Royal Triumphs and Disgraces at the fabulous palace at Fontainebleau

Before they had Versailles to play with, French monarchs retreated to Fontainebleau, where they could hunt in the vast forest and escape the dirty, crowded streets of Paris into a sumptuous mansion built, renovated, and extended into a rambling palace over 700 years of construction.

Although it enjoyed some vogue as a royal hunting lodge in the middle ages, Fontainebleau's heyday didn't begin until François I's late Renaissance transformations in the 16th century. The Gallery of François I especially shows off the talents of Rosso Fiorentino and Primaticcio, the mannerist artists he hired to help decorate the place.

François I's successor, Henry II, also had his ballroom here decorated in mannerist style, with interlocking H&D initials ("D" stood for Diane de Poitiers, Henry's mistress). Ever a politic fellow, Henry hedged his connubial bets by also emblazoning the decor with H&C—this time, the "C" was his lawful wife, Catherine de' Medici.

Louis XIV was, of course, busy sprucing up Versailles in the 17th century, so he used Fontainebleau as a royal guesthouse, letting Queen Christina of Sweden set up housekeeping here in after she abdicated her crown. (Christina had similar delusions about "divine monarchy" as did Louis XIV, and felt above reproach when she murdered her former favorite Monaldeschi here once she tired of him.)

From Palace to Prison: The Napoleonic era

When Napoleon got around to setting up court here in the early 19th century, he personalized things a little more subtly, scattering his symbol of the bee, rather than his initials, about the Napoleonic rooms. Most of these are visitable only by guided tour, and include the emperor's throne room, as well as the grands appartements of the emperor and the petits appartements of his wife Josephine.

Fontainebleau may have once been Napoleon's palace, but by 1812 it had become his prison. And it was here that the revolutionary citizen–turned–megalomaniacal emperor signed his abdication papers in 1814, bid farewell to his troops from the dramatic horseshoe staircase outside, and headed off for exile on the Italian island of Elba. (He was back in 1816, but merely passed through on his way to ultimate defeat at Waterloo.)

The Forest at Fontainebleau

Touring the palace may be tiring, but save some energy for exploring both the meticulously kept gardens and carp pond, and the equally cared-for forest —they may appear wild, but seven centuries of land husbandry has kept France's second largest forest in line with civilized notions of what a wilderness should be like.

Legend holds that Henri IV was in these woods one day when a thunder of hooves brought an enormous, black-garbed huntsman flying up before him from out of nowhere. Before Henry could react, the stranger bellowed that the king's life was in danger, then vanished without a trace. Shortly thereafter, Henry IV was assassinated.

Over 42,500 hectares of oak, birch, beech, and Scots pine in Fontainebleau forest are crisscrossed by old carriage roads and tangled with 190 miles of woodland paths. The tourist office can help you plan a good hike.

Food and Lodging

Le Caveau des Ducs (www.caveaudesducs.com, +33-(0)1-64-22-05-05, 24 rue de Ferrare) can fix you up with simple French classic dishes in the evocative setting of a 17th century storage cellar for a nearby château.

Should you decide to stay the night, Hôtel-Restaurant Legris et Parc (+33-01-64-22-24-24, 36 rue Paul-Séramy, double rooms €70–€112) comfortably mingles 17th-century and art nouveau styles, or try the Hotel Victoria (www.hotelvictoria.com, +33-(0)1-60-74-90-00, 112 rue de France, €73 double rooms, from €73 online), a townhouse with a lovely garden and spacious, pretty rooms in the heart of town.

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