I can’t figure out why so few people have heard of Fontainebleau. My uncle told me about it years ago, but he was a priest and always liked to drag me to obscure churches in the middle of nowhere so when he tried to talk me into visiting Fontainebleau, I managed to distract him into going somewhere else. I pursued this strategy because I had never heard of it.
He passed early this year which led to a bit of reminiscing. In his memory, I decided to do a little research about the place. Turns out it is the longest inhabited castle in Europe and the largest château in France, romantically situated in a forest outside Paris. I didn’t find that much information in English about it, but I did discover that it contains Marie Antoinette’s exotically named Turkish Boudoir- a gift to her from her husband Louis XVI. I decided that the next time I went to Paris I had to visit and see this Turkish Boudoir for myself.
How to arrive
It’s very easy to visit come from Paris. It can be done in a day, but I decided to spend the night (which I highly recommend- I stayed two and loved it). I stayed at the Hotel Aigle Noir. It is located across the street from the Garden Diana, the private garden of the French Kings, and a couple hundred meter’s walk from the entrance of the château. The Aigle Noir, which is over 500 years old, was originally built for the followers of the Royal Court. Its rooms are spacious, the walls covered with bucolic scenes from French aristocratic life. Between the period decor, the fireplace in the lounge and the honor bar filled with small bottles of white and pink Champagne and large bottle of good Chablis, you will feel like a courtesan if you stay here. I highly recommend it.
To get to the Aigle Noir from Paris, go to the Gare de Lyon. Take the RER R (also mysteriously branded as the Transilien) headed to Montargis, Montereau or Laroche Migennes. As of the writing of this blog, this was not on the regular RER map and if you try to research it online, it appears tricky. I even asked the concierge of my hotel in Paris to help, and he couldn’t figure it out. He gave me vague instructions then said, “It’s better if you just go to the station early and ask them.” I did that and it was super easy. I walked in, looked on the board and saw a train leaving in 8 minutes- Platform K. You can buy your ticket at one of the machines. It costs 8.85€ off peak, one way. The station is Fontainebleau-Avon. On the Montargis line it is the third after rolling out of the Gare de Lyon- 38 minutes. Exit the train and walk to the left. You will see a bus stop. Take Line 1 headed towards Lira. When I alighted from the train the bus was waiting- I think this is the norm. It cost 2€- you can buy the ticket from the driver when you board the bus. It’s about 12 minutes to the stop Château- this is the second to last stop on the bus. Try not to confuse it with the final stop Château Fontainebleau. But if you do don’t worry- they’re very close. Once you exit the bus look on your right- the Aigle Noir will be about 50 meters in front of you.
The castle is open roughly 9:00h-17.00h, depending upon the time of the year you visit- check the website for details. I bought my ticket in advance online. Turns out that was completely unnecessary when I visited over the Christmas holidays, but might be more important over the summer. I paid 12€ for the initial ticket. When I arrived I laid down an additional 3€ for the audio guide, which I highly recommend. Not only does it tell you about the rooms, but it helps you plan your visit. There are many optional routes you can take- without the guide I would have been hopelessly lost and missed a lot of the château. Make sure you check the special tours offered during the day- there were a number of options when I arrived. The special Christmas stories was very appealing to me but due to time constraints I had to choose between that and the private tour of Marie Antoinette’s Turkish Boudoir. I choose the later which cost me an additional 5€. The Imperial Theatre, recently restored thanks to a generous contribution from the Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, also looks gorgeous. It can also be toured with a group for an additional 5€.
Here are some of the highlights of the tour. As you can see, it is every bit as good as Versailles. And historically more interesting in my opinion.
One of the best things about visiting Fontainebleau is you can rent a period outfit! My understanding is this is only available during the summer and Christmas holidays. It cost 12€ and of course I and to do it! Not only was it a lot of fun, but it really helps you feel connected to the place. If you’re in costume the staff joins in on the role playing and treats you like Royalty, complete with bows, curtsies and period comments. Plus you understand what it must have felt like to live back then. In the winter you see how cold the castle must have been, how tricky it was to walk up and down narrow stair cases with a wide dress and long hem (easy to trip on), and how involved little things were like using the toilette.
Marie Antoinette’s Turkish Boudoir
The one thing I can say about this woman is she had exquisite taste. All I had known about it before was from seeing her bedroom at Versailles, and a couple films. There is a lot more on display at Fontainebleau. After seeing her formal bedroom, her dressing room and her private Turkish retreat, I feel like her Petit Trianon in Versailles is much more representative of her taste than the grand bedroom in Versailles that everyone knows her for.
Her private rooms at Fontainebleau are more Roman than anything else. Her dressing room, which everyone can see on the regular tour, is a first glimpse into this. It is relatively simple, washed in silver, gold and cream. The wall decorations are 17th century versions of the decorations you see in Pompeii or Herculaneum. Delicate, feminine and relatively simple.
Visiting them feels like a very private secret. You meet your tour in the Green Room- the small room you walk through before obtaining your audio guide. Only twelve people are allowed on the tour because Marie Antoinette’s decorations were so fine that visitations must be limited to minimize damage. Our guide found us, walked us through a private courtyard then pulled out a set of large, old fashioned keys dangling from a key ring. She took us through a private doorway, down a corridor and told half of us to sit and watch a video. The other half she took up a long, narrow, tightly spiraling staircase to see the chambers. There are three of them: an antechamber, a toilette and the boudoir. At the top of the staircase, before entering the antechamber there is a secret window with views to the Parterre (I think this is what she said- I couldn’t see because she was only allowed to open the windows for a few seconds and the tour was in French).
The feel of the bedroom was very delicate and personal, yet also infinitely sensual. The simple yet sumptuous tapestries gleam in the low candlelight, crowned by the gold of the Turkish crescent moons. I imagined this were where she and her best friends spent their time- a refuge from the intrigues of the court. From the historical record, it seems very clear that most people were jealous of her. Since she also lived in a foreign land in an arranged marriage, she must have felt very alone much of the time. Spending quiet time with a few close friends in this personal retreat must have been one of her few simple pleasures.
Where to eat
I really liked the restaurants close to the Aigle Noir. Le Grand Café has great food- I loved their onion soup, rich and heavy with rosemary. Next door, La Croissantin has good coffee and excellent pastry in the morning. The Italian restaurant, Bella Sera, is also very good. They have an arrangement with the Aigle Noir so you can order any menu item from the comfort of your room, and have it brought to you for an additional 5€. If you’re on a budget or, like me, travel so much you don’t like eating every meal out, there is a Monoprix about 200 yards to the left of the hotel, at 23 Rue du Château. It has a very good selection of basics and takeaway food.
If you want a real treat, make a reservation at the famous Le Train Bleu on the way back. This is a piece of elegance in the craziness of the Gare de Lyon. One of Paris’s Grande Dames, the food and wine are excellent. Plus you couldn’t ask for a better place for people watching. They have ample room for luggage storage, and it’s a safe refuge from the seediness and pickpockets down in the station below.