fortified building with towers and protected by a moat, and a palace is a royal residence still being lived in like the Élysée Palace, residence of France’s presidents, and like Buckingham Palace, the London residence of Queen Elizabeth.)

The easiest way to get to the town – this is if you do not have transport of your own – is to take a Transilien train from the Paris railway station of Gare de Lyon. The trains that call in at Fontainbleau have for destination either the towns of Montargis or Monsereau.  There is a train each hour.

Gare de Lyon is large and confusing, but know that the Fontainebleau train will leave from Hall 1, and once you are one of the crowd, you will find the platform for boarding the train on one of the blue ‘Departure’ boards. The platforms are identified by the letters of the alphabet.

Your most economic rail ticket will be the Mobilis ticket and as these are sold by ‘Zone’ you will have to buy the Zone 5 ticket. It will cost you € 16.60 (£12.66 / $18.54). It being a day ticket, you can travel until midnight of the day of purchase on any train, Métro train or bus in the Ile de France region.  And you can go back and forth on the same route all through the day.

There is no railway station named ‘Fontainebleau’: the station is named Fontainebleau-Avon as it serves both the towns of Fontainebleau and Avon.

The trains to Montargis and Monsereau will first halt at the station of Melun, next at the station of Bois le Roi, and then next will be the Fontainebleau-Avon station. Right outside the station you need to get on to Bus No 1 which heads for the château and will indeed be marked as such on the front. The ride to the château is but short and it is pleasant as the bus drives through the town. The stop for the château will be the terminus, so everyone will be getting off there. Cross the road and continue walking for a couple of minutes and you will have the château on your left.

An entrance ticket for an adult comes to €11 (£8.39 / $12.28) – plein tarif in French – which includes any temporary exhibition which may be on.  There is also a reduced tariff – tarif réduit – of €9 (£6.86 / $10.05) – for the under 25s. Children under the age of 12 go in free.  The park too is free, and for everyone.

Another view of the chateau (cc Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

Another view of the chateau (cc Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

The château is open every day but Tuesdays, January 1, May 1 and Christmas Day, and the first Sunday of every month there is no fee for going in. Visiting hours are from 9.30 a.m. to 5 p.m. from October to March, and from 9.30 a.m. to 6 p.m. from April to September.

A most lasting image of one’s visit to the château is of colour – green, yellow, blue, pink, red – all vivid, all dazzling. Nowhere – not even in Napoléon Bonaparte’s bedroom or in the salon where he had sat down to sign the abdication papers – is there a hint of brown or black. And no leather anywhere, but only silk and velvet and gold-threaded tapestries. Even the ceilings and the walls are covered either in gilded tiles or gilded frescoes, and even where carpets have been placed on perfectly-polished wooden floors – one wonders why such terrific floor boards should be covered over – those carpets are in the most stunning colours.

What is more, even the colours of the furnishings in the château’s two chapels take one’s breath away: the altars are gilded; the bunks of the pews are purple or red.

One thinks “Wow! All’s so perfect! Did they really need to pray? What more could they possibly have asked the Almighty for? Or did they go down on their knees on their prayer stools to thank the Almighty for what they have?”

Then, one wonders if it is not too much of a beautiful thing? And yes, the French did think so once and that was why the French Revolution happened and they had started chopping off heads. And why France is today a constitutional republic.

Fontainebleau Chateau's lake (cc Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

Fontainebleau Chateau’s lake (cc Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

The château’s 130-hectare park offers some hours of relaxation.

In the park is the ‘Grande Parterre’ designed by André Le Nôtre (1613 – 1700) the landscape architect whose other marvels include the gardens and parks of the châteaux of Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte, and the Paris garden of the Tuileries. The ‘Grande Parterre’ is the largest French-style – jardin à la française – formal garden in Europe. There are apparently 45,000 flowering plants in this garden: I do know that in the summer it is, like the rooms of the château, a marvel of colour.

