I’ve had a weekend of châteaux! Yesterday I went 40mins south of Paris to the Château de Fontainebleau with Imogen, Andrew, Julia and Jess (an English teacher from another school), and today I visited the Château de Vincennes.
Despite being annoyed that they made me buy a ticket (if you’re under 25 you’re supposed to get in for free, but it turns out that because I’m not a European I needed to bring my visa to prove that I live in France to get free entry), the Château de Fontainebleau was incredible. It’s so lavish that it’s astounding – sitting room after sitting room of antique chairs, chambers with royal beds framed by curtains thickly woven with gold thread, and countless chandeliers, statues and murals.
The castle was a sovereign residence for eight centuries, the first reference of it being in a royal charter in 1137. Although the castle fell into disrepair after the French Revolution, Napoleon later transformed it into a symbol of his grandeur.
As an alternative to the former royal Palace of Versailles, Fontainebleau is where renaissance architecture and the Italian Mannerist style of interior decoration were first introduced to France. Consequently, the French Mannerist style is known as the “Fontainebleau style”.
Like Versailles, Fontainebleau’s walls are sumptuously decorated with gold-leaf, large murals, heavy tapestries and elaborately carved exposed wood, stained in different shades. I loved the smell of the wooden rooms – some of them were dry, like sawdust, and the others were musty and warm, like empty wine barrels. I kept leaning into the walls with my eyes closed to try to taste the scent.
I gasped when I entered several of the rooms – the wood-panelled and frescoed Francis I Gallery, the Ballroom looking onto the castle’s lake and gardens, and the Chapel of the Trinity being cases in point. We first saw the Chapel from a second-floor balcony, and it was like looking out over the theatre from the grand circle. When we made our way to the ground-floor later it was like we’d made a great discovery by finding it again.
And today I saw the Château de Vincennes (being the first Sunday of the month, this was actually free), at the opposite end of metro line 1 to me. When I hopped of the metro I was stunned by the size of it – the walls of the castle are over a kilometre in length.
Oh how I wished the weather was better so I could get some decent photos! The weather is the only criticism I have about this weekend out – it’s nearly impossible to enjoy royal parks and gardens when the sky is grey and you’re being battered by foggy winds.
First I went to the Sainte-Chapelle de Vincennes. When I entered, I passed a man handing out small leaflets.
“Mademoiselle!” he called out, “avez-vous un billet?”
“Non,” I replied, reaching for my wallet. Wasn’t it supposed to be free?
He handed me a ticket, “c’est gratuit aujourd’hui.”
If it was free, why did I need a ticket? I don’t think I’ll ever understand the French.
Found in 1379, the Sainte-Chapelle has a single nave with soaring ceilings and large windows down each side. With sand-coloured stones and the natural light streaming in, I think it may be the most open and airy church I’ve ever seen. It was calming in its simplicity.
The end of the church is decorated with six stained-glass windows depicting scenes of the apocalypse, created and put up in 1555-1556. After admiring them I turned to leave, catching the eye of the man with the tickets. I don’t like it when staff are standing guard at small places like this – I always feel like I haven’t shown enough appreciation.
“Déjà?” he asked.
“Oui, déjà,” I said with a smile then skipped out and crossed the lawn to the Donjon and Châtelet.
Built in the fourteenth century, the Châtelet was originally a residence for the royal family and is the last medieval Royal residence remaining in France. As the rest of the modern castle was constructed around it, the original fortress became a dungeon. And, at 52m high, the Donjon is the tallest medieval structure in Europe.
One prisoner was the Marquis de Sade who was notorious for his libertine lifestyle, as well as the pornographic passages in his works supported by philosophical justifications. He was imprisoned at Vincennes twice – once for fifteen days for ‘outrageous’ behaviour in a brothel, and in 1977 he received a life sentence after poisoning a prostitute. He stayed at Vincennes for seven years before being transferred to the Bastille in 1784 (he gained his freedom in 1790).
As I continued through the rooms, I found the Treasury where Charles V kept his gold and silver. Apparently the Treasury lead to Charles’s private rooms and, when he was away, the rooms were locked and the doors sealed shut with wax. When he left Vincennes, he took with him the only key.
So I was curious to see what was so important. I walked through the door into . . . the latrine. Fair enough, though I might have taken the wrong door.
On the way out of the latrine I saw a second sign on the opposite wall to the one that identified the room as the latrine, this one identifying it to be the study. Look at that – a man who can multi-task!
Unlike Château de Fontainebleau, the Châtelet and Donjon at Château de Vincennes are raw, with naked stone, cracked tiles, pillars decorated with faded dye and empty fireplaces large enough to stand in. A true medieval fortress.
I loved seeing both the renaissance luxury and medieval relics together – you get a real sense of how people in different time periods lived. And it’s such a relief to get out of Paris and its congestion, even for a day.