Fabulous Fontainebleau

Journey beyond the boundaries of Paris and experience the regal splendour of Fontainebleau, says Eve Middleton

Journey beyond the boundaries of Paris and experience the regal splendour of Fontainebleau, says Eve Middleton

Think of royalty in Paris and you might well think of the Louvre, the famed palace built in the 12th century under the reign of Philippe II. Now home to some of the world’s finest art, its origins as the French monarchy’s principal dwelling are secondary to its standing as a museum. However, France’s royal residences extend beyond the boundaries of the capital. Just 40 minutes south of the city centre lies one of the country’s most impressive royal abodes, the now State-run Ch�teau de Fontainebleau.Set in Fontainebleau’s 25,000-hectare forest, the Unesco-listed ch�teau and gardens were originally built in the 12th century as a medieval keep and later used as a hunting lodge by Louis XII, also known as Saint-Louis. It was from this period that the residence obtained its name; it is said that while out hunting in the forest one day, Saint-Louis lost his favourite dog, Bliau. When the hound was later discovered safe and sound next to one of the many fountain sources in the sprawling grounds, Saint-Louis decided to name the dwelling after the happy event – over the centuries fontaine-Bliau transmuted into Fontainebleau. Although Saint-Louis ordered the construction of the principal edifice, of which only the donjon in the Cour Ovale remains today, it wasn’t until Fran�ois I was ruler from 1515 until 1547 that the ch�teau truly flourished. Known as one of the French monarchy’s most prolific builders, Fran�ois I based his plans  on the concept of turning the ch�teau into a little Rome’. As a king of the Renaissance era he was a keen patron of the arts and wanted to transform Fontainebleau from a hunting lodge into a holiday residence bustling with creativity, far away from Parisian city pressures. Among his proteg�s was Leonardo da Vinci who, according to legend, was held in the king’s arms as he took his last breaths.

 

Renaissance man

Fran�ois I’s notable achievements at the ch�teau can still be seen by visitors today – although the main entrance to the building is now through the principal courtyard (also constructed by Fran�ois I as the Cour du Cheval Blanc and now known as the Cour des Adieux), the original approach was through Fran�ois I’s glittering Porte Dor�e, a magnificent shimmering display that greeted newcomers into the Cour Ovale. The king’s reputation as a Renaissance man saw him create the Galerie de Fran�ois I, a 60-metre-long passage that linked his new courtyard construction to the donjon and the Porte Dor�e. The Galerie was built with three storeys intended as individual spaces devoted to the arts; the ground floor housed Fran�ois I’s collection of paintings, the first floor – the Galerie walkway – was decked with frescoes, canvases and stuccoes, and the second floor was given over to the king’s collection of literature and poetry. Such was Fran�ois I’s devotion to this space that he had the only key to the walkway, and would show visitors around the magnificent works created by the Italian artists Rosso Fiorentino and Primaticcio. Today, visitors can wander freely along the Galerie – keen observers will note the abundant use of the salamander, Fran�ois I’s royal motif, as a recurring symbol in the d�cor.Also of note from the period of Fran�ois I is the ballroom, the construction of which began in 1545 but was not fully completed until the king’s death in 1547. Originally intended by Fran�ois I to be constructed as a vast vaulted loggia, the ballroom was developed into a large hall with a coffered ceiling and mezzanine gallery at the end to seat musicians. The room features wooden carvings by the Italian artist Francesco Scibec da Carpi alongside frescoes based on designs carried out between 1552 and 1556 by Primaticcio. Look carefully and the cohesive theme of love in the mythological scenes becomes apparent – according to the neo-Platonist philosophy upheld during Fran�ois I’s Renaissance reign, love played a pivotal role in ensuring the aligning of the cosmos and the fate of mankind.

