Paris offers holiday makers like us marvellous experiences, including an easy day trip to Chateau de Fontainebleau. Boarding a mainline train from Gare de Lyon, we head for Fontainebleau-Avon station, 45 minutes away. There, a Ligne 1 bus winds through the historic town, dropping us at the main gate of the renowned chateau.
Sighting its grandiose horseshoe staircase, we imagine elegantly dressed nobility arriving in resplendent carriages. Inside, audio guides introduce this monumental World Heritage palace. Still surrounded by immense woodlands, Fontainebleau began as a royal hunting lodge in the early 12th century. For over eight centuries, kings, queens, emperors and empresses made improvements. Retaining only its mediaeval keep, François I rebuilt the original lodge in 16th century Italian Renaissance-style. A 17th century builder, Henry IV added Baroque-style wings, courtyards and extensive gardens. Evolving into a lavish 1,500-room palace, Fontainebleau became French royalty’s most beloved residence.
Between 1804 and 1815 Napoleon I established Fontainebleau as his official residence, fondly calling it “house of the centuries, the true home of kings.” Larger than life family paintings line a long marble hallway. An adjoining room displays a portrait of Marie-Louise, his 19-year-old queen. In the small Napoleon museum, glass cases enclose his personal firearms, swords, tricorn hats, uniforms and cloaks as well as his family’s imperial silverware and ceramics.
Two rooms reflect his precious son’s early life. Gilded portraits show a healthy young Napoleon II. Christened King of Rome, a magnificent cradle reflects his infancy. Miniature soldiers, a working toy rifle and small swords help us visualize his playful childhood.
Past the spectacular Trinity Chapel, huge sculpted wooden doors open into François I’s wonderful gallery. Elaborate stucco-framed frescoes depict classical allegories and myths glorifying the monarchy. These Renaissance masterpieces line the walls above fine oak woodwork. Decorative laminated wood ceilings stretch above. François’ kingly image hangs over a fireplace; his fiery salamander emblem remains etched on numerous panels.
In the Baroque ballroom, light streams from high windows. At one end a niche in an upper balcony enclosed musicians. The polished parquet floors seem perfect for dancing. Themed paintings surround us, which reminded guests of proper decorum and dire consequences for misbehaviours. Cushioned seats border huge decorated alcoves, allowing discreet conversations.
We discover that following the Revolution, Fontainebleau fell into disrepair, stripped of all its splendid furnishings. Emperor Napoleon later restored the enormous mansion, completely refurbishing it to earlier grandeur. He also installed Egyptian-style furnishings and luxurious silk wall-coverings. Today, the Grand Apartments glitter with 18th century paintings, porcelain statuary, tapestries and brocade draperies.
The Queen’s rooms boast gilded white paneled walls and furnishings upholstered in extravagant florals. Though the Revolution deprived Marie Antoinette from enjoying her new, sumptuously canopied bed, Empress Josephine certainly did! In contrast, Napoleon’s room contains a simple tented bed like he’d used during military campaigns.
The kings’ traditional bedchamber became Napoleon’s reception chamber. Golden eagles, ceremonial flags and wreathed N’s flank his imperial throne. Symbolizing industriousness, golden bees on blue velvet draperies superseded the Bourbon fleur-de-lis.
In the last chamber, plush red chairs surround the small round table where Napoleon abdicated in April 1814. He gave a fond adieu to his officers from the horseshoe staircase. Returning to Trinity Chapel’s main floor, we learn his nephew was baptized here in 1810. Forty-two years later, he founded France’s Second Empire as Napoleon III, becoming the chateau’s last royal resident.
Our royal outing concludes strolling through shady Diana Gardens. Honouring the Goddess of Hunting, François I designed this perfect little garden and reserved it for queens alone. Napoleon updated it with natural English-style landscaping.
French nobility loved palatial Fontainebleau. So did we!
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