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Guide to Visiting the Chateau de Fontainebleau

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If you are visiting Paris, one of the best day trips you can take is to see the Royal Chateau de Fontainebleau.

Brief history of the Chateau de Fontainebleau

Historians do not know the exact date when the Chateau de Fontainebleau was established. The earliest reference to it dates to 1137 under the King Louis VII, although it’s possible it was built even earlier.

At that time, it was not an enormous castle by any stretch of imagination, but a much more modest one. In the 16th century, King Francis I made a decision to carry out a major transformation in Fontainebleau and commissioned a famous architect Gilles le Breton for this purpose. The architect kept the old buildings, but also added the Golden Gate and a monumental new building built in the Renaissance style. Over the years, different kings made other additions in order to make the castle more and more splendid. What especially attracted the French kings to this area was abundant game in the surrounding forest, so they enjoyed spending time there.

During the French Revolution, the Chateau’s buildings did not suffer damage as it was rather far away from Paris, but its furniture got stolen and sold. Napoleon later carried out some renovations, including replanting the gardens. He did not get a chance to enjoy the castle as much as wanted to because of his frequent military campaigns. However, he ended up spending his very last days of reign at Fontainebleau before abdicating there.

Several legends help to shed some light on where the name “Fontainebleau” could come from. One legend says that the dog of Louis IX discovered a spring in the forest during the fox hunt. The dog’s name was Bleau. After the discovery, the source with its beautiful water was named Belle-Eau Fountain, and the name Fontainebleau came from it.

Chilling at the Chateau de Fontainebleau

Five reasons you should visit the Chateau de Fontainebleau:

  1. It’s situated relatively close to Paris. You can easily get there and back in one day without feeling exhausted. In fact, you’ll likely feel an energy boost after going there.
  2. The crowds are much smaller than at Versailles or Louvre and other attractions in Paris. You can sit down in the park and enjoy some quiet moments there.
  3. The exhibition is not only delightful and rich, but also very manageable in size. You can spend several hours walking around the castle and its grounds and see everything on display. This makes me feel much better than when I go the Louvre, knowing that no matter what, I won’t be able to see even one tenth of the artwork (I hear it takes 100 days to see every item in Louvre!) At Fontainebleau, you will even have some time just to relax and enjoy the peaceful nature. You can also easily buy souvenirs at the gift shop (again not very crowded). The gift shop has a very nice collection of various books about France, history etc. You might want to check it out. I bought an excellent book about Napoleon and the history of the Fontainebleau castle during my last visit.
  4. If you are traveling with kids, they will definitely appreciate this day trip. The grounds around the Chateau are wonderful. Kids will have a great time running and playing there. There is also a pond with a lot of fish (carp) and various birds (e.g., swans, ducks) which will entertain kids for a long time.
  5. If you are interested in the life of Napoleon Bonaparte and want to know more about him, this is a great place to learn about this famous man in history.

Spring at the Chateau de Fontainebleau

How do you get to the Chateau de Fontainebleau?

There are various ways to get to the Chateau. You can obviously take a cab or sign up for one of the tours in the city which offer transportation.

Many people, however, prefer just taking public transportation, as it’s rather easy and much less expensive. Plus, this makes your trip more like an adventure.

If you want to use this option, you will need to get to the train station (Gare de Lyon) from your hotel in Paris. This can be done via cab, bus or metro.

Gare de Lyon platform

From the train station you will be taking a train which stops in Fontainebleau. There is no train which has the final stop there, so you will need to take a train to Montargis and get off at Fontainebleau. It’s a relatively short trip (about 45 minutes) and you just need to travel a couple of stops.

You’ll be watching the screen in order not to miss your stop. It takes some time to get to Melun from Paris, but other stops come very quickly

The good news is that trains to Montargis are rather frequent. They come every 40 minutes or so. You don’t need to wait for too long even if you miss the train. This year, we took one which departed at 10:40 am. It gave us plenty of time.

Once you get off at Fontainebleau, you will need to take a bus to take you to the chateau. Again, it’s very simple. Buses are frequent and the bus stop is located right next to the train station. The ride is about 10 minutes.

Waiting for the bus to Fontainebleau

Before you know it, you’re already there!

Highlights of the visit to the Chateau

Once you get off the bus, you will take a short walk to reach the castle.

