Wednesday, July 4, 2012
Bonjour! And A Happy Fourth!
(Can't believe this is my 400th Blog Post!)
As neither Llew nor I had ever been to the Loire Valley, we intended to spend a weekend there viewing the famous chateaux (French castles). But, unfortunately, we were not able to rent a car for the days we wanted it and trains would have proven both expensive and inconvenient. In the end, we decided to see at least one chateau within easy commuting distance of Paris. And again, since both of us have been to Versailles, seat of the Bourbon Kings, not just once but twice, we decided to go to the Chateau of Fontainebleu.
A Bit of a Hike:
We ate a hasty typically Parisian breakfast of toast, preserves and coffee and left our apartment at 9.00 am to ride the metro to Gare de Lyon (which took us half an hour). But 9. 45, we were buying our round trip tickets to Fontainebleu-Avon (about 15 euros a piece, but it turned out that the clerk sold us a Mobilis which is a day pass for zones 1-5. This gave us unlimited use of the entire Paris transport system for the entire day).
The next Transilien train was scheduled to leave at 10. 15, but it turned out to be late by almost 15 minutes and did not leave until 10.30 am. The ride lasted 45 minutes, dropping us off at Fontainebleu at 11. 15 am. From there, we hopped into the No. 1 Bus which took 15 minutes to fill up, also took 15 minutes to drop us to the Chateau gates where we arrived at 11. 45. By the time we bought our ticket, got our audio guides, etc. it was almost 12.00 noon. We could not believe that we had spent almost 3 hours trying to get to Fontainebleu.
An Amazing Tour of the Chateau:
But, in the end, it was so worth the long hike into the French countryside. The audio guide to the chateau was superb. It led us from room to room in a somewhat chronological fashion. Although the history of France is confusing, we gathered that the chateau has been in use by French kings for centuries, each of which added to its grandeur. However, the person responsible for its greatest embellishment is Francois I. Louis XIV, the Sun King, who also loved the chateau brought in his favorite landscape designer, Andre Le Notre, to redesign the gardens. It was he who added the vast Grand Parterre--divided into four geometric blocks, they were outlined by box edges and lush flower beds (which were past their prime). However, the royal personage that we most closely associate with the chateau is Napoleon Bonaparte, who crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804 and moved into the residence. The tour winds through his main apartments as well as those created for Popes and other dignitaries.
It would be impossible for me to try to describe the splendour of Fontainebleu. It is simply magnificent. Every possible element you can think of that created the design aesthetic we call Baroque is in evidence here. From the ceilings (which feature impressive Classical frescoes--some by Charles Le Brun, others by Francois Boucher) to the floors that are inlaid with expensive exotic woods in parquet designs that are amazingly complex, there is ostentation. Fabulous drapes in silk and satin and damask, paintings galore, sculpture, furniture by such important names as Boule, carpets by the Savonerie company, loads of tapestries by Gobelins and Belgian houses, gargantuan Sevres porcelain, Capodimonte vases--you name it, it is present here and in abundance.There is an entire gallery devoted exclusively to the Sevres porcelain plates commissioned to depict important events associated with the Chateau. It seemed as if our tour would never end. I counted at least 40 rooms that we traversed--each more Over-The-Top than the one that preceded it-- and by the end of it, we were well and truly exhausted--both physically as well as visually because there is only so much splendour an eye can process. Quite simply, the most spectacular room was the Long Gallery filled with frescoes done by Il Rosso who was a pupil of Michelangelo. His work alternated with sculpture that features the salamander, the symbol of Francois I who had commissioned this extraordinarily grand corridor.The tour ended with the gorgeous Trinity Chapel, an absolute marvel of sculpture and paintings.
In the Gardens:
When our tour ended, we made our way out into the vast courtyards and the formal gardens. Overlooking Le Notre's parterre, we ate our sandwich lunch and then being badly in need of a nap, we actually stretched out on garden benches for a nap--much to the amusement of a school boy on a field trip who pointed us out to his teacher saying, "Regardez, madame, des gens qui dorment sur les bancs!"("Look, Madam, there are some people sleeping on the benches!") I burst out laughing on hearing this, translated the sentence for Llew's benefit and startled the poor boy who thought we were fast asleep (we had only just begun to doze!).
We spent the next half hour enjoying the exterior vistas of the chateau while overlooking the quiet parkland and the reflecting pool on which some energetic visitors were rowing a boat. It was an entirely idyllic sight. Much as we would have liked to continue walking in the gardens, we decided instead to conserve our energy for a stroll around the town of Fontainebleu which is very pretty and boasts a beautiful church (The Church of St. Louis). We stopped in for a visit and found ourselves in the midst of a funeral service at which there were exactly six people present! Needless to say, we prayed quietly for a few minutes before leaving the church very discreetly.
Exploring the Town of Fontainebleu:
The town of Fontainebleu was bustling just before the stores closed shop for the day. Since we decided to take the 5. 31 pm train back to Gare de Lyon, we had time to buy some Belgian ice-cream from Jeff de Bruges. We made our way slowly back home, arriving in Paris at about 6. 30 pm. By the time we reached home, it was 7. 00 pm. and we spent a few moments skyping with Chriselle.
Both of us felt that Fontainebleu offered us a fantastic way to compensate for not having made it to the Loire Valley. Our day trip had provided us everything we could desire out of a day trip: a simply splendid chateau on which to feast our eyes and gardens that offered the finest specimens of French formal design together with English country informality.
Off for a Long Bus Ride to see Paris By Night:
After a drink and a snack, we both felt compelled to use the day pass and made up our minds, quite suddenly, to hop on to a bus and ride to the center of the city while there was till plenty of light. We took the tram to Stade Charlety and then got on to the 67 which starts there. For the next hour, we wound through the lovely Parisian landmarks that I pointed out to Llew--from Place d'Italie to the Jardin des Plantes, from the Institute du Monde Arab to the Paris Mosque, from the twin towers of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame to the Palais Royale outside the Louvre. Eventually, we reached Pigalle which was just springing to life.
Berthillon Ice-cream on Isle de St. Louis:
With light fast fading, we hopped on to the same bus for the journey back, decided on impulse to stop off at Isle de St. Louis for more ice-cream--this time it would be Paris' best, Berthillon. The ice-cream vendors literally line the Rue de St. Louis and we quickly chose our flavors (salted caramel and praline amaretto for me; chocolat noir and rum and raisin for Llew). Then, as we enjoyed our frozen treats, I took Llew on a guided walk to the tip of the island to see the actual Berthillon restaurant. We finished our ice-cream on the ledge watching the swish dinner cruise bateaux-mouche pass us by.And then, we walked back to the bus stop, jumped into a 67 again and reached home about 11. 00 pm.
Marking American Independence Day:When we got home, we found a huge star-spangled banner flying at the entrance of the Fondation des Etats-Unis at the side of the French bleu, blanc, rouge. It was a deeply uplifting sight on American Independence Day and our hearts leapt. A group of American students had gathered down in the courtyard garden just below our window and were barbecuing. We had been invited to join them, but, alas, were much too tired by our day's excursion to muster up the stamina. Just before we closed shop for the night, we heard a wonderful plaintive rendition on a saxophone of The Star Spangled Banner. At half an hour after midnight, it appeared a tad too late, but then we realized that it was still the Fourth of July in the USA--so the sound of the national anthem was not entirely misplaced. So stirring was the impact that Llew went out into the corridor and applauded the unseen player.
It was an exhausting day and we were both cream crackered by the time we hit our bed.