Chateau de Fontainebleau: France's forgotten jewel

The Chateau de Fontainebleau may not be as well known as Versailles, but it is no less magnificent and is near Paris

You've visited the Louvre, Notre Dame and Sainte-Chapelle. You've been to Versailles and perhaps even made a trip to the chateaus of the Loire Valley.

Is there anything else of the same calibre near Paris for those who love the classic ideals of French architecture and decorative arts? The answer is a resounding yes: the Chateau de Fontainebleau.

Far less familiar to travellers than Versailles, and drawing fewer than one-seventh the number of visitors who flock to the Sun King's domain, Fontainebleau, 72km south of Paris, isn't exactly unknown.

But given its centuries of history at the centre of the French monarchy, and the richness and variety of its buildings, inside and out, its relative obscurity is something of a mystery.

No site in France can compare as a royal residence: It predates the Louvre itself by 50 years and Versailles by five centuries.

Nor is it a simple "chateau" as that term has come to designate a great country house held by a noble family.

The horseshoe shaped staircase of the chateau. PHOTOS: NYTIMES

Fontainebleau's singular attraction to an unbroken line of French kings spanning eight centuries was originally as a hunting lodge, perfectly situated at the edge of the ancient Forest of Fontainebleau - in effect, a royal game preserve.

But as each king took up residence for two months of hunting every autumn, the relatively modest mediaeval structure was added to, then added to again, by the sovereigns who brought their court with them to the vast forest.

They developed a succession of structures and styles that span many centuries and yet - magically, convincingly - cohere in a pleasing whole.

Some of France's greatest architects - Philibert De l'Orme, AngeJacques Gabriel and Andre Le Notre, among them - fashioned buildings, courtyards, interiors and elaborate grounds, adding to what they found while resisting the impulse to replace or destroy.

What greets the visitor today is the single greatest assemblage over time of French architecture and decor still in its original state.

A word of caution: Fontainebleau is immense and immensely varied.

The roof alone has a surface area of 2ha and covers more than 1,500 rooms.

The gardens and outer grounds extend over 93ha. Rather than trying to "do it all" in a single day, plan your time depending on your interests, which parts of the chateau are open on the day of your visit and the weather.

In the morning, ask about the guided tours available that day. They vary considerably and can include Marie Antoinette's Turkish boudoir, the imperial theatre of Napoleon III, the private rooms of Napoleon I and Josephine, and others.

Then arrange to take one of these tours (about an hour) and also pay the general admission of €11 (about S$17) for a self-guided tour of the public rooms. Audio guides are available and the staff are used to English-speaking visitors.

The chateau dates from 1137. However, most of what you will see dates from the early 1500s and later, when Francois I transformed the mediaeval fortress and hunting lodge into a royal palace, bringing the arts of the Italian Renaissance to northern France for their first full expression in a royal domain.

The result is a unique amalgam of Italian exuberance and artistic genius joined to French subtlety and classical restraint.

The rooms that date from the 16th century are among the most breathtaking in France, but their richness can be overwhelming, with elaborate frescoes and paintings, sculpted frames, coffered ceilings, carved wall panelling and faceted doors.

Every part of the environment was imagined as part of a pleasing whole; your efforts will be rewarded when you begin to apprehend a decidedly French notion of elegance, suitable to its time.

The best-known room that Francois I left is the gallery that bears his name, a remarkable passage, 61m long by 6.1m wide, that leads from what is now the front of the chateau to its inner recesses.

It is said that the king kept the key to this inner sanctum around his neck, allowing only a few visitors to lay eyes on it and you can understand why when you see the space.

In all of France, there was nothing remotely resembling the effusions of splendour and carnal beauty that grace its walls.

The work of Italian artists, including architect Sebastiano Serlio and master woodcarver Francesco Scibec da Carpi, the Galerie Francois I combines masterly frescoes, life-size stucco figures, elaborate wainscoting, delicate painting and gold-leaf detailing.

A series of powerful frescoes by Rosso Fiorentino illustrates stories from antiquity, drawing allegorical parallels to Francois as a great king. His emblem, the salamander, is everywhere, as is his royal monogram, "F".

