Monday, July 08, 2013

Fontainebleau: Napoleon's Marvelous Legacy

Note: The following narrative is based on My Trip Journal entries recorded during a trip I made to England and France in May 2013 with my companions, Richard and Cecelia White from Chatham, England.

We caught the P&O Ferry at Dover early this morning (May 10, 2013) and crossed the English Channel in about 1 1/2 hours landing at Calais in France. The ferry was huge, capable of carrying over 1000 cars as well as 2000 passengers.  When you check in at the gate, you are assigned a lane number so cars can be quickly boarded without any confusion.  You also need to remember your parking area's color as the stairs on the ferry direct you to the correct part of the ship by designating the color of the area they serve when it is time to disembark.

There were several shops selling duty free goods and souvenirs and Richard bought some special reflective stickers that he must place on his car's headlights to prevent them from shining in oncoming drivers' eyes when we're in France since his car has headlights adjusted to shine on the opposite side of the road than French cars.  (The French drive on the same side of the road that we do).

English breakfast minus a sausage and fried toast.  Photo
by Mary Harrsch.
We headed to the cafeteria where we ordered an English breakfast including eggs, baked beans (they are actually like pork and beans without the pork and with a little heavier tomato sauce - no brown sugar like America's version of baked beans), hash browns and bacon. This is the slightly abbreviated version as I was not that hungry and passed on the sausage and fried toast (plain bread - no cinnamon or egg batter). Then I spent the next hour and a half trying not to get sea sick as the Channel was rather choppy. I finally got to see the white cliffs of Dover I had heard about so much as a child as we pulled away from the dock.

The famous white cliffs of Dover in the early morning light.  Photo by
Mary Harrsch.
Upon landing in France, we took the freeway towards Paris.  I got really excited when I saw the sign pointing to the famous "Field of the Cloth of Gold" where King Henry VIII of England met with King Francis I of France in June 1520 to celebrate their friendship after the signing of the  Anglo-French treaty of 1514.  As portrayed in the Showtime miniseries "The Tudors", the two kings encamped in lavish accomodations accented with cloth of gold then engaged in days of wrestling, jousting, archery displays and general merrymaking.

Field of the cloth of gold as depicted in a 1774 engraving by James Basire
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Fueled by two lavish fountains of red wine, King Henry's entourage managed to devour over 2200 sheep in three weeks.  But, alas, Richard said there was really nothing left to look at there now except a plaque so we did not stop.

So, I spent the next couple of hours gazing at the patchwork of wheat and blooming rapeseed fields flowing past the window.  I was also surprised to see quite a few wind turbines.   The French have obviously fully embraced the development of alternative energy sources.

Panoramic view of Fontainebleau's central courtyard.  Photo by Mary Harrsch.
When we neared Pairs we took the ring road then the cutoff to Fontainebleau as it is about 55 km southeast of Paris.  Although many of us think of Fontainebleau in relation to Napoleon I, it was actually the result of additions to a building constructed by King Francis I several centuries before.  A later campaign of extensive construction was undertaken by King Henry II then Catherine de' Medici.  King Henry IV added the court that carries his name during his reign as well as a 1200-meter canal.  Philip the Fair (Philip IV), Henry III and Louis XIII were all born in the palace, and Philip died there. Christina of Sweden lived there for years as well, following her abdication in 1654.

Marble relief of King Henry II by Mathieu Jacquet in the
Saint Louis Salon at Fontainebleau.  Photo by Mary Harrsch.
But during the French Revolution, Fontainebleau was emptied of many of its treasures to raise money for the new government.  Within ten years, however, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte transformed Fontainebleau back into the lavish royal palace we see today.  Perhaps that is why I've always thought of it as Napoleon's palace rather than a luxurious secondary residence for Bourbon royalty.

The palace is actually in a small town that shares its name but it is surrounded by gardens and a large man-made lake that set the palace apart. The French, unlike the National Trust folks in England, allow photography so I set about trying to capture as much of the beauty of Fontainebleau and examples of 19th century decadence exhibited there as I could.

Panoramic view of Anne of Austria's bedchamber at Fontainebleau.  Photo by Mary Harrsch.
Surprisingly, there is far more period furnishings at Fontainebleau than I saw at the Palace of Versailles in 2008. Many of Versailles' rooms were practically empty except for walls full of portrait paintings.  Fontainebleau, however, was filled with spectacular brocade-draped beds, glittering chandeliers, intricate
Velvet and gold embroidered suit created for
Napoleon's second marriage in 1810.  Photo
by Mary Harrsch. 
tapestries, beautifully preserved clothing, colossal paintings with mythological themes, swords and dueling pistols, silvered toilet articles, lavishly carved and gilded woodwork and even Napoleon's original bathtub as well as a replica of his command tent from his military campaigns.

