Less crowded than Versailles, yet equally magnificent. Château de Fontainebleau is beyond an easy day trip from Paris, it’s also delightfully tranquil.
For almost eight centuries, Château de Fontainebleau was the preferred residence of French kings and ruling emperors. Since then, not only has the palace become one of the most breathtaking royal grounds in the world, it is also a dazzling archetype of French Renaissance artistic style.
HOW TO GET THERE
The best way to reach Fontainebleau is by train, from Paris Gare de Lyon to Fontainebleau-Avon is approximately 40 minutes via RER R (the pink line.)
At Fontainebleau-Avon station, you’ll need to cab or take a bus (Ligne 1) to Château de Fontainebleau.
If you decide to visit the town center, it’s only a six-minute walk from the château.
You can also Uber between Fontainebleau and Paris, the ride is approximately 1h30m. Be sure to plan ahead, since Ubers and taxis may require longer wait time.
Despite the first mention of the château dates back to 1137, it was later in 1527 when François I gave the estate its imperial start. At the time, the medieval castle was abandoned and dilapidated. The king commissioned himself as the chief architect of a reconstruction project that acquired two Italian artists: Rosso Fiorentino and Francesco Primaticcio. Both were part of the “First School of Fontainebleau” which was defined by two periods of artistic productions: the late French Renaissance (which eventually gave birth to Northern Mannerism) and the first production of Italian Mannerist art in France. Before numerous artists eventually moved to Paris, their artworks were mastered at Château de Fontainebleau.
One of the most grandiose highlights at the château is the François I Gallery where wooden panels are extended by opulent stuccoes and frescoes illustrating the king’s life at different stages. Other works that came to life during François I’s reign also include the Church of the Trinity and the splendid Ball Room.
After François I, other monarchs – mostly Henri II and Henri IV – also followed his footsteps by completing various constructions at the palace. The son of Henri IV, Louis XIII, was born in the palace. Travelers can see the room where his mother Marie de Medici went into labor.
During the French Revolution, Château de Fontainebleau did not garner much attention from the public. Until Napoleon I, who chose the palace as his residence. During the tour throughout the palace, visitors can see the papal quarters where Pope Pius VII stayed at the château. Throughout his life, the Pope visited Fontainebleau twice. Once as a guest, and the second time, as a prisoner.
At the end of Napoleon I’s reign, the Senate voted to depose the king on April 2, 1814. Two days later, the emperor was forced to abdicate his throne while confined to his apartment in Fontainebleau. On April 6, he officially abdicated for the second time in favor of his son: Napoleon II – the King of Rome. On April 11, Napoleon signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau then was exiled to Elba, Italy.
From admiring ravishing artworks displayed throughout the château, to understanding the complex history of French politics; spending a day at Fontainebleau is a compelling look into France’s imperial past.
TIPS & TRICKS
Touring the château will require at least half a day.
The château is a large premise, with 1,500 rooms where 34 kings and two emperors resided. Since it is one of the biggest châteaux in France, you will need at least half a day (if not a full day) to visit. There’s also a massive garden to explore, so if you have enough time to spare by the end of your visit, it’s not a bad idea to also wander through the town center.
Eat at the château café or around the town’s carousel.
Since restaurants around the château are only open from noon-2pm and 7pm-10pm, by the time you exit the tour, there might not be options for dining. There’s a café inside the château, which has a set menu option and is quite delicious. Or, walk a few minutes toward town center where you can find more selections for meals. If you need to, bring snacks.
Take a photo by the iconic horseshoe staircase.
The first sight you’ll recognize upon entering the palace gates is the legendary horseshoe staircase which dates back to 1632. Since Louis XIV, the staircase has become a symbolic passage where princesses arrived to marry a son of France. It is also here that Napoleon bade farewell to his troops before his abdication.
Spend some time at Napoleon I Museum.
One of the first stops during the tour of Fontainebleau is a museum dedicated to Napoleon I. Situated near Cour d’Honneur where the First Emperor said goodby to his Old Guard in 1814, the collection of artifacts, furniture, paintings, sculptures add up to 500 items that depict Napoleon I’s ten-year monarchy. Opened in 1986 in the Louis XV wing of the palace, the Napoleon museum is comprised of 10 rooms located where the Military Academy of Fontainebleau was previously held. It’s a comprehensive look into Napoleon’s reign, from his coronation in 1804 to his abdication – a decade later.
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Stroll through Forêt de Fontainebleau.
Prior to the kings that utilized the forest of Fontainebleau for hunting and military, the land was formerly owned by lords and elites during the year 1000. The 25,000 hectares of forest now welcomes visitors to stroll through on any beautiful day at the château. In 1861, this became the first nature reserve in the world, prior to Yellowstone National Park. In addition, the first biological reserves were created in 1953.