Saturday, September 5, 2015

Day 24: Palace of Fontainebleau

The Palace of Fontainebleau was home to French royalty from the 1100s through the mid-1800s. Located in a beautiful wooded area about 34 miles southeast of Paris, the palace is now a World Heritage Site, comparable to Versailles. When I learned that the town has a lively open market on Sunday mornings, it sounded like a good destination for a side trip.

While we were packing up Saturday morning, I discovered that my cellular data plan provider, Verizon, had cut off my data, meaning my iPad mapper would not work. I spent an hour trying to get the service resumed—an hour of mistakes and misunderstandings that still embarrass me—but the result was that we had to make the trip using paper maps, and the ones we had were insufficiently detailed.

We wanted to take a taxi to the car rental office, and the taxi stand was close by, but the driver was uncooperative and he and Captain Dan got into a loud, bi-lingual dispute before he agreed to take us.

Whereas renting a car in Amsterdam was easy, in Paris it was complicated and aggravating. In the first place, the agent had very little command of English and even less interest in being helpful. Secondly, the car was not near the office, but across the street in the parking lot of a huge shopping center. We dragged our bags through the center and down two floors in an elevator. In the parking lot, there was no indication of where the rental cars might be, so I waited with the bags while Dan looked around. A passerby helped him find the one we rented. Dan picked me up and loaded the car, but when we got to the exit, we couldn't figure out how to get through the barrier. After 10 minutes of fussing and swearing, Dan finally figured out there must be a pass buried in the envelope the agent gave him.

Captain Dan, always confident at the wheel, successfully negotiated the maddening traffic on the way out of town, but we missed the turn-off for the A6, the highway that heads south. The street signs seemed to bear no relationship to the maps I had. Finally we had to stop at a gas station. Luckily, the Korean attendant spoke good English and wrote down the instructions to get on the highway. After that it was easy to get there following the signs for this famous tourist attraction. But once in town, it was hard to find the Ibis hotel without the mapper. Once we found the hotel, there was a lot of fussing around while Dan figured out their strange parking lot and unloaded the car.

For lunch, we started at an attractive and very busy restaurant, but they had finished serving lunch, so we went across the street to Le Mansart, where we had the worst meal we have ever had in our travels. I ordered pumpkin soup and Dan ordered onion soup; both soups were little more than colored gruel. We shared an adequate green salad and fresh bread. The waiter was a personable young fellow who spoke 3 languages.

Touring the Palace

After the ornate palace of the Louvre, the Château seemed rather plain at first, and its once-handsome entry staircase has been worn by the centuries. There was intermittent sun, and Dan spent quite awhile taking photos.

Entrance Gate to Fontainebleau Palace (Château)

Horseshoe Staircase, originated in the mid-1500s
East Wing from the Horseshoe Staircase
The West Wing was covered by a construction barrier.
The ticket line was long and directions to the lockers were wrong. By the time we started our self-guided tour it was about 3:30.

If you were very interested in French history, you could learn a lot by touring this palace, where most of the French kings lived, at least part of the time. If you were fascinated by the history of interior decoration in France, you could devote hours to studying the palace's 1500 rooms, or those that are open to the public. Art history buffs like me could learn a lot by studying the work of Italian artists who decorated the palace—thereby kicking off France's first art movement, known as the School of Fontainebleau—if there were sufficient labels identifying the work, and if the paintings weren't placed so high, and if the lighting were adequate. I'm afraid I wandered around like any mystified tourist looking for appealing details, or at least rooms with enough light to allow photos. Here's an overview of the tidbits I managed to acquire.

Gallery Francis I

Francois I, the Renaissance king—who loved art so much that he gave Leonardo da Vinci a home in France for his declining years—directed the first grand decorative scheme. His taste is most evident in the Gallery Francis I, a long passageway that allowed him to pass directly from his apartments to the Chapel of the Trinity.

Gallery of Francis I
Bust of Francis I, at one end of the Gallery
Francis I brought in an Italian artist known as Rosso Fiorentino to decorate the hallway. Between decorating the palace and fulfilling aristocratic commissions, Fiorentino and other Italian artists became the core of an artistic movement known as the School of Fontainebleau. Here are two of the many paintings in the hall. 

Rosso Fiorentino, 1495-1540
Rosso Fiorentino, 1495-1540

The Chapel of the Trinity


Many of the more attractive rooms were bedchambers. Bedchambers often served as reception rooms as well.

The Papal Apartments

In the early 1800s the pope stayed at the palace for a couple of periods.

Ceiling of the Papal Apartment

Anne of Austria's Bedchamber

Anne of Austria was the wife of Louis XIII. The decor dates from the mid-1600s.

The Queen's Bedchamber

It is said that all the queens slept here, but each seems to have had her own room as well.

The Queen's Bedchamber
The designs on the wallpaper and upholstery were very attractive. The decór dates from the mid-1700s.

The Boudoir of Marie-Antoinette

Marie-Antoinette was queen during the late 1700s. She was the wife of Louis XVI, who was king at the time of the French Revolution. She was executed by guillotine in 1793.

Napoleon's Rooms

In the early 1800s Napoleon had the entire chateau refurnished and decorated, including a suite of rooms for himself.

Napoleon's Bedroom
Napoleon's Throne
This is the table where Napoleon signed his abdication in 1814.

Napoleon's Salon
The guards hustled us out of the palace at 5:45. The palace grounds were still open and there was still plenty of daylight, though it was cloudy. We walked through an archway to the back and discovered that the true glory of the palace is in its 130 acres of parkland and gardens. There was a huge carp pond with a fountain in the center, and beyond that was the English Garden with broad swathes of lush lawn, decorated with statuary and traversed by gravel paths. I was awe-struck by the huge old trees gracing the borders. I wanted to keep exploring deeper into the woods, but the gates would soon be locked, so we headed back.

Tired and hungry, we hoped for an early dinner at the attractive restaurant that wouldn't serve us lunch, but they weren't serving dinner until 8 p.m. They did give us a beer and some nuts to tide us over. Then we stewed around an hour or more. Dan tried to find a different restaurant but they all seemed to be booked on a Saturday night. When it was time to return to the restaurant for the 3rd time, it was raining. We put up our umbrellas and hurried the short distance. The waitress greeted us with charm again, and this time she actually seated us.

Our dinner at Chez Bernard was one of the best meals ever. We started with avocado and shrimp salad, then lamb shank with roasted potatoes accompanied by good red wine, and for dessert, profiteroles. The host was pleasant and told us the source of all the fresh foods. The company was sophisticated, and excited to be eating at a gourmet restaurant on a Saturday night. It was all very French and very satisfying.

Our Ibis hotel was a corporate place, but very efficiently organized and well run. Our room was fairly spacious and brightly lighted. Best of all, there was a huge tub, our first in Europe. I had a long soak while Dan caught up on his journal.