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Chateau Fontainebleau: Paris Day Trips

fontainebleauLocated just 67 km southeast of Paris, Fontainebleau is a small town that grew up surrounding the beautifully preserved Fontainebleau Chateau. Fanning out from the castle and small town is the Foret de Fontainebleau (a former royal hunting park), a beautifully wooded area that makes you feel a hundred miles from Paris and allows for many great outdoor activities for visitors—including walking, rock-climbing (the forest is known for great bouldering opportunities) cycling and horseback riding. Once hunting grounds for the royalty that resided here, the forest remains a preserved playground for locals and visitors.

Far less crowded and visited than Versailles, the Chateau Fontainbleau is one of France’s largest royal residences and has 1900 rooms, all of which are beautiful furnished with period pieces of furniture and décor. A visit to this castle allows a unique peak into Renaissance and French Royal life—without all the pressure and people you’ll encounter at Versailles.

>>Read about other great Paris day-trips or if you are interested in visiting more French chateau read about the Castles of the Loire

The Castle

libraryWhile certainly not as well known as Versailles, Fontainebleau is also one of the largest French rpyal chateaux. The palace that stands today is the work of many French Kings, and construction started in the early 16th century by King Francois I.

While the castle was emptied of some of its furnishings and original artwork during the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte restored the castle to its former grandeur, using it as an alternative palace to Versailles. It was also the setting for the court of the Second Empire during the reign of Bonaparte’s nephew, Napoleon III.

The immense palace is arranged around a series of courtyards and the décor both in the castle and out of the castle is the gardens inspired a style that now bears the name of the castle—the Fontainebleau style, which combines sculpture, metalwork, painting, stucco and woodwork. The Fontainebleau’s gardens also was the first place where patterned gardens parterre were introduced.

Perhaps one of the best parts of visiting this immense French chateau is the interior—which is intricately designed and filled with original Renaissance period furniture. The walls and ceilings of the chateau are coated with wood paneling and glided carvings. The castle also features frescos, tapestries, parquet wood floors and exceptional carvings in fireplace mantle pieces. Today the castle is open to visitors and also is home to the Ecoles d’Art Americaines, a school or art, architecture and music for students from the U.S.

The Gardens

fontainbelaugardensThe gardens of the château at Fontainebleau are not to be missed. Featuring intricate layouts, ponds and more, the gardens were the first of their kind in France.After campaigning in Italy and admiring many of the gardens he saw there, Francois I brought home the Italian Renaissance style and combined it with French Gothic to create a completely nerw and unique style of garden in France.

At the center of the new layout was a nearly square courtyard surrounded on three sides by a gallery. On the fourth side of the courtyard there was a fountain which included Michelangelo’s white marble sculpture of Hercules (purchased in 1529). The lake was the central piece to the overall organization and the focus of the courtyard.

The approach has a elm lined causeway on the East Side of the lake leading to the southwest corner of the chateau. The Grand Jardin east of the causeway was probably meant for outdoor games and exercise, and created a transitional space to the forest. A canal bisects the Grand Jardin making two large areas – one with 12 separate island compartments and the second with two primary spaces.

I recommended grabbing a few things from the local outdoor food market Marche Republique 8 am-1 pm Tues, Fri and Sat) and picnicking on the garden grounds for lunch during your stay.

The Town

While the forests of Fontainbleau are a popular weekend escape for many Parisians, the town of Fontainebleau is also home to some people who work in Paris and choose to commute to this nice area known for being a respectable middle-class place to be.

The town of Fontainebleau which has a population of under 30,000 people is also home to INSEAD, one of the world’s most elite international business schools and one of France’s grand ecoles. INSEAD welcomes about 2000 student a year, which adds to the international, educated and safe vibe of the town.

School of Fontainebleau

dianethehuntressThere is an entire style of painting that also evolved out of the Chateau de Fontainebleau. The school of Fontainebleau started when Francois I invited several Italian artists to France, who in turn melded French and Italian styles using new techniques to develop a new style of painting. This later became a crucial step in forming the French version of mannerism.

Works from the first school of Fontainebleau are characterized by the extensive use of stucco and frescos that center on allegorical and mythological iconography (like Diane the Huntresses, which can be seen today in the Louvre).

Castle Tours

  • An informative 1.5 hour audio guide leads visitors around the main parts of the palace.
  • There are 2 guided 1.25 hour tours, which take visitors into more areas of the castle, including the Napoleon Museum:
    • 10:30 am and 3:30 pm daily —Petit Apartements and Musee Napoleon
    • 11:30 am and 2:30 pm—Musee Chinois and l’Imperatice Eugenie
  • Price (adult/18-25): individual tours €12.50/11. Sign up for both and get into main part of chateau for free (€19/16)
  • Getting to Fontainebleau

    By Train

    A SNCF train links Fontainebleau with Paris. There are up to 30 commuter trains that travel between Paris’ Gare de Lyon and the Fontainebleau-Avon train stations every day. Trains cost €7.60 and the journey takes about 35-60 minutes.

    You can also purchase a package (adult/10-17 yr. old/4-9 yr. old) that includes return transport from Paris, bus transfers and chateau admission (€23/16/8.10)

    A bus links the train station with the chateau for €1.50 and runs every 10 mins from 5:30 am-9:30 pm. The last train back to Paris leaves at 9:45 pm (10 pm Saturday and 10:30 pm Sunday).

    By Car

    Take route A6 from Porte d’Orleans, direction Lyon. Exit Fontainebleau.

    Photos: top kimdokhac, library Greg_e