The Diane Garden

There are several entrances, one of them being through the Diane Garden. It’s the smallest garden and also a very picturesque one. A lot of people sit down on the bench in this garden and have a snack before starting the tour. We followed their example, as we bought a couple of pastries at the train station.

Diane Garden

The Diane Garden was once a garden of French royals. At that time, it was designed as a French formal garden based on principles of imposed symmetry (example: Versailles gardens). During the times of Napoleon, Diane Garden was turned into an English-style garden. This type of garden has a more natural design, without artificial shaping of trees and imposing symmetry.

The Diane Garden is a perfect place to relax after your trip to Fontainebleau. You can also enjoy the view and take some photos with the gorgeous Diane Fountain which features a sculpture of Diane with her hunting dogs.

Statue of Diane

The courtyard

Once you’ve had enough time to relax and take a good look at the garden, it’s good time to head to the courtyard, take a few photos with the stunning views of the buildings, including the gorgeous horseshoe stairway, and start the tour of the castle. Walking around the park and gardens is free, but if you want to go inside the castle, you need to buy a ticket.

We are looking forward to the tour of the castle!

Inside the Chateau

Opposite to the usual experience with the top attractions in Paris (enormous lines), the entrance to the Chateau is generally not crowded. You have a good chance of getting in right away. You can buy the tickets online which are valid for the while day, so you can just wave your phone and enter the museum. One can also buy a ticket at the ticket office. Compared to places like Louvre or Musee d’Orsay, getting into the Chateau de Fontainebleau is a breeze.

Once inside, you’ll be able to explore a the Napoleon Museum, the Pope’s Apartment and the Grand Apartments. You get a chance to view an extraordinary collection of furniture and works or art.

Pope’s Imprisonment

Before visiting the Chateau, I was not aware that Pope Pius VII has been imprisoned at Fontainebleau, but this indeed was the case. Hence, while at Fontainebleau, you’ll have a chance to visit the 11-room apartment where he stayed. These had been Anne of Austria’s apartments at one point.

Back in 1809, there was a crisis between the Pope and Napoleon. As the result, Napoleon made a decision to annex the Papal states and imprison Pius VII first in Savona and later in Fontainebleau.

The Pope arrived in Fontainebleau in June 1812 and spent almost 2 years in captivity. Although the expectation was to treat him as a distinguished guest and not a prisoner (at least that’s what Napoleon had planned on), in practice, this did not work. Pope mostly stayed inside his apartments and hardly even walked in the gardens. To fight the boredom, he devoted a lot of time to reading, taking advantage of an extensive library inside the castle.

In 1813, Napoleon again tried to negotiate with Pope and they seemingly reached an agreement, but in the end, Pope declined, much to Napoleon’s fury.

After the unsuccessful invasion of Russia, things started going south for Napoleon. Eventually, he made a strategic decision to set Pius VII free, as it was in his own best interest. Pope’s 18-month captivity finally ended in January 1814 and he returned to Rome in May of the same year.

The Napoleon Museum

The Napoleon Museum is my favorite part of the visit. You can see a lot of interesting items which belonged to Napoleon and his family, including their numerous portraits.

Napoleon’s Portrait

Napoleon’s physical appearance appears striking on all of his portraits. Many people think of him as a tall, strong and handsome man. However, this cannot be further away from the truth.

People who met Napoleon often claimed that they got disappointed by his appearance. It was very different from what they imagined. He was short and his face was non-remarkable. In the younger days, he was thin and frail. In his 30’s, he gained a lot of weight and appeared clumsy and out of shape. However, many contemporaries commented on the determined and powerful expression which he had on his face.

Interestingly, Napoleon was also very superstitious. He believed in fate and lucky stars. He wanted to surround himself with the people who were “lucky”, especially when it came to military generals.

When explaining Napoleon’s personality, psychologists note that his physical appearance likely contributed to his overly aggressive behavior. People now widely use the term “Napoleon complex” to describe an inferiority complex.

Looks and beliefs aside, Napoleon’s clothes appear pretty much the way you’d expect them to look. I’m always fascinated when looking at the uniform which once belonged to Napoleon. After seeing it in history books, it’s really cool to see it up close.

