There are so many Châteaux around Paris, it is hard to keep them straight. Chateau de Fontainebleau however, was the place to be for the French King since 1134. The Palace at Versailles, by comparison, was only constructed in 1634 (almost new construction!).
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History of Château Fontainebleau
As I said above, the original fortress/hunting lodge at Fontainebleau dates back to 1134. It is about 60km south of Paris and surrounded by forests with a lot of deer and other game, making it a big attraction for royalty.
Each Regent slowly added to the castle and added his personal touch, making the Château today one of the largest in France. It has several wings, 1500 rooms and a giant mishmash of medieval, classic and renaissance architectural styles.
Since it was constructed, almost all the Kings of France spent time here. But the two Kings most associated with it are François I and Napoleon Bonaparte.
i) François Ier, the larger than life French King
François I is the King that all French kids learn about in school, because he is the one decreed that French people should speak French. Prior to that, each region spoke their own languages such as Breton, Latin, Provençal, and all the other languages that were floating around at that time.
François I was a great lover of art. He collected several magnificent pieces of art including the Mona Lisa and Leonardo da Vinci himself, who lived under his protection.
In honor of his achievements, he renovated extensively Fontainebleau and carved his initials “F” everywhere. His son Henri II then inherited the château, and promptly also put “H” everywhere. But Henri at least had the good taste to not take down his father’s initials to put his own, so as you walk through the castle you can see all the dueling initials.
ii) Napoleon Bonaparte, Restorer of Château de Fontainebleau
Marie Antoinette and her family did spend time at Fontainebleau (she called it the “house in the country”), but the Château was not tainted by the association. The Château remained mostly intact during the French Revolution of 1789, although it was looted of its furniture. When Napoleon Bonaparte was voted Emperor however in 1804, he decided that he needed a home that matched his status. The Palace of Versailles, which only 15 years earlier was associated with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and their excesses, would not do.
With Fontainebleau being the historic seat of the French Kings, Napoleon had the entire Château refurbished, and added a throne room for himself. Unlike Chateau Malmaison which had become more of a private home for his wife Josephine, Fontainebleau was a working castle. Dignitaries visited, and accords were written here. It also became a luxurious prison for Pope Pius VII (link in French) for two years when he refused to give Napoleon his way.
iii) Famous treaties signed at Fontainebleau
Over the years Fontainebleau has seen many monumental events in the history of France including the births, marriages, baptisms and more of all the French royals. In addition, several treaties that changed the course of French history were signed here including:
- 22 October 1685 – Edict of Fontainebleau signed by Sun King Louis XIV. Treaty which reversed the previous Edict of Nantes that allowed French Huguenot Protestants to pray freely. This led to much turmoil and many French Protestants moved out of France.
- November 13, 1762 – Treaty of Fontainebleau where King Louis XV of France ceded the State of Louisiana to Spain. (Napoleon later regained ownership, before finally selling it to the United States Government in 1803).
- January 25, 1813 – Concordat of Fontainebleau signed by Pope Piux VII and Napoleon for the pacification. Treaty’s aim was to calm the conflict between French Catholics and Protestants.
- April 11, 1814 – Treaty of Fontainbleau where Napoleon agreed to step down as Emperor and go into exile.
Inside Château de Fontainebleau
Since the French Kings never had enough space, Fontainebleau has been repeatedly expanded and reconstructed over the years. And being such a large building, various parts are always being renovated.
Today the château has two main exhibits, the Francois I gallery and ballroom, and in another wing, the Napoleon Museum. The Francois I gallery is lavish with its ornate woodwork and decorations.
But it is the Napoleon museum that gives Fontainebleau its heart. All sorts of artifacts, including his clothing, are on display giving insight into daily life.
The part I really enjoyed were the large portraits. There are several life-size portraits of various members of the Bonaparte family, including their children. As someone with a mixed reputation outside of France, seeing Napoleon’s family shows a different side of the man. For one they all bear a strong resemblance to him, and with the portraits all over the palace, it feels a bit like wandering into someone’s living room where their family photos are displayed.
Gardens at Château de Fontainebleau
The Sun King Louis XIV might have built the extravagant Château de Versailles, but you can never have too many Châteaux. He also put his own touch on Fontainebleau, and more extensively, its gardens. He is ordered André Le Notre, the same gardener who did Versailles and Chantilly, to renovate the gardens at Fontainebleau as well.
With over 130 acres of parkland, the Fontainebleau gardens are an elaborate series of courtyards, canals, and pavilions.
Video Visit of Fontainebleau
Getting to Château de Fontainebleau from Paris
By train, the trip from Paris will take about 1hr30. You can take Transilien line R from Gare de Lyon in Paris to Fontainebleau Avon station. From there, take the Aérial 1 bus, direction Les Lilas, to the Château stop.
Alternatively, you can just watch my video above! (I’m kidding, it really isn’t that difficult to get to Fontainebleau.)
Prices and Opening hours
Prices vary from €8-12 with children under 18, and EU residents under 25 being free. The Château tends to have a lot of special events (there was a chocolate festival when we went), so check opening times before going.
So have I inspired you to visit Fontainebleau? Have you been blown away by how much French history happened there? Comment below and let me know.
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