The splendor of Chateau de Fontainebleau is often overlooked because of the popularity of Versailles and the Bourbon reign in popular culture. I have been to both locations and explored them in detail. Both are fabulous examples of the French artistic capabilities and love for opulence but I found myself more impressed with Fontainebleau and here are the reasons why…
3 Reasons Why You Should Visit Fontainebleau Instead of Versailles
The Château and Gardens
The primary reason is its underrated beauty. Its classic designs are a contrast to the ostentatious Versailles. The first major expansion and restoration occurred during the reign of Francis I whose love for construction produced some of the country’s most beautiful châteaux. It was said that the French Renaissance started during his reign and Fontainebleau is a prime example of such architectural design. In fact, many of the most popular and admired rooms seen in Versailles were already featured in Fontainebleau decades previous.
Step into the restored Chapel of Saint-Saturin and see for yourself the beautiful blend of medieval and renaissance architecture. Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors, impressive though it is, was modeled after the Francis I Gallery and the Gallery of Stags suggested that Fontainebleau is not just any hunting lodge. Its manicured gardens and charming courtyards also reflected its old-world appeal. Artistically, Versailles is more superior to Fontainebleau but there is something about the latter’s countryside location. The air is fresher and with significantly less tourists, feels more intimate.
Role in French History
Another reason is Fontainebleau’s long and impressive history. The château’s original structures date back to the 12th century and the palace had been a continuous royal residence until the 19th century. Every dynasty that ruled France has at one point in time, called Fontainebleau home. When I visited, my knowledge of French history was limited to the late Bourbon reign up to the Napoleonic era so you can imagine my surprise when I learned about the history of the House of Valois, the early Bourbon descendants of Louis XIV and their respective roles in shaping French history.
Several heirs to the throne were born and baptized at Fontainebleau and the palace hosted many significant diplomatic meetings to calm the tensions between Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation. Fontainebleau also played a significant role during the Empire years since the Bonapartes chose it as their country residence rather than Versailles. Napoleon likely created some of his imperial plans within its walls and oddly enough, also said his farewell speech to his soldiers on the infamous horseshoe steps before his second exile.
The best part of Fontainebleau, and one that Versailles absolutely cannot compete with is the adjacent forest. This 25,000 or so hectare of dense forest used to be the royal hunting grounds but now serves as the Parisian’s weekend escape. Big game hunting used to be very popular before the city grew around the forest. These days, locals take full day hikes among its many trails and its boulder filled paths are a favorite among climbers. Bird watching is also very popular. Over 2,000 species can be found within the surrounding areas and the diversity of flora and fauna is equally impressive. The thick forestation provides the city and the surrounding commune a literal breath of fresh air. As soon as you step out of the station, you will immediately feel the difference in air quality. The quiet atmosphere definitely beats the noise and the crowds of Paris and the commotion caused by the hoards of tourists rushing to catch a glimpse of Versailles only for a few hours.
Logistics: Versailles is a little bit easier to reach due to its closer proximity to Paris and because there are no shortages of day tours visits available for booking. Fontainebleau is a little bit challenging though still relatively accessible via public transport. You can take a high-speed train leaving at Gare de Lyon and take a connecting bus from the station. If you can pick up a rental car and drive there, do so. That way, you will not be at the mercy of bus and train schedules, which can sometimes be unreliable.
Pricing: The website for Versailles is a little bit confusing. The ticket prices vary significantly based on the packages you want to buy (another thing I disliked) so plan your day carefully. Trianon palaces start at 10 euros and the main palace at 15 euros. A full-guided tour of Fontainebleau is 15 euros.