The magnificent, rambling 1,500-room Château of Fontainebleau lies at the very heart of French history.
Like many grand buildings, Fontainebleau began as a hunting lodge for the Kings of France who came from nearby Paris with their vast retinues to hunt for wild boar, bear and deer in the forest that even today surrounds the château.
From Hunting Lodge to Château
In 1137 a massive square tower was built to accommodate the King of France, Louis VII. Other buildings stretched out on both sides against defensive oval-shaped curtain walls with a southern gate serving as the main entrance.
In 1169 the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas à Becket, exiled in France, consecrated the Château de Fontainebleau chapel. The story of the Château of Fontainebleau had begun.
Over the ages, the Château of Fontainebleau was enlarged and improved. Of all the royal buildings of France, Fontainebleau played the greatest role in French royal life for seven centuries. It was not the permanent home of the royal family but it served as the favorite palace of Kings and Emperors from Louis VII (1137-1180) to Napoleon III (1808-1873), the last monarch of France.
I found the history fascinating, so here’s a short trot through the Château of Fontainebleau’s past. If you want to skip this, scroll down to what you will see on a visit.
A Glorious Start
From the 13th to the 16th century, the Kings of France enriched Fontainebleau. Louis IX, known as Saint Louis (1214-1270), added a convent, hospital and church.
A century later, the royal family fled the black plague which raged through Paris and came to the safety of Fontainebleau where the air was clear and the plague kept at bay.
Fontainebleau was the place for great events. Kings were born here; Kings died here and they welcomed their illustrious visitors from all over Europe to the vast château.
In 1323 Isabella of France, Queen of England, came to see her brother, Charles IV the Fair. Charles V established a library here, the first to be set up in a castle. In 1404, Queen Isabeau, wife of Charles VI, lived in the castle where she had the first steam rooms installed in the medieval castle. But the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) saw the court moving to the Loire Valley and Fontainebleau declined, a castle ‘of very ancient lineage’ which seemed to have past its time.
The Château of Fontainebleau Revived
It was François I (1494-1547) who was the most important figure in Fontainebleau’s history. He loved the place, calling a visit there ‘going home’ and transforming it from medieval castle into Italianate palace.
From 1528 he spent his winters there and used it to receive royal visitors. In December 1536 his future son-in-law, James V, King of Scotland arrived. The famous French-Scottish Auld alliance against their common enemy England was alive and well. In 1539 it was the Holy Roman Emperor’s turn for a visit.
The Queen of François I, Catherine de Medici, gave birth to six of their children here. François II was born on 19 January 1544 and was baptised at Fontainebleau on 10 February of the same year. His brothers and sisters were destined to be Kings, Queens, Princesses and Dukes. Fontainebleau was the centre of the world.
The Château of Fontainebleau and the Sun King
Louis XIV (1638-1715) used Fontainebleau extensively in his early reign. The son of Louis XIII and Anne of Austria, he made Fontainebleau the seat of power, the place where the intrigues of the 17th century were played out.
In 1661 the young 23-year old King moved there to wait for the birth of his son. For entertainment he staged Jean-Baptiste magnificent Lulli’s Ballet of the Seasons, then set off to visit the new château at Vaux-le-Vicomte of his powerful Superintendant of France, Nicolas Fouquet (1615-1680). Vaux-le-Vicomte was magnificent, too magnificent in fact, and two months later, Louis had d’Artagnan, captain of the King’s musketeers arrest Foucault.
As Voltaire remarked: “On August 17, at six in the evening Fouquet was King of France, at two in the morning, he was nobody”. The King added insult to injury by taking most of the treasures, even uprooting and taking the orange trees.
The King also took over the three artists who had designed Foucault’s château: the architect Louis Le Vau, the painter Charles Le Brun, and the gardiner/architect André Le Nôtre. His plan? To create a masterpiece that would outdo Vaux-le-Vicomte, and ultimately Fontainebleau. He chose the small château and former hunting lodge of Versailles to remodel on a very grand scale.
Louis XIV is mostly associated with Versailles which he made the court’s official residence in 1682. But Fontainebleau remained important. It was still the great hunting lodge and the place where Kings, and emperors, could escape the overly ornate gold extravaganza of life at Versailles.
Visiting the Château of Fontainebleau
Fontainebleau, set in 130 acres of parkland and garden has 1500 rooms. But don’t worry; not all of them are open.
As you enter, first go left to see the series of rooms devoted to Napoleon, aspects of his life and his overwhelming love of pomp and circumstance. An extraordinary general, he became Emperor then proceeded to plant his children in different European countries as their rulers.
The Royal Apartments
The Royal Apartment stretch out on the first floor. Like all such buildings of its time, the apartments run into each other down one long straight corridor separated by doors. It gives a pretty impressive vista of grand room after grand room.
The rooms are magnificent, each one devoted to a separate royal figure, from Anne of Austria, wife of Louis XIII, to Napoleon. There’s little chronological logic as new rulers took over the rooms of past monarchs and redecorated them, installing their wives and their mistresses at will.
State rooms for receiving visitors have tapestries from the Paris Gobelin manufactory hanging on the walls to keep out the winter chill, well-stuffed chairs and sofas, grand gilded furniture made of precious woods, ceilings painted with allegorical scenes and works of art on the walls where there’s room.
