pleasures of France’s No. 2 palace
Fontainebleau, France — Due to its enormous scale and spectacular
geometric gardens, the 700-room Château of Versailles is
the most prominent royal palace in France. The estate attracts
3 million annual visitors. On any given day the grounds are jam-packed
The Château of Fontainebleau, by comparison, is the largest
of French royal palaces. And yet, it draws a mere 300,000 visitors
each year. According to Napoleon Bonaparte, Fontainebleau is a “true
home of kings, the house of the centuries.”
The emperor’s endorsement, as well as the smaller crowds,
provided me with enough of an incentive to visit.
Located in the village of Fontainebleau (pop.16,000) about 40 miles
southeast of Paris, the palace boasts 1,536 rooms—more than
double the number at Versailles. As is the case with Versailles,
Fontainebleau is a labyrinth of throne rooms and ballrooms, chapels
and galleries, gilded boudoirs and silk-lined salons.
Erected on the site of a 12th-century castle and expanded over
the centuries by a succession of royal tenants, Fontainebleau embodies
900 years of French history.
In 1268, King Philip IV the Fair was born at Fontainebleau (he
died here in 1314). This was the favorite residence of King François
I (1494 – 1547). He began a Renaissance-style expansion of
the property in 1528. Henri II (1519 – 1559) and wife Catherine
de’ Medici (1519 – 1589) commissioned new buildings
in the Fountain Courtyard. Louis XIV (1638 -1715), fond of hunting
in nearby Fontainebleau Forest, refurbished numerous rooms to accommodate
his ever-expanding court. And when Napoleon (1769 -1821) returned
after the revolution to find the palace had been sacked, he refurnished
the entire estate.
During WWII, Fontainebleau was seized by the Nazi army and turned
into a command center. In 1944, after General George S. Patton’s
army swept through France, the palace was converted into an Allied
command post. From 1949 to 1966 a portion of the estate served
as NATO Supreme Headquarters.
These days, Fontainebleau plays host to wide-eyed visitors like
me. On a warm spring afternoon, I walked past the wrought iron
palace gates and stepped into the White Horse Courtyard.
Larger than 2 football fields, this substantial square is also
called the “Farewell Courtyard.” It was here on April
6, 1814, that Napoleon delivered his famous farewell speech to
the Imperial Guard. Having abdicated the throne, he spoke from
the horseshoe-shaped staircase at the front of the palace. Afterward,
he was exiled to the island of Elba.
Inside the palace, I marveled at an assortment of elaborately furnished
(if not pompously ornate) state apartments and Renaissance rooms.
Among the most memorable are:
Diana’s Gallery: Built by Henri IV for his queen, the 260-foot-long
gilded corridor contains 16,000 volumes from Napoleon’s library.
The narrow concave ceiling is adorned with frescos commemorating
Throne Room: Originally the king’s bedroom, Napoleon had
it converted to a ceremonial chamber in 1808. The domed ceiling,
from which hangs a crystal chandelier, is etched in gold, as is
the throne, crown, and walls.
Empress’s Bedchamber: Ornate beyond words, the walls are
covered in brocaded silk. A queen-size bed lies beneath a 25-foot-high
silk canopy and is surrounded by a golden railing. The bed was
custom made for Marie Antoinette. She never got the chance to sleep
in it, because the court didn’t return to Fontainebleau before
François I Gallery: A vivid example of Renaissance art,
the gallery was constructed in 1528 to allow passage between the
Royal Apartments and the Chapel of the Covenant (since replaced
by Trinity Chapel). The walls are covered in embroidered walnut
wainscoting that bears François’s emblematic initials.
Iron chandeliers dangle from walnut-paneled ceiling.
The gardens are not as elaborate as those at Versailles. But with
4,500 planted trees and 40,000 flowers spread across 300 acres,
the sprawling greens at Fontainebleau aren’t too shabby either.
trains depart Paris Gare de Lyon station up to
30 times per day. The trip takes
about 40 minutes. Château Fontainebleau
is open daily except Tuesdays. Holiday closures
are May 1, Dec. 25 and Jan. 1. Château
gardens and courtyards are open every day of
the year. Admission: adults, 6.50 euros (about
$9); children under 18, free. For more information
visit the official Web site (French only) at
www.musee-chateau-fontainebleau.com. Or visit
the Fontainebleau tourism office Web site at
www.fontainebleau-tourisme.com (English, French,
The town is surrounded by Fontainebleau Forest,
a 50,000-acre woodland with gorges and sandstone
ridges frequented by rock climbing enthusiasts.
A number of hiking trails are suitable for walking,
climbing, bicycling and horse riding. Maps and
bicycle rentals are available at the Fontainebleau
tourism office across the street from the palace.