I smiled when I saw the command tent because it reminded me of one of the first major museum exhibitions I ever attended back in 1993.  My husband and I had helped my daughter move from Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina.  On our way to Charleston we passed through Memphis, Tennessee and from the freeway I saw a huge poster of Napoleon on the side of a building.  I craned my neck to see if I could find out what the poster was all about and saw that it advertised an exhibit of Napoleonic artifacts at Memphis' International Culture Center.
Gold Hilt of a Sword of Napoleon I  ornamented
 with coral cameo portraits from Naples, Italy
French 19th century CE.  Photo by Mary Harrsch

Of course, we didn't have time to stop then but I hoped after we delivered my daughter to her new husband we might have time to stop in Memphis on our way back.  As luck would have it we arrived back in Memphis on my birthday.  So my husband agreed to stop and I spent the next three hours wandering through galleries displaying many of the things that, all these years later, I now saw at Fontainebleau, including the richly embroidered suit Napoleon wore at his second wedding in 1810 and that replica of Napoleon's command tent.

Reproduction of Napoleon's canopied cot in his
military campaign tent.  Photo by Mary Harrsch.
There was the glint of gold everywhere at Fontainebleau although the empire style furnishings prevalent in most of the rooms were more elegant, in my opinion, than the over-the-top heavily gilded Baroque and Rococo furniture of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Empress' Gaming Room at Fontainebleau.  Photo by Mary Harrsch.
There were a few Baroque pieces left in the State Salon, though.

A few Baroque pieces of furniture remain in the State Salon at Fontainebleau.
Photo by Mary Harrsch.
Napoleon's throne room was an interesting blend of the more subdued empire style combined with  breathtaking carved and gilded ceilings.  This can be attributed to the fact that the throne room once served as the king's bedchamber in the Bourbon period.
Panoramic view of Napoleon's throne room at Fontainebleau.  Photo by
Mary Harrsch.

Napoleon's admiration for ancient Rome and his military achievements also appeared to influence his choice of decor here as his somewhat modest velvet-upholstered throne was flanked by two gold standards emblazoned with his iconic "N" topped with imperial eagles.

One of Napoleon's gold imperial eagle standards
in his throne room at Fontainebleau.  Photo by
Mary Harrsch.
When I viewed Napoleon's bath I read a placard that explained Napoleon was very meticulous in his grooming habits and enjoyed a bath every day.  I wondered if he adopted this custom after learning about it in his studies of the Romans?

Napoleon was meticulous in his grooming and
enjoyed a bath every day.  Surprisingly his bath
at Fontainebleau was relatively austere.  Photo
by Mary Harrsch.
My friends had to keep urging me to move along as I tried to not only photograph as much of Fontainebleau as I could but even capture some room panoramas with my new Sony NEX 6 camera.  This was particularly challenging as there were a number of tour groups crowding the galleries even though tourist season had not yet gotten totally underway.

A sitting room with the gold accented cradle of Napoleon's son, the "King of Rome".  Photo by Mary Harrsch.
My companions were getting anxious as we still had quite a few miles to go to reach the medieval town of Troyes where we will spend the night.  So, reluctantly, I walked out to the man-made lake that adjoins Fontainebleau and took a few last panoramic views of this incredible place then turned towards the car park.

The tranquil man-made lake adjoining Fontainebleau Royal Palace in France.  Photo by Mary Harrsch.
It was almost dark by the time we reached Troyes.  As we entered the city, I was enchanted by the medieval architecture.  It reminded me very much of York where the buildings are constructed with a second story that overhangs the first, creating a very narrow street.  I immediately spotted the spires of its Gothic cathedral and I thought the shallow canals coursing with water in the central town square were very picturesque.

Picturesque Troyes, France
We had booked a hotel in a renovated 16th century building in the city's historic district.  We found it down a narrow cobblestone street and took our bags up to our assigned rooms.  Then we headed down the street to find something to eat.

L'Hotel Les Comtes de Champagne, our hotel in Troyes, is a
combination of four renovated 16th century houses.
  Photo by Mary Harrsch.
Within a couple of blocks we found a restaurant and Cecelia spotted tartiflette, one of her favorites, on the menu.  She explained tartiflette is a French dish from the Haute Savoie region of France made with potatoes, reblochon cheese, lardons and onions.  I had to ask what lardons were and Cecelia explained they are like chopped bacon.  It sounded pretty good so I ordered it too.

Tartiflette, a potato casserole-type dish served with salad
and fresh bread.
The meal was preceded by a basket of bread.  I looked for a dish of butter or olive oil but apparently many French restaurants don't serve any kind of spread or oil with the bread course.  They did have my Coca Cola "Classique", though, and even served it with a few ice cubes.  I could hardly believe it as when I visited Paris in 2008 in the middle of July with the temperature at 107 degrees I couldn't get ice in my drink to save my life!  Things have obviously changed since then!

By the time we had finished eating it was getting really late and I wanted to post an entry to my travel journal and call my husband over Skype, so I left Richard and Cecelia enjoying a bottle of wine and after dinner brandy and walked back to the hotel.

Walking back to my hotel in the center of the historic district
of Troyes, France.  Photo by Mary Harrsch.

Troyes is so picturesque we plan to spend a few extra hours here in the morning so I can photograph their magnificent cathedral and the medieval architecture and canals they have near the town center. Then we'll be heading south in an effort to reach our bed and breakfast in southern France where we'll be staying for the next week before nightfall.

To see more of my images of France, visit my Flickr account!

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