What’s remarkable about the Château de Fontainebleau is that both kings and emperors have lived here. The Capétien, Valois, Bourbon dynasties, the two Napoleons, and (in between) the Orléans have all resided here. The palace is a representative of French architecture from the 12th through 19th century, and we got to visit it last fall. (I am only now getting around to this post.)
I had no idea how cool Fontainebleau was. I’ve been to the forest several times and never thought much of the château. I guess I assumed it was a shell of a museum without much to look at inside. Boy, was I wrong!
The simplest way to get there is to drive. However, you can take the Transilien Line R from Gare de Lyon to Fontainebleau-Avon (direction Montargis). Then you need to take the bus – Ligne 1 (in the direction of Les Lilas). Three stops later, you’re there. The château is in the center of the very charming town of … (you guessed it) Fontainebleau!
To access the château you enter through the garden from the city streets in the center of town.
You follow the path until you get to the cobblestone courtyard, and then …
Wow! I can’t even get the entire château in the picture.
(Okay, I could if I backed up, but the rooms along the courtyard extend on both sides).
To give you a little history, the first part of the château was built in the form of a massive square in 1137 , the year when Louis VII, the Younger became king. The central tower dates from this period. In 1169, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, consecrated the chapel. Then, during the Renaissance period under the Valois kings, the rooms overlooking the courtyard were built and Italian artists embellished the interior. I’ll show you some of that magnificence in a minute.
François le 1er loved to spend time at Fontainebleau and his heir, Jacques V (future king of Scotland) was born there in 1536. Queen Catherine Medici had 6 of her children there, and François II was baptised in the chapel. When it comes to French royalty, you definitely think of the Louvre as a former palace, and Versailles. You don’t often think of Fontainebleau, but I think we should!
In the 17th century, the first Bourbon king, Henry IV, had the canal dug and the gardens created. The château and grounds, in my opinion, deserve an entire day’s visit, just like Versailles. Unfortunately, I had no idea and we arrived too late even to see the entire château. So I don’t have pictures of everything, including the magnificent theatre.
During the wars between the Catholics and Protestants, Henry IV held a diplomatic meeting in Fontainebleau to try and calm the rising religious tensions. And … lots of other things happened, which you can read about in the link below. Too many to list here when there are so many pictures to show you.
In the 18th century – the Age of Enlightenment – the château was used as a hunting box where kings received visiting royalty in a style more relaxed than at Versailles. This was where many festivals, games, and theatre pieces were held, such as Jean-Jaques Rousseau’s The Village Soothsayer. You can get a glimpse of the theatre on the website, but (as I mentioned) we didn’t have time to see it so there are no pictures here. Fontainebleau was a bucolic escape for royalty in that era. Quoting from the website:
Throughout the 18th century, court life at Fontainebleau reached a peak of sophistication best summarised by Talleyrand when he famously remarked to Guizot that “Those who have not lived through the years around 1789 cannot know what is meant by the pleasure of life.”
Napoleon had Fontainebleau completely redecorated immediately after the revolution, including removing of all signs of royalty and replacing it with his ensign – the eagle. In fact, he did more to Fontainebleau than any other king and made this his second home after Saint-Cloud. Pope Piuos VII consecrated the emperor here in 1804.
After Napoleon’s defeat (in 1812, with the abdication in 1814), the Bourbon princess, Marie-Caroline, came in 1816 to marry the Duke of Berry and the château was once again under royal influence until 1851, when Napoleon III (the grandson) would establish his empire for the next 18 years.
As you can see, Fontainebleau bounced back and forth between royals and emperors for a few centuries, leaving us with a museum, rich with sumptuous, gilded history from both eras. Let’s take a closer look.
The Grand Apartments – these are left nearly intact from when Napoleon III and Eugenie inhabited them.
Here is the Empress’s room
The Renaissance Rooms, which include the ballroom, galleries, and the ornate Italian influence. Come on in and have a peek!
I don’t know if it was just that week or if it’s an ongoing thing, but you can rent or buy Renaissance costumes, as this family did.
The massive chimney at the head of the ballroom.
This balcony overlooks a gallery, and I don’t remember which one but I’m pretty sure it belongs with the Renaissance rooms so I’m putting the photo here.
Otherwise, I have only one picture that I’m sure is of the Papal Apartments:
Sumptuous, isn’t it?
Here in another gallery:
There are some special museum pieces unique to Fontainebleau, such as this painting of Josephine in her coronation gown.
In absence of an organised virtual tour, let me show you some close-up shots of the interior.
A leather-covered door.
Another door with a crest.
A view from the stairwell
The wooden floor
a fancier wooden floor
The light fixture and moulding …
Here are some other rooms. I believe the first one is one of Marie-Antoinette’s apartments.
A nursery ..
(this next one probably belongs in the Grand Apartments)
A view outdoors.
More windows …
Speaking of the outdoors, we went around the park after our visit and discovered this back entrance to Fontainebleau that’s worth showing you, even though I don’t think you can access the chateau from there. Isn’t this a magnificent view?
And then another at the back gates with those fearsome heads looking down.
Before I end my Fontainebleau post, I can’t help but say a word about Napoleon. As a Regency period aficionado, I loved seeing all the relics from Napoleon’s era and influence.
It’s funny, because I forget I’m in France, married to a Frenchman – that I’m now French! When I talk about Waterloo and enthuse about how out-numbered Wellington was and how the British should not have won, and how you’d never know it with “the Beau” sitting on his horse, cool as a cucumber, finally suggesting that all the generals not cluster together in one easy target, but rather spread out a bit … and how they won in the end! I get so excited about the British victory.
My husband just rolls his eyes.
But here you see Napoleon’s vanity case.
Duelling pistols .
A sword with three scabbards. (Three swords, really).
Paintings and busts-
and the outfit he wore! (Okay this guy is really short. I’m glad my Frenchman is taller).
I think, if anything, I loved this the most about Fontainebleau. Sure, the château was so beautiful and ornate and rich with history. But I got to sidle up with Napoleon’s things.
Here’s his throne room with all the original furniture … (squeal)
You just can’t help but get a thrill.