I visited the magnificent Château de Fontainebleau in May. It was a gorgeous sunny day, hot by mid-afternoon, even by Texas standards. Fabulous rich blue sky for photography! We went in the middle of the week, but being a World Heritage Site, it was full of people, including many groups of French schoolchildren sitting on the floor listening to their teachers.
A few words to the wise traveler
It’s a big palace; there’s room for everyone. You travel in a single line through the rooms, looping back at one point, confusingly. There are people fore and aft, but you can tuck yourself out of the path to study some detail or soak it all in. Everyone is very tolerant of photography these days. Though it is hard to take pictures of whole rooms, there are so many people and the light is pretty dim.
My usual strategy is to get to these places at opening time. Alas, I planned poorly. It took forever to find the right place in the Gare du Nord. You’d think there’d be signs for tourists going to a World Heritage Site, but no. Mom and I had to wander across three floors even to find an information desk that could give us the correct information. Then we needed correct change to buy tickets from a kiosk and had to run fast to catch the train. “Vite, vite, Madam!” the lady cried to my 86-year-old mother. Luckily, she’s fleet of foot.
Also, buy your tickets in advance, for the specific date you will go. France is lovely, there’s no denying it, but something is always on strike, half the things you want to see will be closed and the rest will be understaffed. There was 1 (ONE) woman working the ticket desk at this World Heritage Site on a sunny day in May. We waited in line for 40 minutes. Luckily, I had this fancy window latch to contemplate while we stood stock still for no apparent reason. This is what we call detailed craftsmanship.
It would also be a good idea to bring food and water. The restaurant was closed and there is no cafe. All they had for lunch was French breakfast tacos (ham and cheese crepes) served from a cart. So it’s France, so it’s excellent ham and cheese, but still.
History of the magnificent palace
Fontainebleau started out as a hunting lodge, convenient to the large royal forests around Paris. In 1137, it was called Fontem Blauhad, believe it or not, which means the spring or fountainhead of a person named Blizwald. Wikipedia tells us this with a straight face, so we must believe it.
Francis I (1494–1547) turned the hunting chateau into a palace of exceptional splendor. If you think that window latch is stylish, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet! Not one square inch of this place has been left undecorated. Also, we find the ‘F’ for ‘Francis’ absolutely everywhere, in case later generations forgot who built the place.
Every monarch from Francis to Louis XV (sweetly known as Louis the Beloved) added their own touches. The Beloved died in 1774, just before the whole monarchy situation went south. The palace is vast; we only get to tour a portion of it.
Francis is the one who imported the new Renaissance architectural style to France, as interpreted by his architect, Gilles le Breton. It’s a brilliant style; quintessentially French and handsome. Paris is full of buildings like this. That’s a large part of its eternal charm.
There is a still a large and scenic forest called Fontainebleau, to which Parisians regularly resort. I didn’t see it. If I’d been on my own, I would’ve done some hiking in there. But this wasn’t a research trip. I dragged my mother out to this busy place because it was there in Francis Bacon’s day. He probably spent some time there in his late teens. His cousin, Robert Cecil, certainly visited on diplomatic missions in the 1590s.
We start with an overview, swiped from the web somewhere. I do not have an aeroplane.
The red arrow on the right shows the entrance (lockers, tickets, guards). The other arrow shows where you exit. The display rooms run in a line on the second floor (first in British terms). We walk along to the horseshoe stairs and then go through the gallery connecting the front palace to the rear palace and then take a right (hook a roscoe, in Chicago terms). The chapel is on the other side there somewhere. I must confess the topography has me foxed. I’ll scan and post the floorplan.
The main idea is to regulate the flow of tourists, both modern and, I suspect, early modern. Elizabeth’s palaces were tourist attractions in her day; no reason this one wouldn’t have been. One of the functions of a magnificent palace to is show foreign visitors how magnificent you are.
Let’s see. The yellow building in the lower right portion of the palace houses some exhibits about Napoleon, which are very interesting unless you are focused on the late 16th century. Napoleon who? says me.
The bookshop is the last stop on the tour, unhelpfully, so I didn’t have this plan while we were cruising through. The thing that most interested me was the progression of rooms leading to the monarch. First the outer guard room, relatively plain (nothing here is really plain), then the inner guard room, for guards of greater rank, one supposes. Then we have presence chamber, private presence chamber, reception room, bedroom, another bedroom, and then we exit through rooms in the reverse order, ending with another guard room. Or that’s how it seemed to go.
It was hard to take pictures of rooms and I don’t want to scan the whole book. So we’ll just dip into the photo pool and take potluck instead of trying to reproduce the tour.
The Château de Fontainebleau. 2008. Connaissance des Arts.