Sunday, September 1, 2013

Fontainebleau: More than a Castle

Say the word "Fontainebleau" and most people immediately think of the château outside Paris favored by both François I and Napoléon. Few realize that Fontainebleau also designates one of the largest and most popular forests in France. The fôret de Fontainebleau covers approximately 110 square miles in the department of Seine-et-Marne, southeast of Paris. Over 13 million visitors a year hike the forest's 200 miles of paths.


In 1528, François I decided to renovate the old medieval castle at Fontainebleau. He not only rebuilt the palace, but increased the grounds attached to the domain through a series of purchases and appropriations. By 1537, the royal forest covered 51 square miles. The forest was rich with game: deer, boar, lynx, wolves, martens, and over two hundred species of birds. Being an avid hunter, François spent countless hours pursuing his prey through stands of oak and beech trees and around the huge boulders that litter the site. To care for his beloved forest, François created the honorary position of Grand Forestier, the official who oversaw the corps of horse guards and that patrolled and managed the domain.

Forêt de Fontainebleau by Karl Bodmer. Etching, 1850
Countless boulders make the forêt de Fontainebleau a favorite spot of rock climbers today. The area was once covered by a sea, which deposited a deep layer of white sand. Over the millennia, this sand compressed into the long chains of rocky plateaux and oddly shaped boulders that characterize the landscape. The forest soil contains up to 98% sand; in places, there are dunes. Because of this high sand content, no streams are visible in the forest, only ponds where water gathers in hollows in the massif. The palace itself is built of this durable local sandstone.


Artists, photographers, writers and poets have long found inspiration in the forest's rocky wilderness. While early painters used the forest as a backdrop for hunting scenes, Camille Corot was one of the first painters to make the forest itself the subject of his paintings. Claude Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Cézanne, Seurat all painted there. Rousseau and Millet formed what is known as the école de Barbizon at Fontainebleau in the mid-nineteenth century. Photographers followed the painters, and numerous writers, among them Hugo, Stendhal, Sand, Balzac and Proust, visited the forest or evoked it in their works.

In the Forest of Fontainebleau by Paul Cézanne. 1880
Several scenes of my current novel take place in the forêt de Fontainebleau. In this one, Anne d'Étampes, King François's mistress, hurries to a rendez-vous deep in the woods:

       The path plunged beneath the canopy of new leaves, eager as Anne to escape the shimmering May sun and the scrutiny of the palace’s countless windows. The horses’ hooves drummed a steady beat on the ribbon of packed earth, cleared of debris and hazards in perpetual readiness for the royal hunt. Wasted effort on the groundskeepers’ part, of late; the pain in François’s belly had kept him from the saddle for more days now than she cared to count. She’d left him in his library in thrall to a desiccated scholar who claimed to hear the music of the celestial spheres. Would that François’s ears might detect the note of falsity in the man’s bombastic claims.
       She rode alone, save for the groom who followed a few lengths behind and knew better than to chatter. Late, she prodded her mare to pick up the pace. The grotto lay a fair distance away, and she knew he wouldn’t wait if she were slow to arrive. Why he refused to meet her in some secluded corner of the gardens instead of here in the godforsaken woods, she’d never understand. Riskier there, yes, but at least they’d be surprised by a pair of impatient lovers and not a pack of peckish wolves.
       Maybe she’d still beat him there. Curses on the chaplain for delaying her. She much preferred to be the first to arrive at any appointment; not only did it give her time to collect herself, but it allowed her to play on the inconvenience of being made to wait. Rushing, she almost missed the fork in the trail that lead to the grotto. This spur was but a narrow crevice between the trees, little more than footpath really, strewn with stones and knobby roots that slowed the horse to a careful walk. The groundskeepers hardly bothered to maintain it, for an army of hunters, horses, and dogs could never pick its way down the steep slope without landing in a jumbled heap. She only knew of the spot because François had taken her there once, in the early days, when they'd made a game of sneaking off alone. She was surprised when the painter suggested it. 
       Giant boulders loomed ahead, perched one atop the other in improbable piles that always made her uneasy to stand beside. She dismounted. “Wait here,” she told the groom, who took her reins and led the horses to nibble at a nearby bush while he pared his nails with a knife. No worries that he’d spy—she paid him plenty to ignore what she didn’t want him to see, and knew enough about him to ensure her wouldn’t tattle if he did fail to look away.
       She descended the last few feet of the path, slipping precariously on loose gravel, to stand on a large, flat rock that could have been the stage of a Roman amphitheater. On three sides, the tumble of carmel-colored rocks created a honeycomb of nooks and small caves, openings camouflaged by ropes of of ivy and tangles of exposed roots. Pine trees vied with a massive oak for light, casting deep pockets of shade on brittle drifts of last autumn’s leaves. Anne shivered. If one were a hunted beast, this must surely be the safest place in the domain to hide. She peered at the maw of the nearest cave, half-expecting to find yellow eyes of a forest cat staring back. 
       A pebble landed at her feet. Another tapped her shoulder. Shielding her head with her arm, she had turned to flee when a chuckle stopped her. “Leaving so soon, Aphrodite?”

Click here to watch a stunning video of the fôret de Fontainbleau in winter. It's no surprise that Fontainebleau and its domain were François's favorite palace. He spent more time there than anywhere else save Paris.

3 comments:

Candie Leigh said...

So beautiful, Julianne. The Fontainebleau forest sounds breathtaking. I'm adding it to my list of places I'd like visit. Thanks for sharing!

Katharine Ott said...

Thanks for the wonderful description of the foret de Fontainebleau and the passage from your book - both inspiring!

Julianne Douglas said...

Candie and Katharine, thank you for you comments! I would love to spend a few days exploring the forest and visiting the small towns on its outskirts. I'm glad you liked the excerpt! It was a fun scene to write.