Following the Renaissance period, Henri IV, monarch from 1589 until 1610, was the next crowned head of State to significantly develop the ch�teau. His work focused largely on extending the building to include yet another entrance, this time known as the Porte du Baptist�re. The imposing gateway was erected in honour of the baptism of his son, the future King Louis XIII, and was placed at the opposite end of the Cour Ovale from the Porte Dor�e to balance the further building development at the eastern end of the ch�teau. Fran�ois I’s patronage of the arts was continued by Henri IV, who in turn developed an interest in Mannerist painters from French and Flemish backgrounds. Known as the Seconde �cole de Fontainebleau (the body of artists developed by Fran�ois I was deemed the Premi�re �cole de Fontainebleau), Henri IV’s artists developed a more northern conception of light and colour – the paintings by Amboise Dubois in the Salon Louis XIII illustrate the School’s ethos particularly well. But it was outside in the grounds of the ch�teau that Henri IV made the largest impact. Following his marriage to Marie de Medici in 1610, he created the Jardin de la Reine, now known as the Jardin de Diane. Created as a jardin � la fran�aise with strict formal lines and clearly marked symmetrical forms, the garden acted as a counterpoint for the 1.2 kilometre-long canal the king had ordered to be developed the �tang des Carpes (carp pond) in front of the ch�teau, it was Henri IV who installed the pavilion in the centre of the body of water that is still visible today. Following the French Revolution in 1789 when the ch�teau was ransacked (allegedly leading to the Leonardo da Vinci manuscripts mysteriously finding their way to Windsor), it fell to the Emperor Napol�on I to save the building and grounds from disrepair. Said to be a man of honour and fond of Fontainebleau, Napol�on agreed to uphold all orders for furniture and artisanal goods placed before the fall of the French royal family – his chamber with its furniture upholstered in dark green and black tapestry, ordered before the Revolution, is a classic case in point. Among Napol�on’s changes is the throne room, with swathes of plush burgundy and dark blue fabric and golden chairs. Where Fran�ois I used the emblem of the salamander, Napol�on preferred the image of bees to represent his ideals of hard work, social organisation and obedience to hierarchy. Under his guidance the gardens were also tended, with the emphasis placed on the more free-flowing jardin anglais originally designed as part of the larger garden landscape. For visitors keen to find out more, the Mus�e de Napol�on on the first floor of the ch�teau further explores the Emperor’s time at Fontainebleau.The extensive building work carried out on the residence and its many and varied architectural facets earned the ch�teau in the middle of the forest the nickname la maison des si�cles (the house of centuries). While the forest is no longer witness to the royal hunt and is now a haven for walkers, climbers and artists (the famous Barbizon school of artists, which included Jean-Fran�ois Millet and Th�odore Rousseau, was formed here), its royal heritage can still be seen in the Ch�teau de Fontainebleau. It remains today as grand and imposing as it did during the days of the crowned heads of France.

FRANCOFILEGETTING THEREEve travelled to Paris with Eurostar. Return fares start from �69 for a standard ticket.Tel: 0843 218 6186, www.eurostar.com.There is a 40-minute direct train journey from Paris Gare de Lyon to Fontainebleau-Avon train station, single fares start from €8.05. Tel: (Fr) 8 91 36 20 20, www.transilien.com

WHERE TO STAYH�tel Aigle Noir27 Place Napol�on Bonaparte77300 FontainebleauTel: (Fr) 1 60 74 60 00www.hotelaiglenoir.comElegant hotel in a former 17th-century h�tel particulier. Double rooms from €172 a night.WHERE TO EATLa Table des Mar�chauxH�tel Napol�on9 Rue Grande77300 FontainebleauTel: (Fr) 1 60 39 50 50www.naposite.comTraditional refined cuisine using seasonal products and served in an elegant ambience. Menus start at €28.

Le Relais des Saveurs2 Grande RueLa Celle-sur-Seine77670 Vernou-la-Celle-sur-SeineTel: (Fr) 1 64 23 15 78 www.relais-des-saveurs.comGastromes note: Chef Florian Coign�e was voted Gault Millau’s best young talent in �le-de-France for 2010.Menus start from �29.WHERE TO VISITCh�teau de Fontainebleau77300 FontainebleauTel: (Fr) 1 60 71 50 70www.musee-chateau-fontainebleau.frThe opening hours for the ch�teau are 9.30am until 5pm (last admission 4.15pm) from October to March, and 9.30am until 6pm (last admission 5.15pm) from April to September. The ch�teau is closed on Tuesdays, as well as on 1 January, 1 May, and 25 December. The opening hours for courtyards and gardens are 9am until 5pm from November until February, 9am until 6pm in March, April and October, and 9am until 7pm from May until September. The Jardin de Diane closes 30 minutes before the main times – outside of the summer season it may be closed, so call ahead to check.Entry costs €10 and allows you to explore the ch�teau at your leisure with an audioguide (€1). Entry to the courtyards and gardens is free.   TOURIST OFFICESComit� D�partemental du Tourisme de Seine-et-Marne11 Rue Royale77300 FontainebleauTel: (Fr) 1 60 39 60 35www.tourisme77.fr

Office de Tourisme du Pays de Fontainebleau4 Rue Royale77300 FontainebleauTel: (Fr) 1 60 74 99 99www.fontainebleau-tourisme.com

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