Each panel is surrounded by sumptuous stucco figures in white plaster that protrude from the wall, many of them the work of Francesco Primaticcio. The groupings mix female nudes, winged angels, satyrs, muscled heroes - the effect is both sensual and captivating.

Take in the entire effect and consider the views across the pond to the forest in the middle distance.

When you imagine what the effect must have been in a France only recently emerging from the Late Middle Ages, the decor coheres.

It is one of the defining works of what is now known as the First School of Fontainebleau and a recognised masterpiece of the Renaissance in northern Europe.

The other 16th-century masterwork at the chateau is the Salle de Bal, the ballroom, built by Francois' son, Henri II, in 1558.

De l'Orme designed the space, and Niccolo dell'Abbate and Primaticcio filled its massive bays with magnificent scenes of classical figures, resplendent in the rich hues of Italy.

Its decoration is a startling mix of dramatic colour and the exquisite reserve of the glorious woodwork on the ceiling and the walls and the vast patterned oak floor.

The figure most closely associated with Fontainebleau in our day is among the last in the long line of monarchs who lived there, Napoleon Bonaparte.

His golden "N" blazes from the iron gate at the entrance. It was he who pulled down a wing of the chateau to open up the formal courtyard and make it more clearly the stately entrance to his palace.

Among his many attributes can be counted a showman's flair for the dramatic. He famously referred to Fontainebleau from his last exile in St Helena as "a house for the ages" and "the true abode of kings".

Cynicism aside, there is real affection in those words and a sense of how this chateau was a special retreat for so many French rulers.

It is grand, yes, but not coldly solemn the way Versailles can feel. It is not a coincidence that court members generally savoured their annual visits: Protocol was greatly relaxed, the stables and forest were right out the back door, and a tradition of voluptuary delights - hunting for boar and deer, lovemaking, comfortable rooms - must have made it more of a true home for the king and his courtiers.

This doubtless is the reason Marie Antoinette enjoyed her visits. After Versailles, it was an escape like no other available, a "house in the country" where the cinch of rules and expectations could be somewhat loosened.

She left two small, deeply personal spaces here, each of them a splendid example of a "boudoir", the private room that a woman of her rank would have had for stepping out of the public eye.

The first is the Turkish boudoir, built for her in 1777 to the plans of Richard Mique, an Orientalist confection of a room set well away from the other royal apartments. Here she would entertain an inner circle of friends, enjoying her private retreat from court life.

Napoleon's Empress Josephine also loved this room and had it refurnished after Marie Antoinette's items were lost in the Revolution. You can visit it only on private tours.

The other private space, sometimes called the silver boudoir, was offered to the queen by her husband, Louis XVI, in 1787, a mere two years before France drove the Bourbons from the throne. It, too, is rich in its details, although the conceit here is classical antiquity rather than exoticism.

Coming near the end of the self-guided tour of the royal apartments, it tends to be overlooked as it is small and not overly showy.

Don't make that mistake. Its spare furnishings and architectural details concentrate a form of refinement and elegance in French taste that was about to be eclipsed by events, never to reappear.

The list of rooms and of the kings who built them is very long: Henri IV's wing, as well as one of the few remaining intact indoor tennis courts ("Jeu de Paume") in France; Napoleon I's opulent throne room; Napoleon III's jewel box of a theatre; and many others.

Resolve to return and see them at your leisure. But don't leave this extraordinary site without indulging in a walk around the grounds.

Wear sturdy shoes. Anyone who ventures across the cobbled courtyards wearing shoes with heels or stiff soles is asking for trouble.

Louis XIV's Grand Parterre, the vast orderly gardens that are said to be the largest in Europe, provides the perfect vantage point for looking back at the long and irregular mass of the chateau's linked buildings.

At once you see how a form of grandeur can develop not only from a unified vision in a single age, as at Versailles or Chambord, but also can evolve as an accretion of architectural detail over time, both varying and enriching the overall effect.

This is part of Fontainebleau's particular genius.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 02, 2016, with the headline 'France's forgotten jewel'. Print Edition | Subscribe