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A trip to Fontainebleau: Château et Forêt.

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A wonderful friend came to Paris for a weekend visit recently. I met him off the Eurostar, my grin mirroring his. He has the best smile in the world, it’s official. Whenever I am around him we don’t stop laughing and smiling, after 3 days my cheeks were slightly painful.

This being his third trip to Paris we decided to go further afield and take a day out of the bustling city to visit Fontainebleau, a town famous for its château and the forest that surrounds it. We did a little research before we went (of course) and soon found out that it had been a home to the kings throughout the ages. Subsequently we became suitably entwined in a wikipedia frenzy of trying to figure out who all these monarchs and nobles were and when they were and…ok, there is no other thing to figure out. Maybe why they were? But that’s another post.

So we departed from the Gare de Lyon on a Transilien train, catching a bus from Fontainebleau station to the château. We popped into the tourist information office to get a couple of maps and some advice, then headed to the grand palace. After getting our tickets (free for my under 26 year old friend, €11 for me) we managed to trip up at the first hurdle and lost our way to the museum, finding ourselves in the magnificent gardens (which are free entry for everyone. Yay!)

Mosaic of Fontainebleau castle and gardens

Fontainebleau château as seen from the gardens.

We had a stroll through the jardin anglais (do I need to translate?) and- prepare yourselves- we WENT ON THE GRASS! Mais oui, the lawn is unrestricted in this garden, quite unheard of in a French garden. It was a beautiful place, there weren’t many people there at all and the fresh smell of trees and damp earth was a delight to nostrils which are used to le parfum de Paris – pollution. Entertainment was free as we looked on in fascination and horror whilst a woman tried to get the swans to eat from her hand. Right next to a big carp lake. Angry sounding swans. Luckily her survival instinct cut in and she scurried away, narrowly avoiding disaster. It was gripping stuff.

We were perplexed by some huge ducks. They looked like lady mallards but were the size of large, fat geese. Attack of the giant ducks was maybe too much excitement for one morning.

Rouen Giant Duck

Freaky giant ducks! (A little research tells me it’s a Rouen Duck…)

I had to do a lot of searching  (ie type giant duck into google)  to find the name of this beast: the Rouen Duck. Too freaky.

Finally we found our way into the palace. Now, I have to confess, I had been here before. But my lack of memories from that day, and the lack of pictures I brought back from this round, might suggest my feelings on the matter. We were slightly underwhelmed on the whole once inside the palace. It is a typical old, royal house. You are directed round parts of the apartments, a few of which have managed to keep their original decoration or furniture, you stand in front of a room but behind a red rope, and you read some information about said decorations and furniture. A bed made for Marie-Antoinette that she never slept in. Napoleon’s bathtub. Most of the items are covered in plastic, even the tassles on the curtains!

There were some gems however, the ballroom for example was lovely. But it all felt a bit stale and it could have been more interactive. For us, not enough was made of the juicy bits of history that had gone down at Fontainebleau. Like the fact that Napoleon had invited the pope to stay  before his coronation and 5 years later had captured him and held him hostage here. Or that the innocuous little desk in one of the official rooms was actually the very place where Napoleon signed his abdication in 1814. It really is an impressive palace, filled with history and beauty, we just wished it was more interestingly presented.

Our next plan was to visit the forest at the edge of the town, an area spanning 25 000 hectares. Of course, we were on foot and so planned to cover about 2% of that with a nice, relaxing 4 mile walk. Our leaflet told us the forest was a haven of flora and fauna and we were thus advised to keep our eyes peeled for roaming hogs and deer. Unfortunately the only animal life we found were hundreds of scurrying electric blue beetles, but they were exciting enough for us! Despite losing our way on the trail and resorting to my mobile phone’s GPS to navigate back, we felt like we were making the most of being away from modern, city life. We were reveling in the clean air, picking wild blackberries, and listening to the birdsong above our heads.

Fontainebleau Forest blue beetles and mushrooms

Wildlife from the forest of Fontainebleau.

Even in the space of an hour we felt we had become more attuned to the nuances of nature and therefore were startlingly aware of the slight change in temperature, light, and wind direction that signalled a distant storm. That and the thunder we could hear miles away.

The first drops came and we calculated that we had another half an hour before we would escape the forest. As the rain grew heavier we started to worry. We were only weak city folk, completely unprepared for a thunderstorm in the middle of a forest. Should we stay under the trees for shelter? What if there was lightening? Should we use an umbrella? Why had the weather forecast told us only 30% chance of rain?

At one point we huddled under one of the forest’s famous rock formations for shelter, hoping the rain would ease up, before I became entangled in a spider’s web and shot back out into the deluge. Within 10 seconds I was soaked. We pressed on, holding each other in fear under our one, small, broken umbrella. After a while we started to laugh at this ridiculous situation, becoming quite hysterical. When you are soaked to the skin, your shoes full of rain and mud, your hair stuck to your cheeks, what can you do but laugh?

Finally we made it back to civilisation and headed straight for the next train to the capital. On arrival in Paris we were perturbed by the funny looks we were getting as we dripped our way home, until we realised that no-one else was wet. Or carrying an umbrella. But despite having been caught in a localised storm and paying €11 to see some furniture covered in plastic, we’d had a great day and were grateful to be alive. and at least we could have a great laugh about it. Anything to see that smile on my friend’s face.


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