A French château offers a remarkably different experience from an English castle, which differs still from a Welsh castle. When my family toured Ireland a couple years ago, grass-covered stone greeted us around bends in the road. Unexpected ruins hidden in the brambles of time.
Here in France, people constructed the castles with different stone and purpose, and many of the remaining palaces speak more to the late 17th and 18th century elegance than medieval ruggedness.
For the most part, France is not a rugged country. Sure, certain places along the coast, particularly in Brittany, along with the Pyrenees and the Alps, feature a wilder atmosphere where nature has been given free reign over the land. Through my experiences, though, I find this a rarity. France has been cited as the most popular tourist destination in the world. To deny its beauty would be folly at best. I’d laugh at you for being stupid. France is beautiful. But that beauty is not rugged. The French have meticulously manicured their gardens and estates, and after some coaxing, I’ve come to believe that cultivated nature in France is not a meager substitute for “real nature,” but rather, another expression of art.
Their castles belong in fairy tales where princesses and princes daintily dance across marble ballroom floors and light music sweetens the mild summer air. They beckon us in and tease us with their luxury, rather than ward us off or intimidate potential invaders. As alluring as I find many English castles, I rarely find them elegant. They were built to impress, protect, and warn. This famous, wonderful place for instance:
It’s magnificent and awe inspiring. Plus, magic = all things awesome.
Instead, the French châteaux, although many have perfectly apt protection, remind me of beautiful places where I can prop up my feet in the powder room and listen to idle gossip for hours.
One such place worth visiting: Le Château de Fontainebleau.
As a plaque pointed out at Fontainebleau, I would hear about how Napoleon was on the market for a womb.
Okay really, just picture yourself in the middle of some gossip fest about the latest shoe style and then all of the sudden some girl says, “I hear Napoleon is in the market for a womb. Ehh…” Concluded with a wink of course. I love it.
Located just south of Paris, Le Château de Fontainebleau housed the royal family long before Louis XIV, XV, and XVI all woke up and said, “Hey, I feel emasculated. Let me display all the gold I have.” Fontainebleau’s history originates in the mid-1100’s when Louis VII ascended to the throne. Shortly after, Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket consecrated the castle to the Virgin Mary and Saint Saturin. Only the foundations of this chapel still remain of the original castle.
Since then, royalty from various centuries have contributed to the structure, culminating in this odd hodge podge of architecture.
With marble staircases and, my favorite, very few tourists, the castle truly allows you to step back in time and feel what it might have been like for the families whose lives passed behind these walls. I oftentimes find these kinds of experiences stifling and isolating; no amount of preservation can truly recreate a different lifetime. However, when I stepped down the staircase, this vast, opulent room with gilded walls spread out before me, the windows revealing glimpses of the gardens and ponds beyond. I imagined Julie Andrews waving her delicate hand and gracefully cooing, “Thank you for being here today.” Just like that, I felt like Queen of the Castle. Or Genovia.
On occasion I spotted other tourists reading plaques or flashing pictures of a nearby tapestry, yet oftentimes, I found myself either alone or with just the two friends who accompanied me in this preservation of wealth and prestige.
Then we discovered the gardens. Main paths surround the ponds, yet many dirt trails extend around trees and through meadows, some leading to old abandoned medieval walls, now covered in vines and wildflowers.
Again, I felt the Julie Andrews inspiration, though this time, I imagined running through hills and singing about nature.
Except maybe I didn’t imagine it and maybe all three of us did this, much to an elderly French couple’s displeasure, as evidenced by wrinkled noses and aghast expressions.
And maybe footage exists.
In our defense, we’ve been holed up in nature-less Paris. I’m from the Midwest and the two of them are from Canada; we needed some green space.
The manicured lawns and vast array of statues gradually make way towards uncultivated woodland, where people have the leisure to wander undisturbed. Well, except for the poor elderly French couple.
In Autumn, when the red and orange leaves crunch beneath your feet and chestnuts are strewn all over the ground for miles, the castle and its gardens begin to feel enchanted. If you wander for long enough, you can see glimmering images of people in elegant finery, exploring the grounds on horseback, conversing in antiquated French, their delicate 18th century swords glinting in the clouds. Because we don’t get sun. And the expressive statues seem poised and ready to leap to life.
I’ve been to tourist-packed Versailles and trust me when I tell you that Château de Fontainebleau experience is far superior. Fewer tourists makes a happier Alex. Plus? The French people I’ve met recommend this place over Versailles. That’s gotta count for something. Visit and you too can feel like Julie Andrews, waving to the castle subjects and saying, “Thank you for being here today.”
But really, I’d like to thank the castle for having me there. It’s a place of beauty.