The genius of François I
I found the long gallery, 200 feet long by 20 feet wide, of François I the most impressive of the rooms. No ornate furniture, just a few seats, a wooden floor, a very long gallery with wooden panels on the bottom half of the walls dedicated to Francois I and extraordinary paintings and sculptures running above. Built in the 1520s, the gallery was intended for private use; François wore the entrance key around his neck. It became the model for later galleries like the Apollo Gallery in the Louvre (post-1661) and the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles (post-1678).
The Château of Fontainebleau and Napoleon
When Napoleon Bonaparte founded his empire, he chose Fontainebleau as his favorite residence and set about refurbishing the ‘ruin’. A Papal Apartment was created in 1804 for Pius VII who had come from Rome to crown him Emperor of the French.
The extraordinary event took place in the Throne Room. Originally built as the bedroom of the king, Napoleon converted it to demonstrate his place in the history of France. It remains the only Throne Room in France with the original furniture still there.
Napoleon called Fontainebleau ‘The King’s true home’ and ‘house of the ages’. He lived there permanently during the last days of his reign before he abdicated here on April 6th, 1814.
If you want to see one of the later 19th century gems, the Imperial Theatre inaugurated in 1857 by Emperor Napoleon III, you have to take the tour. It’s worth it; this is a unique example of a court theatre during the Second French Empire. Tours are daily except Tuesdays at 1pm.
The Château of Fontainebleau in the 20th century
During World War I, the furniture and art works were removed for safe keeping before Fontainebleau was turned into a military hospital in 1915. During World War II it was occupied by the local German forces though the architect Albert Bray kept the place as intact as he could, valuing its superb architecture and decoration.
In the summer of 1946, the Franco-Vietnamese summit was held here with Hô Chi Minh. But the conference wasn’t a success and the Indochina work broke out at the end of the year.
Music and the Arts
Music has played a surprising part in the château’s history. During World War I, General Pershing wanted to improve the US military bands and asked the conductor of the New York Philharmonic to organise a music school in Chaumont. After the end of the war, the two founding members moved it to Fontainebleau and there’s been a music school here ever since, offering summer programs of the best French musical education to young, talented musicians.
The names associated with this are extraordinary, running from Maurice Ravel to Mstislav Rostropovitch and Igor Stravinsky, from Yehudi Menuhin to Arthur Rubinstein and Leonard Bernstein. Nadia Boulanger was Director from 1949 to 1979.
Latterly, names like Burt Bacharach, Daniel Barenboim, Elliott Carter and Aaron Copland join Phillip Glass, Quincy Jones, and many others.
In 1923 a School of Fine Arts was added offering painting, nude, architecture and fresco workshops.
More about the Fontainebleau Schools here
Courtyards and Gardens
The château circles four main courtyards, some internal, others looking out over the lawns and the lakes.
There are three spectacular gardens. The Grand Parterre is the largest formal garden in Europe, created by André Le Nôtre and Louis Le Vau for Louis XIV.
The Jardin Anglais is the French idea of an English Garden. Created in the early 19th century, it’s really a small park, full of rare trees and statues and has a little stream river running through the middle.
The Jardin de Diane (Garden of Diane) was once the private garden of the queen. Today’s it’s formal with a fountain sculpted in the form of Diana, Goddess of Hunting.
The Park offers a wonderful vista from a stone terrace, stretching away down a 17th-century canal lined with mature trees.
Château of Fontainebleau
Tel: +33 (0)1 60 71 50 70
OpenWednesday to Monday Oct-Mar 9.30am-5pm; Apr-Sep 9.30am-6pm
Closed Jan 1, May 1, Dec 25
Admission Click on the website for online tickets. They cost €12 per person
Admission free on the first Sunday of each month, except on July and August
How to have fun at the Château of Fontainebleau
Fontainebleau is very well organised with enough to do to make this at least a half-day or full day excursion.
In the summer you can listen to an early afternoon open-air concert beside the lake.
You can hire a rowing boat for €5 per person per half hour and make a leisurely circuit of the lake, taking in the little island pavilion in the middle.
Take a picnic, or buy sandwiches, drinks and snacks from the different outlets in the main courtyard. Then find somewhere to sit in the park for a leisurely lunch.
In April and May, 2021, costumed actors enact the days of Napoleon and Marie-Louise.
Quick Tip: The toilets are at the entrance to the château. There are lots of them and they are spotless. But these are the only only ones, so take advantage at the beginning!
How to get to the Château of Fontainebleau
Fontainebleau is in the Seine-et-Marne department in the Île-de-France region. It’s just 69 kms/43 miles from Pairs. I visited on my summer 2020 trip to France on my way back from the Auvergne and stayed in the town. But it’s easy to reach from the French capital for a day trip.
By car: Take the A6 from Paris (Porte d’Orléans or Porte d’Italie), follow the exit for Fontainebleau. Follow signs for Fontainebleau, then follow the ‘château’ signs. There is ample public parking in Fontainebleau. The best car park is just near the château.
By train: From Paris Gare de Lyon (main line), take the train for either Montargis Sens, Montereau or Laroche-Migennes. Get off at Fontainebleau-Avon station. The train journey takes around 1 hr 16 mins. At the station take the ‘Ligne 1’ bus destined for Les Lilas, getting off at the ‘Château’ stop. Or take the Les Cars Bleus 184-014 towards Gare de Malesherbes and get off at the ‘Château’ stop. It’s 2.8kms, taking about 34 minutes if you choose to walk.