‘Versailles without the crowds‘ was how my Grandma sold Fontainebleau to me. Located just under an hour from central Paris via public transport, Fontainebleau is home to a beautiful French Château where Napoleon commanded his troops, and where popes have stayed.
And while my Grandma hasn’t visited the Château de Fontainebleau since the late 80s; her revelations regarding the lack of crowds were surprisingly still accurate. I visited on a sunny Saturday at the beginning of October and definitely recommend a fall-inspired trip to the fairytale French château…
A little history of Fontainebleau
Although the exact origins of the name remain unclear, one theory is that ‘Fontainebleau’ derives from the medieval French word for spring ‘Fontaine’ together with a German family name, ‘Blizwald’. However, what is clear is that the site, as with many others such as Versailles, began life as a chapel and hunting lodge in the middle of the 12th Century.
By the 13th Century, Louis IX had added a country house and hospital to the site. And in the 15th century, the transition from Royal country house to Royal (country) Palace was completed by Francis 1. Since then, every king, queen, and French ruler from Louis VI, the fat (1081-1137) to Napoleon III (1808-1873) spent time there.
Napoleon called Château Fontainebleau the ‘House of the Centuries’ and even gave his final salute to his guards at the base of the beautiful horseshoe staircase. As is often the case with historic houses, with the arrival of each new owner came the arrival of new trends and fashions; resulting in amendments and extensions to the castle over the years.
The Château at Fontainebleau
True enough to my Grandma’s words, when we arrived at the Château, there was a tiny queue and we waited for very little time before we were allowed to enter. None of the rooms were crowded or hot to the same extent as at Versailles.
The visit itself is self-guided, allowing you to explore all the rooms at your own leisure. Although I wasn’t able to visit the papal apartments as they are currently under renovation and the Chinese museum has been closed since a robbery in March, there was still plenty of things to see and do.
So few people were at the château, that I was even able to capture a photo featuring only three people- something unheard of at the Palace of Versailles!
The Grand Lake of Fontainebleau
The best part of the visit had to be rowing a boat out onto the carp lake. The entire lake is so called due to the vast amount of huge carp swimming around. On a clear day, it is possible to see right to the bottom of the lake (I even saw an unfortunate person’s credit card). The entire lake is also teeming with swans.
It is possible to rent a boat to the left-hand side of the castle. The boats were a bit weird as it was impossible to turn the oars and so difficult to navigate. However, once out on the lake, it is possible to see the house reflected in all its glory (and so the struggling with the rowing is definitely worth it 😉 ).
Price: €9,50 for half an hour. Up to four people can fit into a single boat.
The Royal Gardens at Fontainebleau
Landscaped in a typically French fashion, rigid topiary lines are complemented by smooth fountains and tree-lined boulevards. Originally created to rival the great gardens of castles and country houses in Italy, it certainly doesn’t fail to impress.
Commissioned by King Francois I in the mid 16th century, although the gardens went major renovations in the 19th Century, a lot of the original layout survives. One tale certain to make the more modest among us blush is that of James V. Legend has it that he was strolling through the gardens when he spied his future wife bathing naked in a grotto!
The Fontainebleau Canal
October was most definitely the best time to visit the canal. The autumnal colours popped bright against the blue sky. The canal is 1200 metres long and was commissioned by Henri IV in the early 1600s.
King of France between 1589 and 1610, Henri IV survived 12 assassination attempts before his assassination in 1610. Husband to Catherine de Medici, he was responsible to many important changes in Paris; including great additions to the Louvre Palace and the construction of Pont Neuf, thus connecting the left and right banks of the Seine.
Henri IV was also one of the first French Kings to finance expeditions which would later claim French Canada. One of the other major players in
The Forest (Domaine de Fontainebleau)
Up to 11 million people visit the forest every year. So integral is it to French history that it is now a protected National Park. Originally intended as Royal Hunting Grounds, the forest surrounds dozens of nearby villages and hamlets.
Fontainebleau opening times
The Château is closed on Tuesdays.
October – March: 9:30 – 17:00
April – September: 9:30 – 18:00
How to get to Fontainebleau from Paris and the best time to visit the French Château
For those looking to escape the crowds of Paris, there is no better day trip from the City of Light than that of Fontainebleau. From Paris, it couldn’t be easier to take the RER A from Gare de Lyons. The journey takes about 50 minutes. From there, it’s a pleasant walk through woodland and the town to reach Fontainebleau itself.
The best time to visit the French Château is probably late spring or early autumn (i.e. the European Shoulder season) when the crowds are at their fewest but you’ll still benefit from improved weather and later opening times. And while Fontainebleau is never as busy as Versailles, it can get a little busier during the summer months rather than at other points of the year.