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As we continue through the Renaissance it is time to visit the charming French village of Fontainebleau. The town in and of itself is worth a day trip from Paris but while wandering the streets there is no missing the imposing structure that is the Chateau at Fontainebleau.

I drove to Fontainebleu with my parents during their recent visit and I have to confess that I really miss having a car. I love that everything is so accessible by train in France but your days can be so much more flexible with a car! We took the 45 minute drive south east and arrived on yet another gray and rainy spring day. The weather in France has been dreadful since October which is unfortunate because so many of these places we are visiting have magnificent gardens that are far better showcased on a nice sunny day.

The chateau at Fontainebleau has been in use since the 12th century but the structure as we see it now is the work of Francis I and more notably, Napoleon. Like most of the French chateaux this one started out as a humble little hunting lodge (please note the tone of sarcasm). While Francis tore down the original structure and rebuilt what we see today the entire chateau really just looms with the ghost of Napoleon. His imperial N emblem and his golden eagles are everywhere and the first thing you see upon entering the main courtyard is the magnificent horseshoe staircase where Napoleon bid farewell to his troops before his exile to Elba.

After Napoleon crowned himself emperor he decided that the chateau at Malmaison (we will be visiting there shortly) was just not opulent enough and he and Josephine should move to Francis’ grand chateau at Fontainebleu. Unfortunately for Napoleon, like most places in France associated with the monarchy, it was looted during the revolution and he found a grand house with not a single piece of furniture or artwork in it. I think this is why Fontainebleu feels so much more like Napoleon’s home over Francis, he had it restored and furnished in his taste and to reflect his era.

Ina Caro describes Napoleon’s Fontainebleu like this – “As you walk through its rooms, you see where he first announced his intention to crown himself emperor; where he told Josephine that they were to be divorced; where he learned that he was, at last, to be a father through his second wife, the Empress Marie-Louise; where, after Waterloo, he learned that is generals had deserted him; where he abdicated; where he said farewell to his faithful Old Guard.” As you can see a lot of Napoleon’s history happened right here in this chateau.

One fact about the chateau I find particularly fascinating and mind boggling at the same time. During both Francis I and Napoleon’s reign they would move between chateaux in the region. Each autumn Francis and Napoleon would move into Fontainebleu with their entire court – this means that each autumn roughly 15, 000 courtiers and 3,000 servants would descend upon the village and the chateau. Can you imagine that many people moving about in a time with no trains let alone cars!

Lest we should forget about Francis I altogether it should be noted that he is chiefly responsible for bringing the Renaissance to France by importing paintings by the greatest Italian artists of the day. He event invited Leonardo da Vinci to stay at Fontainebleu.

Soon we will be visiting the great Chateau at Versailles. I will return to Versailles for a third (and hopefully final) visit to follow the book and this blog. If you have to choose between visiting Versailles and Fontainebleu I would advise you to head to Francis and Napoleon’s home over Louis’. The crowds at Fontainebleu are far more manageable and the town of Fontainebleau is much cuter than Versailles.

As we continue through the Renaissance in France we will next find ourselves wandering the streets of Paris.

Next stop – The Hotel de Sens, the Places des Vosges and the Luxembourg Gardens