The first time I ever visited the city of Fontainebleau, France was totally by accident. In fact, I tried desperately to by-pass it so I could get to another city, any city, other than Fontainebleau. To me, the name conjured up honky-tonk dives in the south, where people poured out of a white shack (and out of their dresses), and the only thing that cost a dime was the flashing neon sign that blinked out into the swamp and away from the city: “Fontainebleau, Fontainebleau, Fontainebleau.”
But I had a problem. I had a bad ear infection that was pounding as loud as one of those neon signs, and I couldn’t take another moment in one more place other a hospital emergency room.
So I drove to the hospital and was diagnosed with a busted eardrum. And guess what? I was not allowed to catch my plane the next day. In fact, I was not allowed to fly for a month!
So what did I do? Well, I did what any American would do in a situation such as that. I got a hotel room and sat alone with my luggage and wondered what in the world I was going to do. I mean, it’s one thing to spend time in France when you’ve put it in your budget and scheduled in the museums to see and the places to go and the crepes to eat. It’s another thing when your budget has become puny after an already long trip in France, and suddenly your trip is going to be even longer than the initial first run. But things could have been worse. I could have been stuck in Newark for a month. So I did what anybody with any sense would do and made the best of it.
And here’s what I learned. You can’t get much better than Fontainebleau for living. And I’ll tell you why.
Just about any hotel you get will somehow overlook the famous Chateau. I stayed at Hotel de Londres and got a room with gorgeous French windows that opened up right onto the magnificent view of the famous historical stairs where the very histrionic Napoleon ended his reign. In fact, the only thing between those stairs and that hotel is a street.
Now most people will tell you that you can’t miss Versailles and you can’t miss the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, but I will stand here all day long and tell you that you can easily miss them and the tourists and souvenirs shops. If you want to see a Chateau—a real palace where Kings stayed—then Chateau de Fontainebleau is the best bet. Sure, the place has its moments of being crowded, but never the way Versailles is crowded, where the crowds sort of push you from beginning to end.
Fontainebleau is a Chateau where you can take your time going from room to room; where you can feast your eyes on the small bed and huge chambers of Napoleon Bonaparte; where you can walk through the ballroom that Henri II built— incidentally, in honor of his mistress; and on and on you can go. And when you are finished inside, you can buy an ice cream cone and take a canoe ride, all by yourself if you want (and can row with an ice cream cone), to the little island that houses Napoleon’s octagonal office. You can take a horse drawn carriage ride. You can take a little train through the town and around the Castle. You can take a walk through the diverse gardens. Or, if you want, you can buy a baguette and cheese from town and have a little picnic in front of some of the same statues made by the same artists who made the same sort of statues at the Louvre; and you can feed the peacocks that come from a long line of peacocks that have resided there.
Once you are finished with the Chateau (and you can spend one hour or all day there and feel satisfied either way), you can go eat! Because eating is what one does when one is in France—and because the eating in Fontainebleau is as good as any restaurant in Paris—as long as it is French food. I recommend La Petite Alsace, and, as well, La Cave de Duc is lovely.
When you are finished with eating and Chateauxing, then try legging it up Rue de Sablons for shopping, because there the shopping is diverse and exciting. It’s a basically if-you-want-it-they’ve-got-it gig, and it’s a sweet journey. Don’t forget to dip in and out of the cheese shops and the boulangeries for some snacks along the way. Then, circle around towards the Market (and hope you are lucky enough to be there on either Friday or Sunday morning), check out the shops along the church road, and take a right back onto the main road to shop some more. Get the picture? There’s a lot of shopping to do in Fontainebleau and nothing is lacking.
For kids there is a Carrousel smack in the middle of town, right next to a yum-yum Creperie. And, of course, there is all that stuff to do at the Chateau!
You probably wouldn’t want to stay in Fontainebleau for a week; it’s not that kind of town. Well, actually, it is, but only if you’ve done Paris enough that you want to explore living someplace near Paris. Paris is, after all, only 45 minutes away by train or car.
However, staying in Fontainebleau overnight, or even for two nights, would be well worth your money and time. I highly recommend it for people who just want to do something else besides Paris and they have a day or two to knock off before catching the airplane home.
Oh, I forgot to mention Barbizon, the famous artist colony that is just kilometers away, and jam-packed with art galleries; and Milley-la-Foret, just as near, with its mediaeval marketplace; and the Fontainebleau forest, famous for its rock-climbing, horseback riding, hiking; and… well, the list goes on and on. So, maybe if you are thinking of going, you should make that stay last three days.
Hey, I never did finish my story. After that waiting period of a month was over, and my ear was healed and I could return home, well, I did what anybody with any sense would do. I called in to work sick, again, stating that, well, I had to stay an extra month, because, well, you know how the French medical system is. Then, smugly, I went and ate a crepe.
La Petite Alsace
26, rue Ferrare
La Cave du Duc
24, rue Ferrare
9, rue de Ferrare
Hotel de Londres
1 place General de Gaulle
Highly Recommended Books and DVDs on Fontainebleau
- Paul G. Rankey, PhD., has made an incomparable DVD called Experience the Magnificent Fontainebleau, Palace.
- In the Forest of Fontainebleau: Painters and Photographers from Corot to Monet, by Kimberly Jones, Simon Kelly, Sarah Kennel, and Helga Aurisch
- Fontainebleau: La foret des passions, by Anne Vallaeys
- Fontainebleau Climbs: The Finest Bouldering and Circuits by Jo Montchausse and Francoise Montchausse
Copyright © Sarah Gilbert Fox
Formerly published on www.BonjourParis.com.