Fontainebleau Chateau (cc Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

Fontainebleau Chateau (cc Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

Fontainebleau Chateau@ forever renovating and restoring to its original 'golden' look (cc Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

Fontainebleau Chateau@ forever renovating and restoring to its original ‘golden’ look (cc Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

There are many statues in the park.

Just one of the many statues in the park of Fontainebleau's park. (cc Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

Just one of the many statues in the park of Fontainebleau’s park. (cc Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

 

In the park of Fontainebleau Chateau (cc Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

In the park of Fontainebleau Chateau (cc Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

A must in a park is a restaurant/café, and this park has one too: the l’Orangerie.

It has an inside room with stone walls and black-and-orange tables and chairs for cold and rainy days, and a large terrace with either white or orange tables and chairs for when the sun is shining. After many online complaints about the service, the cost and the quality of what is on their menu, they are making an effort to do better. A small black coffee still cost €2 (£1.52 / $2.33 and a croissant or a Danish pastry still costs €4 (£3.05 / $4.47), and a slice of apple-pie €6 (£4.57 / $6.70), but all are made on the premises – and frankly, are very nice. A snack-type meal for 4 people will though rob you of something like €80 (£61 /$89). Do however bear in mind where you are: sitting beside a lake in the park of the Château of Fontainebleau! And when I visited the château on Friday, May 27, a warm and sunny day and I sat out on the terrace, the waiter – a young man – was charming. In fact, I pay €2 for a small black coffee in even the most pathetic little bistrot in Paris.

Fontainebleau chateau's 'L'Orangerie. (cc Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

Fontainebleau chateau’s ‘L’Orangerie. (cc Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

In the summer a large horse-drawn carriage (a calèche) is parked in front of the restaurant/café. The driver sits patiently waiting for clients while the horses stomp their feet.  His fee, as in so many attractions and kiosks catering for tourists, depends on what a potential client looks like …

The caleche waiting for passengers (cc Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

The caleche waiting for passengers (cc Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

There are many restaurants/cafés in the town of Fontainebleau: there are several on the square where the bus from the station will draw up. You will not find an inexpensive eating place in this town, and nowhere will you get a small black coffee for less than what you will pay at the L’Orangerie. Do know that during lunchtime not one of these restaurants/cafés will serve one just a drink: one must have lunch.

For a meal, a snack, or just a drink on a square facimg the chateau. (cc Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

For a meal, a snack, or just a drink on a square facimg the chateau. (cc Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

The hotels in the town are also expensive.

Here is an example of one of the hotels: a four-star. This hotel offers four types of rooms.

These are by night:

Classic Room – €138 (£105 / $154)

Romantic Room – €158 (£120 / $176)

Superior Room – €188 (£143 / $209)

DeLuxe Room – €228 (£173 / $254)

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There is normally a temporary exhibition too at the château.

The current one which opened on April 2 this year (2016) and runs through to July 4, 2016, is LOUIS XV À FONTAINEBLEAU – Louis XV at Fontainebleau.

Louis XV exhibition (cc Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

Louis XV exhibition (cc Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

This exhibition is, as the title informs, about Louis XV at the château. It consists of paintings, furniture, porcelain and documents. It is very interesting.

Unlike in the other rooms of the château one is not allowed to take photographs in the rooms hosting this exhibition.

Boats to hire for sailing the lake: but only over weekends and public holidays. (cc Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

Boats to hire for sailing the lake: but only over weekends and public holidays. (cc Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marilyn Z. Tomlins

2 Responses to “The Château of Fontainebleau: French Elegance or Scandalous Extravagance?”

  1. 2
    Marilyn Z. Tomlins Says:

    Louise, it does makea wonderful outing.

  2. 1
    Louise McDermott Says:

    Your Comments
    What an interesting article! The historical facts are explained so well. It makes the chateau come alive. You can imagine the characters wandering around.
    I have been to Fontainebleu a few times in my life but never in the summer. This article wants to make me go there again.

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