Fontainebleau: “The Better Versailles”
Ok, the title of this post is a pretty bold claim. I can see the anger boiling in Francophile “purists” calling us names in French and waving their hands at us. But before you say ‘off with your head,’ let us make our case. The throngs of people who flock to Versailles primarily seek:
1) Over the top opulence
2) A location steeped in history
3) A chance to do some “royalty” lusting
4) Connecting with your inner Cinderella
5) A stroll in amazing gardens
6) A little bit of saucy intrigue
With these qualifications in mind, we guarantee that Fontainebleau beats Versailles on every count. A Palace Primer: The Palace of Fontainebleau (named after a fresh water spring in the area) is located 55 kms from the center of Paris, is one of the largest French royal châteaux. The palace is the work of many French monarchs, building on an early 16th century structure of Francis I. The building is arranged around a series of courtyards. The city of Fontainebleau has grown up around the remainder of the Forest of Fontainebleau, a former royal hunting park. (Wikipedia) Besides being one of the most important royal palaces throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, it is also an absolutely exquisite example of French Renaissance architecture. Down with Versailles! Let the games begin!
1) Over the top opulence.
The entry into the Palace sets the tone for the entire Fontainebleau experience. The Courtyard, called the garden of goodbyes, referencing Napoleon’s farewell message to his loyal military legions before his first exile. The art, sculpture, and design of the palace is breathtaking. The palace introduced to France, the Italian Mannerist style in interior decoration and in gardens, and transformed them in the translation. The French Mannerist style of interior decoration of the 16th century is known as the “Fontainebleau style” as it combined sculpture, metalwork, painting, stucco and woodwork, and outdoors introduced the patterned garden parterre. (www.arthistoryspot) One of the greatest things about Fontainebleau over Versailles is you are really able to drink deeply of the opulence. With Fontainebleau, you are not shoulder to shoulder with a bazillion other rude and smelly people. At times you are alone, giving you time to imagine what palace life would have been like. On our visit in May, we saw only 30-50 people inside. Also, most of the pictures we had seen on the Internet did not show the magnitude and size of the palace. It’s huge. The Trinity Chapel : Exceptional for its frescos painted under Henri IV by Martin Fréminet, one of Michelangelo’s little-known emulators, the chapel holds the memory of Louis XV’s wedding with Marie Leszczinska in 1725 and of Louis Napoleon’s baptism, future Napoleon III in 1810
The Library of Fontainebleau One of Mike’s favorite rooms in the entire palace is the famous library of Fontainebleau. Massive globes run down the center of the room. It is easy to envision Nappy and his crew planning world domination. 2) A location steeped in historyLike Versailles, Fontainebleau has been the center of both war and peace. Highlights include:
- Preliminary negotiations, held before the 1763 Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the Seven Years’ War, were at Fontainebleau.
- Napoleon gave his famous “farewell” speech on April 20, 1814 on the steps before being exiled to Elba.
- For the 1924 Summer Olympics, the Palace played host to the riding portion of the modern pentathlon event.
- The Fontainebleau Schools started with the involvement of the United States in the First World War. At the instigation of General Pershing — who wished to improve the quality of US military band music — Walter Damrosch, then conductor of the New York Philharmonic, was asked to organize a music school in the area.
- During WWII Fontainebleau also hosted the general staff of the Allied Forces in Central Europe (Allied Forces Center or AFCENT) and the land forces command (LANDCENT); the air forces command (AIRCENT) was located nearby at Camp Guynemer.
- In July and August 1946, the town hosted the Franco-Vietnamese Conference, intended to find a solution to the long-contested struggle for Vietnam’s independence from France, but the conference ended in failure.
3) A chance to do some “royalty” lusting. In all, thirty-four sovereigns, from Louis VI, the Fat, (1081–1137) to Napoleon III (1808–1873), spent time at Fontainebleau. Take that Versailles! Philip the Fair (who also died there), Henry III and Louis XIII were all born in this grand château. Every queen and empress of France since Marie de Médici has slept in the gold-and-green Empress’s Bed Chamber; the gilded wood bed was built for Marie-Antoinette. She never slept here. She lost her head. Look for the Letters! The castle’s most famous room, the Galerie de François I both glorifies the king’s royal egotism and serves as a testament to his patronage of the arts. Peppered with “F”s, the royal fleur-de-lis, and François’s personal salamander emblem, the gallery boasts vivid mythological frescoes glorifying François’s line and French royalty. Meanwhile, Henri II’s legacy pervades throughout ballroom; note the “H”s for Henri, and the entwined “C’”s for his wife Catherine de Medici—(which could also be “D”s for Diane de Poitiers, his mistress.) Think of the couple fights back then! It was here that Richelieu was knighted and the Duc d’Orleans (Louis-Philippe’s son) was wed in 1837. (Lets go guide) Take that Sun Palace! Fontainebleau is most known as was a favorite retreat for Napoleon. Bonaparte had two bedrooms, though he rarely slept: the first, a monument to both his narcissism and eroticism, is sandwiched between two mirrors, while the second is more austere, containing a narrow military bed. Napoleon, in all his humility, outfitted the Throne Room with maroon and gold; today it is the only existing throne room in France that is still furnished. 5) A stroll in amazing gardens Be prepared to have your breath taken away. The gardens and grounds of the Palace may be a slight step down in their manicured status, but Fontainebleau makes up for it in so many other ways. Just steps away from the palace is a scene out of a romance novel. In the middle of the lake you can see this royal pavilion. You could just picture stepping back in time with royalty in their finery taking walks in the fine gardens and having afternoon tea admiring the beautiful gardens. Luci and sat lakeside for an hour without seeing another soul. Try doing that the V-Palace! Highlights beyond the lake include the Queen’s Garden and the lovely English Garden. 6) A little bit of saucy intrigueWhat would a palace be but with a little court intrigue? The Palace at Fontainebleau is different. Highlights:
- Part of America started here. The 1762 Treaty of Fontainebleau, a secret agreement between France and Spain concerning the Louisiana territory in North America, was concluded here.
- The Pope in Prison. On 20 June 1812, Pope Pius VII arrived at the château of Fontainebleau, after a secret transfer from Savona, accompanied by his personal physician, Balthazard Claraz. In poor health, the pope was the prisoner of Napoleon, and he remained in his genteel prison at Fontainebleau for nineteen months. From June 1812 until 23 January 1814, the pope never left his apartments.
- Truth or Dare! The artist Madonna refers in her song “Secret Garden” from the album Erotica to it being located somewhere in Fontainebleau.
No contest! Fontainebleau is the victor! Seriously, regardless if you are a Napoleon groupie like Mike or a principled princess like Luci, Fontainebleau is a must see on your next visit to Paris. Have questions? Wanna know any tips about seeing the property? Wanna know what we did for an hour by the lake? Contact us and we will tell you most of the answers! How to get there: We took the train from Gare de Lyon in Paris. It was a nice train ride, about an hour. We started to worry. Because the train stop doesn’t say Fountainbleu. We were about to get off and go the other way,when the announcer said “Fountainbleu” we followed some other tourists. You can take a bus that takes you into town and drops you off literally in front of the palace. While the area is touristy, it’s nothing compared to the trap of Versailles (which we also visited two days later.) There is a nice commercial district to eat and shop. We purchased the Paris Pass and got the zone 6 train ticket as well. Would you like to see more of our pics of Fontainebleau? Hop on over to our brand new FACEBOOK site and see some of the amazing pictures.