The Palace and Park of Fontainebleau has been influential for its architecture and interior decor made by Italian artists.
King Francis I, who reigned from 1515-1547, brought in painters, sculptors and architects from Italy to ornate this palace with its many frescoes and sculptures.
The chateau introduced to France the Italian Mannerist style in interior decoration and in gardens.
The castle as it is today is the work of many French monarchs, building on the structure of Francis I: from Henri IV to Louis XVI and Napoleon. At Fontainebleau Napoleon bade farewell and went into exile to Elba in 1814.
Map of FontainebleauLoad map
Having already been to Versailles and the apartments of Napoleon III in the Louvre earlier that week, palace fatigue for my week in Paris was starting to set in as I departed from Gare du Lyon on the train to Fontainebleau-Avon station. There were regular buses but I opted for the slow route, walking ~3 km through some unremarkable French suburbs alongside the railway viaduct to the entrance to the park to the east of the palace. This is part of the core zone already but there is a tentative extension to cover more parkland and the surround forests, appropriate given Fontainebleau started life as a royal hunting lodge, although the large game animals are long gone. I did not venture further out into the woods so cannot comment on the validity of that extension. Between two seemingly endless perfectly straight rows of trees, I eventually emerged onto the road and crossed over to enter the formal gardens, which were nice enough but nothing out of the ordinary for this sort of site.
After resting at the café in the Courtyard of Fountains, in which the fountain is remarkably not very prominent despite the name, I passed through into the main front courtyard, which I have seen variously called the Courtyard of Honour, Courtyard of the White Horse, and Courtyard of Goodbyes. Inside there is a bag search then free lockers to stash said bags before some automated scanners to check tickets. All of this infrastructure makes Fontainebleau seem like it would be another Parisian tourist hotspot expecting hordes of visitors but, thankfully, it was not. The first section is a museum devoted to the life and times of Napoleon Bonaparte who by all accounts enjoyed this place a great deal. The rest of the indoors are a similar fare to Versailles and, although perhaps less ornate and grand in scale, they make up for it with a complete absence of crushing crowds. The wooden Gallery of Francis I, where the Mona Lisa once hung before being moved to the Louvre, reminded me a great deal of the Hall of Mirrors, trading great size and shininess for a more understanded and almost rustic-feeling space. The later rooms continue the Napoleon theme with his throne room and the study in which he signed his abdication before his first exile on Elba (pictured). I do get easily suckered in by connections to historic events like this, regardless of authenticity, but the chairs that are still there do strongly resemble those in Delaroche’s famous portrait of the dejected Emperor awaiting the end.
Exit is through the gift shop then back across the Courtyard of Honour to collect bags from the lockers. Bear this in mind because I had entered in sunshine only to exit into heavy rain and so sheltered by the gift shop door with a large Playmobil model of Napoleon for the worst of the showers to pass before rushing back across to collect my waterproofs. Perhaps it is because I am a relative novice in WHS travelling and have not had chance got bored of European palaces yet but I rather enjoyed Fontainebleau. Despite Versailles being objectively the ‘better’ site artistically and historically, it does suffer from being rammed with people even in mid-September when I visited and is more than twice the price (27€ for palace and gardens versus just 13€ for Fontainebleau as of late 2022). In fact, you could visit the core zone of Fontainebleau without paying a penny as the park and gardens are free to access although really you should see the inside to properly appreciate the site.
August 2018 - on our way back from the Normandy along Ile de France we finally came to Fontainebleau.
It is a small nice town where we visited the local market. With some food we bought, we made our way to the gardens of the castle and tried to find a nice spot. There are numerous nice spots with views at the castle and we changed the viewing spots.
It was tremendously hot that day, and we actually preffered to had stayed at the sea shore. But we ticked this nice park and castle. One of many in Europe but certainly of bigger importance in cultural history.
The Fontainebleau Castle is somewhat in the shadow of the more popular Palace of Versailles, but wrongly in my opinion. We visited Fontainebleau in September 2015 and it was far less crowded than the day before in Versailles.
