Saturday at Fontainebleau

March 29, 2010

The ability of the French to build magnificent homes is something I am still unaccustomed to. After châteaux throughout the Loire and a visit to Versailles I should no longer be impressed by palaces on expansive lawns dotted with fountains and flowerbeds, but these places are just so beautiful and they are all so unique that I never tire of them. Fontainebleau, with its long history of royal inhabitants is particularly incredible, and I was so glad that Colbert  and I decided to visit!

The château rests on land that was once a royal hunting grounds. The property is a network of paths through woods and lawns and gardens and even alongside a canal! Colbert and I decided against the bus and instead walked from where we were staying (the tiny town of Avon) and through the fenced property of the palace. I was surprised at how well-kept everything was, the wilderness was orderly and neat and the trees were pruned to look like knobby boxes, just how the French like them!

I'm sure it will look better with leaves!

It was also a nice surprise to be surrounded by so much wildlife! Birds of all kinds were busy preparing for spring-chickadees, woodpeckers, and many European birds that I wasn’t familiar with combined to make a lot of noise! Wild violets along the paths and new buds on some of the trees were welcome signs that spring is finally arriving.

A bird hiding in between branches

A cluster of violets

After walking for a while we saw the first signs of the château; a canal and a large statue along a tree and bench-lined lane. On the other side was a grassy depression that almost looked like the bed of another canal. We discovered later that the space used to contain large fountains. It’s unfortunate that they are gone, but you can still see the large circular outlines of two of them in the grass, almost like crop circles!

Statue by the canal

View of the canal

Statues and fountains with swans led up to a staircase flanked by sphinxes at the end of the lane, and the first glimpse of the château was breathtaking! The morning had been raining off and on, but the yellow building with its imposing size and blue tinted roof was illuminated by sunshine, making it seem almost welcoming instead of impenetrable and cold. The colors of the building are so French, and with the blue sky and green grass it looked like a perfect summer haven!

Most of the château

We ate sandwiches (on French baguette of course) on a bench overlooking one of the main fountains and the palace. The swans made it all almost too perfect, but then again French royalty would have settled for nothing less! Seeing tourists in jeans and t-shirts on lawns meant for Napoleon and Marie Antoinette is always a little strange. The surroundings have remained largely the same, regal and formal, but the people have changed. Most of us would probably never have seen the château, but now we’re allowed to wander around in tennis shoes!

Lunchtime surroundings

After lunch we finally ventured inside, and the visit was free since we’re students of the EU, which was great! Not all of the palace is open to the public, but the rooms that are open are magnificent! The château dates to the middle ages, but it was François Ier who undertook the first huge renovation and building project. The château was expanded and renovated again and again under other French rulers including Louis XIV, XV, and XVI (Marie Antoinette’s husband), Henri II and Catherine de Medici, King Louis-Philippe, Napoleon, and Napoleon III. As a result the palace is a mélange of tastes and styles from a period of several hundred years.

The palace does have one unifying decorative theme however, and that is to show wealth! Carved wood, painted ceilings, amazing fabrics, a gallery whose wooden walls are inset with porcelain plates hand-painted to depict the history of Fontainebleau and King Louis-Philippe’s travels are among the elements seen throughout the building. The general idea for decor seemed to be ‘the more the better!’.

The ballroom

The library

Marie Antoinette's Bedroom (my favorite!)

After we had seen all of the rooms we went back outside where we spent the rest of the day exploring the gardens, forest, and the tiny town of Fontainebleau. My favorite things were the gazebo on the carp pond (which could only be seen from the shore) and the Diana garden, which had a strangely comical fountain and one female peacock!

Gazebo (built by Louis XIV?)

Diana fountain (note the jets of water in relation to the dogs)

Handsome Hermes gates

Fontainebleau turned out to be the perfect place to spend a day learning about French history, admiring art, getting walking exercise, and enjoying the beginning of spring. I understand exactly why the rulers of France always lived there, I wouldn’t mind staying there myself!

Walking through the woods

A bientôt!

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