If the walls of the Château de Fontainebleau could talk, they would tell stories of kings and emperors, revolution and restoration, assassination and abdication spanning 800 years.
Fontainebleau has been home to 34 kings and two emperors of French ruling dynasties from the Capétiens, Valois, Bourbons, Bonapartes and Orléans. In fact Fontainebleau is France’s only royal or imperial château to be continuously inhabited for seven centuries, earning it the title of France’s true home of kings and emperors.
The sheer size of Fontainebleau is astonishing. The Château (not including its many outbuildings) boasts more than 1500 rooms spread over 20,000 square metres. Around 200 of its rooms are open to the public. Their galleries and museums house some 30,000 artworks, items of furniture and personal belongings of its many regal residents. And it’s all set among well over 100 hectares of stunning manicured gardens and ornamental lakes. It’s no wonder this UNESCO World Heritage site attracts more than 300,000 tourists each year.
A walk through Fontainebleau is a walk through centuries of French history, art, architecture and design. To explore it all yourself, join a guided tour of the Château and its grounds, or explore independently with the help of an excellent multi-lingual audio guide.
You’ll soon discover the Château was continuously renovated and altered as each king or emperor sought to leave his own mark. The varying décor in the Château reflects their different tastes and the architectural and design fashion of their times.
One of the most popular galleries of the Château is the François I Gallery. François I (1515-1547) had this 60 metre hall built to link his apartments with the chapel. The gallery’s frescoes depict important events in the king’s life.
François’ son, King Henri II, had the Château’s opulent ballroom emblazoned with his H monogram, leaving visitors in no doubt about who was responsible for this addition. It’s said the king liked to sit on the ballroom’s small stage beside his queen, Italian noblewoman Catherine de Medici, to watch musical performances.
In the apartments of the tragic Marie-Antoinette, you can view a bed that was made for the queen, although she never actually used it (Empress Josephine did), and discover her Turkish-style boudoir.
The last regal residents of Fontainebleau were Napoléon III and Empress Eugenie of the second empire. Empress Eugenie had a keen interest in the Far-East and some of her vast collection of oriental treasures is now housed in the Empress’ Chinese Museum, one of four permanent museums at Fontainebleau. Her husband converted the Diana Gallery into a library. Any bibliophile won’t want to miss its vast book-lined walls and a globe that belonged to Napoléon I.
Fontainebleau is perhaps most associated with the rule of Napoléon Bonaparte. A museum dedicated to Napoléon houses some iconic artefacts associated with the Emperor at war, including his field tent, camp equipment, and the hat and coat he wore on his return from Elba. In Napoléon’s apartments you can see where he slept, where he worked, where he held court and where his rule came to a crushing end.
In the Emperor’s throne room, France’s only remaining throne room and formerly the king’s bedroom, Napoléon cheekily had his throne placed on the exact spot the king’s bed once stood. Napoléon’s dark blue chair is embroidered with bees – a personal emblem of the Emperor. The posts bear the N monogram and gold eagles. Chairs either side were for his mother and Empress. In this room, at the height of his power, Napoléon planned campaigns and brokered deals with the top diplomats of Europe. A small room nearby tells a very different story.
The Emperor’s Salon (better known as the Abdication Salon) was the scene of a seminal moment in French history in April 1814. A defeated Napoléon sat at a small table to sign an act of abdication ending his reign. Three weeks later he delivered his famous farewell speech to his Guard in the White Horse Courtyard before going into exile on Elba. Napoléon would see Fontainebleau just once more, spending a single night here during the 100 days of his return from Elba.
The White Horse Courtyard, along with its famous horseshoe staircase, is one of Fontainebleau’s many stunning outdoor spaces. The Diana Garden, dedicated to the huntress, acknowledges the importance of hunting in royal life. In the 15 hectare Parterre, some 40,000 flowers are planted each year. All up, the Fontainebleau estate covers more than 100 hectares. There’s still more to explore beyond its gates.
The adjoining Forest of Fontainebleau was a popular hunting ground for royal parties. Today the forest offers numerous attractive walking trails. The tourist office in town can provide information and maps on walking routes in the area.
Fontainebleau, 55 kilometres south-east of Paris, is an easy day trip from the capital. A train takes 90 minutes to two hours depending on the number of stops. A shuttle bus runs a regular service from the train station to the Château. At least a full day is needed to thoroughly explore the Château, its grounds and maybe take a stroll through the forest. An overnight or extended stay in the town of Fontainebleau is well worth it.
Reference: Fontainebleau dates, facts and figures by Yves Carlier, Editions Jean-Paul Gisserot, 2005.