The rambling huge château of Fontainebleau has seen eight centuries of royal patronage. Founded in the early 12th century, made magnificent in the 15th and 16th century by François I, and beloved by Napoleon Bonaparte, this magnificent building lies at the heart of French history.
The Forest Setting
The Forest of Fontainebleau was the nearest great hunting ground to Paris for the early French Kings and their courtiers. In 1137 an enormous keep was built and a few decades later, the English Archbishop Thomas à Becket, in exile from the English King, consecrated the chapel.
Fontainebleau Becomes a Royal Palace
It wasn’t until the 15th century that Fontainebleau became a major royal residence. François I (1494-1547) began the process, employing Italian artists to transform the place from a hunting lodge to a luxurious residence where European heavyweights like Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, were welcomed. Fontainebleau became the heart of French life, the scene for births and deaths of French kings, for hatching plots to make advantageous dynastic marriages, for planning wars and brokering peace.
Fontainebleau grew through the centuries as state apartments were added, canals dug, and gardens planted. When Napoleon Bonaparte founded his empire, he chose Fontainebleau as his favorite residence, calling it ‘the King’s true home’ and ‘house of the centuries’. He also refurbished the state apartments and lived there during the last days of his reign before he abdicated on April 6th, 1814. What you see today is very much as he left the château.
Highlights of a Visit to Fontainebleau Château
There’s a lot to see in the château which boasts 1500 rooms and offers a history of French architecture from the 12th to the 19th centuries. Here are the highlights that you must see, starting with the glorious external grand horseshoe-shaped staircase.
The Sovereign’s Grand and Small Apartments
On the 1st floor, the royal apartments stretch out as linked rooms, divided into the King’s and the Queen’s apartments. The rooms are opulent, full of grand gilded furniture, tapestries to keep out the cold during the winter hunting season, works of art and grand state beds.
François I was the major figure in these sumptuous rooms, building a gallery originally intended for private use and only entered by a key that the monarch wore around his neck. Painted frescoes, dating from 1536 onwards, cover the walls. Next door is the chamber of his mistress, Duchess d’Etampes, suitably decorated with scenes of Alexander the Great’s amorous exploits. The ballroom completes the glorious rooms, again covered in frescoes and making a wonderful room for the balls that so impressed the royal guests.
The Petits Apartments on the ground floor are more intimate, built by Louis XV as offices then used by Napoleon and Josephine.
Louis XVI built two special retiring rooms for his queen Marie-Antoinette as a gift. The boudoir on the first floor is exotic, decorated in Turkish style which at the time was the great decorative fad. Turbans, incense burners, strings of pearls and crescent moons fill the room. Below is the silver bedroom, glittering with 18th-century pieces of furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl.
Madame de Maintenon, Louis XIV’s second, secret wife, also had her own apartment, decorated with beautiful 17th and 18th century furniture.
The Papal Apartment
After the sovereign’s apartments, that of the Pope was the most important. It was created in 1804 for Pius VII who visited that year and later in 1812. The décor is a remarkable mix of 19th-century furniture, chosen by Napoleon III and Eugénie.
Guest apartments of Napoleon III
Napoleon III and Eugénie brought all the latest fashion, style and 19th-century comfort to Fontainebleau when they created apartments for the numerous guests and hangers-on who flocked here. The rooms are brighter than the rest of the château, with delightful blue-flowered wallpaper and bed linen and all mod cons. Fontainbleau is a far more magnificent residence than their other favorite, much smaller palace at Compiegne.
Galleries for the Court
The courtiers who always surrounded the monarch gathered in three galleries, processing down the long rooms and admiring the woodwork, sculpture and tapestries. The grandest is the François I Gallery, built in the 1520s and a model for later galleries like the Apollo Gallery in the Louvre (post-1661) and the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles (post-1678). In the evenings, guests were entertained in Napoleon III’s theater, opened in 1857 and inspired by the gilded, grand Opéra Royal in Versailles.
In 1863 the Empress Eugénie built a Chinese Museum to house her impressive collection of treasures from the Far East, accumulated from works plundered during the Revolution, then later from the sacking of the summer palace in Beijing by French and British troops in 1860.
There are 3 other museums, formed in the last few decades. The Napoleon I Museum houses art, furniture, costumes and more from Bonaparte’s time, between 1804 and 1815.
The Painting Gallery was created in 1998 for the oil paintings that were taken from the private apartments, with more works from the Louvre.
Furniture fans should visit the most recent gallery, the Furniture Gallery, devoted to 18th and 19th century furniture, art and textiles.
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 the famous landscape gardener André Le Nôtre and Louis Le Vau for Louis XIV. There are water features with statues spouting merrily, herb gardens and an ornamental lake.
The Jardin Anglais (English Garden) provides a haven of peace, evoking the rolling parks of English stately homes. It’s full of rare trees and statues and has a river running through the middle. The Garden of Diana was once the private garden of the queen. Today’s it’s a formal garden 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.
Tel.: 00 33 (0)1 60 71 50 70
Château open Wednesday to Monday Oct-Mar 9.30am-5pm; Apr-Sep 9.30am-6pm
Closed Jan 1, May 1, Dec 25
Courtyard and Gardens open daily Nov-Feb 9am-5pm, Mar, Apr & Oct 9am-6pm, May-Sept 9am-7pm
Admission Click here for admission prices
How to Get to Fontainebleau
Fontainebleau is in the center of the magnificent Fontainebleau Forest, south east of Paris.
By car: Take the A6 from Paris (Porte d’Orléans or Porte d’Italie), then take the exit for Fontainebleau. Follow signs for Fontainebleau, then follow the “château” signs.
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, then take the ‘Ligne 1’ bus direction Les Lilas, getting off at the ‘Château’ stop.
Paris/Vaux-le-vicomte/Fontainebleau Shuttle Service
Parivision runs runs a regular shuttle service between Fontainebleau and Paris, departing from 214 rue de Rivoli.
Tel.: 00 33 (0)1 42 60 30 01