Travel 55½ km in a southeasterly direction from Paris, and you’ll reach Fontainebleau, a commune which actually covers a larger area than Paris itself. So it’s pretty big. Fontainebleau is known for its forest, and its château which has been developed over the centuries by successive French kings.
The earliest records of fortifications in Fontainebleau date to 1137, and later on in the 12th century it became a favourite hunting lodge used by the kings of France due to its proximity to the expanse of forest. The castle in itself is enough to occupy a whole day, so unfortunately Connie and I didn’t have the time to explore the forest further, but I’d love to go back for a wander.
The Château de Fontainebleau presents quite a mix of architectural styles due to its continuous development. The central tower was constructed in the 12th century, by Louis VII, and still stands as an example of the Medieval building, but it’s far easier to see the Renaissance influences which arrived with the expansions of François I. Shortly after becoming King, François embarked on his grand remodelling of Fontainebleau, commissioning numerous Italian artisans to undertake the works. These artisan builders/painters/sculptors, for example Fiorentino and Primaticcio, merged the Italian and French Renaissance styles together to create the ‘First School of Fontainebleau’.
It would be impossible to talk about François’ expansions without mentioning his gallery, which linked the Royal Apartments to the Chapel of The Trinity. This was also built in the Renaissance style, and used many techniques, such as wainscoting, fresco, and stucco in its decoration. François was apparently very fond of his gallery, wearing the key to it around his neck at all times, and only allowing his most favoured guests in. There used to be windows running along both sides of the gallery, but those looking over the Garden of Diana were boarded up in the 18th century due to further expansions.
Every single square inch of the interior of the castle is seemingly decorated. The state apartments used by several kings and queens of France are ridiculously ornate.
As already mentioned, successive kings put their own mark on Fontainebleau. For example, Henri II & Catherine de Medici added in the horseshoe staircase, and the ballroom, which overlooks the Cour Ovale.
Of course, when in a ballroom, Connie must dance.
Under the reign of Henri IV, Fontainebleau was expanded to the size it is today, pretty much. He added:
- the Tiber & Luxembourg pavilions
- the Porte du Baptistère
- the Cour des Offices
- the Galeries des Cerfs
- the Galerie de Diane de Poitiers
- the Jeu de Paume
- the ‘Belle Cheminée’
- and a 1200m long canal
He did a lot in 40-ish years. Kudos to Henri.
His son, Louis XIII, did complete some of these works, such as the decoration of the Chapel of the Trinity. This chapel is absolutely phenomenal. It has seen quite a few important events over its lifetime too. It witnessed the royal wedding between Louis XV and Marie Leszczynska, the Polish princess in 1725, and in 1810, Napoleon III (nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) was baptised there.
Napoleon Bonaparte was a big fan of Fontainebleau, describing it in his memoirs on St Helena as:
“the true residence of Kings, the house of ages… It was certainly the most comfortable and happily situated palace in Europe”
A glowing review it’s fair to say.
I know Connie and I had a lot of fun exploring Fontainebleau. The gardens were beautiful when we visited, and the weather was so good in June that we had to take to the carp pond for a spot of rowing, as Henri IV and his courtiers would have done back in the day.
I’m still astounded that so much history can fit into one place, and we didn’t even see all of it whilst we were there. Other smaller museums are scattered through the castle, such as the Empress’ Chinese Museum and the Furniture Gallery.
I recommend Fontainebleau 100% and will be back to explore the forest at some point. The ‘forêt’ covers 280km² so it may take me some time… But I’ll get there eventually!
For more information about the château, head over to their website here.