When you stand on the Cour d'Honneur facing the main façade, the palace looks smaller and less magnificent compared to Versailles, but the appearance is deceiving. You get the best impression of the real size and extent from the gardens along the southern front. The present appearance of the palace is the result of numerous reconstructions and extensions from the 12th to the 19th century: a sprawling complex with several wings around five courtyards, and a mosaic of architectural styles. Another difference to Versailles. The oldest and central part of the palace, a donjon of the original castle, is located in the oval courtyard. Unfortunately, this courtyard was not accessible on our visit, we could just take a look through the closed gate. The most striking element of the exterior is the horseshoe-shaped stairway at the main façade (photo), formerly the main entrance of the palace.
The interiors were a real surprise: luxurious furnishings, finely decorated wooden panelling, stucco and plenty of paintings and frescoes. The tour with audioguide took about two hours. The most impressive rooms are the splendid Ballroom, the adjacent double chapel of Saint-Saturnin, and the Gallery of Francis I. Furthermore, the Gallery of Diana and the Plate Gallery full with porcelain plates fitted into the wooden panelling.
All in all, we spent half a day in Fontainebleau and it was probably my most interesting and most entertaining visit of a castle on the WH list.
I visited this WHS in May 2013. The park is not that impressive. The palace exterior was quite underwhelming but the interior made up for it. The Grand Galleries and the throne room are truly of universal value for their historical importance. When compared to the never-ending crowds of visitors in Versailles, Fontainebleau was almost empty and most probably this helped me to appreciate and enjoy the palace to the full.
I did enjoy my trip out to the palace and it was a rewarding visit. It didn't feel quite as cripplingly oppressive as Versailles and was a more manageable place to get a grasp on. The level of decoration was also impressive throughout, especially the two grand corridors that we visited on the tour. Also the associations with Napoleon are pretty strong here which helped ties in some of the parts of French history that I had a decent grasp of. I also enjoyed strolling around the grounds to get a bit of fresh air.
On the whole it was a worthwhile side trip from Paris, and it was good to spend some time exploring with my friends. It was also pretty easy to get to, but I must admit Palaces very rarely capture me.
[Site 5: Experience 4]
For some reason I had anticipated finding something completely different: my navigation brought me right into the center of the town of Fontainebleau, while I had expected to visit a hunting castle somewhere in a forest. At first sight, the castle looks quite small and disappointing too.
I wandered the grounds and part of the gardens. There are some nice black sculptures, but nothing too exciting, especially in winter. There were only a couple of other visitors around. So few of them that I wondered if the interior would be closed - I visited on a Saturday, around lunchtime and had expected crowds.
All changed when I paid my 10 EUR entrance fee to visit the interior of the castle. Maybe all visitors were hiding there, escaping the winter weather? No! I really was about the only person around. Most of the rooms I had to myself. This rare occasion turned it into a memorable visit. I don't think I have ever enjoyed a European castle as much as this one.
I used a pretty good audio guide to explain the castle. Each room has signs too in French and English. One of the best is the Gallery of Francis I, a covered passageway that he had built for himself. Its walls are adorned with beautiful frescoes. Another great room is the Ball Room (see large photo above). There's a room completely in Rococo style, rooms full of gobelins, ornate bedrooms. Almost at the end of the tour, you'll find the Throne Room of Napoleon, the only such suite in France still in its original state.
So in all, a very fine WHS for its interior and a good day trip from Paris or somewhere else in the Ile de France Hotspot.
Less well known and thus (slightly) less crowded than Versailles, Fontainebleau started life as a hunting lodge and became the favorite residence for many French rulers, and many of them left their distinctive imprint. Francois I., Henri IV., and Napoleon all had an individual entrance built to the palace, and the "School of Fontainebleau" was a model for French and European Renaissance architecture. Many people will imitate the kings and prefer this magnificent complex to Versailles. I wouldn't go this far, but it is certainly very well worth visiting and one of the better daytrips from Paris.
A very nice little town, just outside of Paris, that hosts a really spectacular chateau. Once a summer residence for the kings of France, the house and park became a favorite of Napoleon during this reign as emperor. There is a good deal to explore both within the apartments and around the beautiful gardens. The town of Fontainebleau itself is also worth some time, with many little cafes, restaurants, and shops to enjoy. The people are also very welcoming; we had a nice time chatting with the old man who feeds the peacocks that wander the chateau grounds. Definitely recommended as a day trip from Paris.
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