Since the 12th century, Kings and Queens of France have cherished the commune of Fontainebleau. Located 55 km (34 miles) south of Paris, in the heart of the Fontainebleau forrest, we can see why the royals favoured this locale as a hunting lodge and a place to get away from the pressures of life at court. In this article we will explore the history of the château, the castle’s main features, as well as places you shouldn’t miss during your visit!
The Château Fontainebleau is a remarkable patchwork of different eras and periods of architecture in French history. Incredibly, it boasts 1,530 rooms, 200 of which are opened to the public. Also, there are 4 museums, 3 chapels, several galleries, a theatre, 4 main courtyards, 3 gardens, a ballroom, extensive gardens, and a park. Not bad, considering that it was once a hunting lodge! However, Fontainebleau wasn’t always a colossus…
The beginning of the castle’s history dates back to the reign of King Louis VII. In the 12th century, he constructed a hunting lodge and chapel in the middle of the wilderness. While almost nothing remains of this era due to the renovations and demolitions made by other monarchs, visitors can still see the central Medieval tower that dates from this period. Later, King Louis IX, also known as ‘Saint-Louis’, added a monastery and hospital to the area in 1259.
Most of France’s monarchs added or changed aspects of the castle according to the architectural tastes of the time. Also, let’s be honest, they each wanted to leave their mark for posterity. King Francis I drastically altered the castle during his reign. In fact, he ordered the demolition of the older castle, in 1528, to make way for his new vision of a grand Renaissance palace. One aspect that illustrates the changing tastes is his Grand Gallery, which showcases the King’s appreciation for Italian art. Notably, Francis I’s gallery would serve to inspire other monarchs to add their own versions in later castles. (Hint, Versailles…)
Unfortunately, the castle’s collection was sold and broken apart during the French Revolution. During his reign, Napoleon set about restoring Fontainebleau to its former glory. While he was not able to spend much time there, as he was often away on campaigns, for him Fontainebleau was, “the true home of Kings”.
Pope Pius VII was imprisoned for 19 months at the Château Fontainebleau, under the orders of Napoleon I. Albeit, he was held captive with all the luxuries anyone could want. Though he was still a prisoner nonetheless. One could say that he and Napoleon didn’t see eye-to-eye on many subjects…However, in the end, the Pope had the last laugh.
After his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon was forced to surrender. He signed the abdication documents, called ‘The Treaty of Fontainebleau’ at the castle in 1814. Before being exiled to Elba, Napoleon gave an emotional farewell speech to his soldiers in the Courtyard of Honour (then it was known as the Courtyard of the White Horse) of the château.
From the 19th century onwards, Fontainebleau has housed 4 separate museums. Each museum contains historical artifacts and rare works of art. The Museums are divided into the following: the Empress’ Chinese Museum, the Napoleon I Museum, the Painting Gallery, and the Furniture Gallery. Please note, that access to all four museums is included in the ticket price for the castle.
The forrest surrounding the castle grounds is classified as a French National Park, and span an incredible 25,000 hectares (61,776 acres). Once the private hunting grounds of the monarchy, the forrest is open to the public. An important protected green space, the woods of Fontainebleau house many species of plants and wild life, including wild boars.
In addition, the park surrounding the castle is 130 hectares (321 acres). The garden is divided into the following: the English Garden, the Garden of Diane, the Pine Grotto, the Pond Pavilion, and the Grand Parterre. Interesting to note, the Grand Parterre is the largest formal garden in Europe. It was designed by Louis XIV’s famous Chief Gardener of Versailles, André Le Nôtre.
The grandeur of Château Fontainebleau is a lasting testament to France’s Kings and Queens, as well as its Emperors and Empresses. It is a national treasure, and well worth the journey from Paris!
How to get there:
From the Gare de Lyon (Paris), take the train for either Montargis Sens, Montereau or Laroche-Migennes. Get off at Fontainebleau-Avon station, then take the ‘Ligne 1’ bus ‘Les Lilas’. Exit at the ‘Château’ stop.
Address: Place Générale de Gaulle, 77300, FONTAINEBLEAU
Hours of operation:
October – March
Wednesday – Monday- 9:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
April – September
Wednesday- Monday- 9:30 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
Ticket price: 12€
Free Entry with the Paris Pass!