Napoleon’s clothes

As you progress through the museum, you’ll also see the room which once belonged to Napoleon’s son. He received a title of the King of Rome even before his birth. The little boy was born at the Tuileries Palace. Apartments at various imperial palaces, including here at Fontainebleau, were furnished and decorated specifically for him.

The King of Rome apartments

As you continue your tour of the castle, you will see one magnificent room after another. You definitely don’t want to miss the Gallery of Francis I which will impress you with the incredible Renaissance style decor. The Italian artists designed decorations for the Gallery.

Gallery of Francis I

The ballroom is another incredible work of art. This room was originally a passageway, but King Henry II transformed it into the room for celebrations and balls.

The Ballroom

The Queen’s bedchamber will also strike you with its incredible decor and wealth. All the queens of France slept in this room, starting with Marie de Medici.

Queen’s Bedchamber

There is an interesting story about the bed in this room. It was made specifically for Marie Antoinette. As you can probably imagine, it took a long time and a lot of effort to make a gorgeous bed like this. As the result, it didn’t arrive until 1797. At that time, the queen’s execution already happened and she did not need a bed.

The good thing about such a late arrival was that the bed did not get stolen during the Revolution. Napoleon’s first and second wives (Josephine and Marie-Louise) were able to take a full advantage of this wonderful bed. Not at the same time, of course.

As you keep walking through the castle, you will also get a chance to see the Room of the Guards, the Stairway of the King, and, of course, the Throne Room of Napoleon.

The Throne Room

Napoleon’s exile

Napoleon had to abdicate the throne and renounce his heirs’ claim to it at Fontainebleau in 1815. After that he was exiled to Elba, a small island in the Mediterranean, but did not stay there for too long. He never gave up and kept plotting until he found a way to get out.

Following his escape from Elba, he tried to return to power, but the battle of the Waterloo put the final nail in the coffin. The British captured Napoleon and exiled him, this time permanently, to the remote island of Saint Helena in the Atlantic Ocean. Together with him came 27 followers. British forces heavily patrolled the waters around the island to prevent the escape of the prisoner.

The climate and living conditions on the island were not favorable for Napoleon and his followers. The house turned out damp and full of rats. Despite the difficult circumstances, Napoleon insisted on following imperial protocols. He formally received visitors and at dinner parties men had to wear military uniforms and women- evening gowns and appropriate jewelry.

Napoleon’s health quickly deteriorated and he died in 1821 at the age of 51. There were various theories around his death, including possible poisoning with arsenic, but the final conclusion was that he died of stomach cancer. One can see Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides in Paris.

The Park

Once outside, you have an option of relaxing on one of the benches or walking around and exploring the grounds. The gardens surrounding the castle are magnificent.

If you come with kids, they’ll especially appreciate the Carp pond which is full of large carps who love interacting with visitors. There are also ducks and swans which will definitely entertain the kids.

The picture perfect Carp pond and its inhabitants

The Final Word

A day trip to Fontainebleau is one of my favorite parts of visiting France. I always try to add it to my itinerary whenever I am in Paris. The incredible collection and the peace and tranquility of the gardens around the castle make it a true magnet.

I hope you also get a chance to explore this magnificent site and immerse yourself in its rich history. Chateau de Fontainebleau is full of memories of such notable people in history like Francis I, Henry II, Louis Philippe, Napoleon Bonaparte, Pope Pius VII, and Napoleon III. Getting a chance to feel one step closer to them is priceless.

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9 thoughts on “Guide to Visiting the Chateau de Fontainebleau”

  1. I have been searching for a lesser-crowded alternative to Versailles for so long and never even knew this place existed! Adding it to my itinerary for the next trip to Paris. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Wow, this Chateau looks amazing, and has so much history! The bed chambers are gorgeous! I love doing small day trips from big cities, this looks like a fun way to spend a day away from Paris.

  3. The legends and history of fountainbleau is so fascinating. Thanks for sharing these stories behind the Chateau. Would keep this in mind while planning daytrips from Paris.

  4. I remember visiting this beautiful chateau when I was on a tour of Europe. Less known than Versailles, I really enjoyed my visit. So much history and lots of beautiful old things to see. Thanks for the memories.

  5. Hope to visit Chateau de Fontainebleau next time, at least as a day trip from Paris! Would love to learn more about Napoleon and the ballroom is such a work of art! Thanks for sharing this inspiring guide!

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