Although it may not be as grand and well-known as Le Chateau de Versailles (which I visited in 2005 and wasn't too keen to see on this trip, especially after writing a 10,000 word university essay on the chateau and its gardens - how Louis XIV, the sun king, commissioned sculptures and paintings for the chateau complex which presented him in the guise of Apollo - the Greek and Roman god of the Sun, etc, etc, - the essay 'did my head in', I over-analysed every piece of sculpture in the gardens, looking at them again, wasn't high on my agenda), Le Chateau de Fontainbleu has its own charm. And I think I like it more for its somewhat humble simplicity and elegance, as well as its lack of tourist hoards - which allows you to see the chateau without dodging people's cameras. It's proportions, its rooms and its ground are not as awe-inspiring and impressive as that of much more regal Versailles, but it is an impressive piece of architecture and example of interior and landscape design of the middle-ages, Renaissance and up until the 19th century all the same.
The town of Fontainbleu is located about 60km south-east of Paris. The easiest way to get there is by train - it's a directed 40 minute trip. Take the SNCF train from the Gare de Lyon to the Gare de Fontainbleu Avon. From the station at Fontainbleu, there are many signs directing you to the tourist office and the chateau, or simply take the bus.
Fontainbleu is a quaint little town of about 16,000 inhabitant surrounded by the forest of Fontainbleu. In contrast to the incessant noise of Paris - masses cars, buses, the metro, people, demonstrations, etc - the town of Fontainbleu is almost serene - I only saw a handful of people and a few cars & buses as I made my way from the station to the chateau - although, I think this was greatly due to the weather. It was a drizzly and overcast February day. But there was a charm to seeing the old stone buildings and cobbled paths under these weather conditions - it gave the place a somewhat interesting and perhaps even an eerie and foreboding atmosphere.
When you walk through the chateau and it's grounds, it's difficult to comprehend how much money was lavishly spent on the place, when the vast majority of the French population were either starving or dying from common illnesses and lack of sanitary living conditions. The chateau and it's decorative elements are excessive, to say the least - gold leaf detailing, fine embroidered tapestry, crystal chandeliers, velvet upholstery, parquetry, masses of french glass windows, paintings, sculptures - not to mention the shear size of the chateau - the myriad rooms and hallways never seem to end - and the entire chateau complex itself with all its courtyards and landscaped gardens.
The first reference of the chateau was made in 1137 and from that date it was the principle residence of a number of French monarchs and was visited by many foreign dignitaries. Like many other royal residences, the chateau was not originally built to completion of its present state - it is the result of a number of different building works, under a number of different patronages, with a number of different architects and artist being employed, working within a number of different aesthetic tastes.
Only a small section of the chateau complex is open to the public - including some of the royal apartments, the chapel of the Holy Trinity, the library, and the very impressive ballroom, who's proportions are overwhelming and walls are decorated with an impressive collection of paintings.
I visited Fontainbleu in the winter, so the gardens were bleak and lifeless - I can imaging that in the spring and summer they would be green, inviting and full of birds and flowers. However, there is also a beauty in seeing the bear trees, the still ponds and lush green lawns. There were a few people, who seemed to be Fontainbleu locals, all rugged-up in their jackets, beanies and boots, braving the cold and taking their dogs for a walk through the grounds, or leisurely pushing a pram along the lakes to get some fresh air from their stifling, centrally-heated homes.
Photographs from my personal collection
The French version of Wikipedia has a fantastic run-down of the history and design of the chateau, with accompanying images: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Château_de_Fontainebleau
Also, the official website of the chateau, in both French & English : http://www.musee-chateau-fontainebleau.fr/