Monday, June 30, 2014

France 2014: Provins and Fontainbleau, then Home

After 7 glorious weeks in France, we were now on the last leg of our visit.  At the start of our vacation, we arrived in Paris after an overnight red-eye flight and wanted to spend our first night just a short drive away from the airport since we knew we would be tired. When we researched locations to check out near Paris, we were amazed by the number of interesting villages that could be found less than an hour's drive away.  We chose to visit Barbizon at the beginning of our trip, but made plans to save a few days to visit some of the other villages on the way back to Paris.  This also would make it a nice short drive back to the airport when it was time to fly home.

We decided to stay in Melun for a couple of days, using it as a home base from which to take day trips to Provins and Fontainebleau.  Unfortunately this did not give us enough time to explore Melun itself, so most of what we saw there was our hotel.  In our room, we were intrigued by the rainbow-coloured switch that we dubbed the "Gay Pride" switch - we never did find out what it did.  I loved the decor and colour schemes of the dining area where we ate our complementary breakfast each morning.  When traversing from Melun en route to the other villages, we passed through some densely packed tree-lined roads that made for a pretty drive.

Provins is a UNESCO World Heritage site that had a history of hosting Medieval trade shows called the "Champagne Fairs" in the 12th and 13th centuries, where agricultural products, live stock, textiles, leather, fur and spices were sold.  To protect the location of these fairs, 25-meters high fortified walls spanning 5 kilometers were built to surround the town.  Today, 1.2 kilometers of these ramparts, towers, walkways and gate portals still remain, providing one of the most intact showcases of Medieval military architecture.  The towers were built in a variety of shapes including round, rectangular, octagonal, hexagonal, and trapezoidal.

The expansive ramparts were impressive to see from afar, but even more fascinating to walk on top of.  Open to the public, you could traverse along the narrow walkways, climb up and down stone steps to reach each tower platform, and peer through the murder slits to imagine what it would be like to shoot arrows down at oncoming invaders.

In addition to the ramparts, there were many other historic sites and monuments to be found throughout Provins.  The main streets were lined with half-timbered houses and shops. Caesar's Tower was a fortified keep built in the 12th Century and used as a watch tower, prison and bell tower.  From the top floor, you can get a panoramic view of the town. The Saint-Quirace Collegiate Church, found across from Caesar's Tower, was also built in the 12th Century.  It was never completed due to financial difficulties and now there is a big empty square where the rest of the church would have been built.

Today, Provins is primarily a tourism town, taking full advantage of its historic past.  Multiple Medieval shows are presented year-round.  The Eagles of the Ramparts featured birds of prey performing tricks and interacting with horses, wolves and camels.  Legends of the Knights included jousting, trick riding and dressage.  The Banquet of the Troubadours provided a French Medieval feast of vegetable soup, meat pastry, roast meat with vegetables, brie cheese, apple pie and red wine and includes entertainment provided by jugglers, acrobats, fire-eaters and story tellers. We did not have time on this trip to attend any of these shows, but maybe we will have the opportunity to visit again.

Located about 55km southeast of Paris, the Château de Fontainebleau was one of the largest royal residences in France, inhabited almost continuously by every sovereign French monarchs between the 12th through the 19th Centuries, from Louis VII through Napoleon III.  Lesser known and farther afield from Paris than the Palace of Versailles, Fontainebleau Palace is arguably just as impressive, but with the advantage of being much less crowded.  Like Versailles, Fontainebleau is accessible from Paris via train.

Since Fontainebleau had been inhabited by so many different monarchs over the centuries, the halls, galleries and grand apartments contained examples of decor, furnishings, tapestries and artwork from a wide range of monarchs. Passing from room to room, it felt like we were traveling through history.  The Francois I Gallery (1528) was decorated with Italian Renaissance frescoes and sculptures.  We walked through Queen Anne of Austria's bedroom (1601-1666) which included a draped four-post bed, an Officer's Lounge from the era of King Louis XIV (1638-1715) and the bedchamber of King Louis XVI (1754-1793).

Being one of the latter occupants of Fontainebleau, artifacts and furnishings from the time of Napoleon I were numerous and represented by multiple rooms.  This included his military campaign tent, the nursery for his son, his throne room, personal bedrooms, sitting room, and more.  An excellent audio guide provided us with illuminating information throughout our Fontainebleau tour, and was especially fascinating during the Napoleonic sections.  We stood in the small bedchamber where Napoleon tried to commit suicide after being defeated by Allied forces and then moved onto the Emperor's private room, also known as the "Abdication Room", to view the desk on which he signed his abdication papers as part of the "Treaty of Fontainebleau".

Our favourite room was called the Gallery of Diana, an 80-metre corridor/library lined with bookcases that was built by King Henry IV at the beginning of 17th Century and renovated multiple times through the 1800s.  The large globe at the entrance of the gallery came from Napoleon's office in the Tuileries Palace.

According to the brochures and site maps for Fontainebleau, there were multiple large gardens and courtyards surrounding the castle.  Unfortunately, it was pouring rain the day we visited and we were so tired after walking through what felt like a million rooms.  The combination of those two factors defeated us and we did not have the energy to explore the grounds.  If we are in this area again, I would love to return and properly tour the parts of Fontainebleau, Provins, Barbizon and Melun that we did not have the time to do justice to.

Fontainebleau marked the last stop in our 7-week adventure in France.  This was by far the longest trip we had ever taken and definitely the trip of a life-time.  We covered so much territory and had such varied experiences.  We lived like locals in the small village of Bargemon during our home swap, viewed masterpieces in art galleries and quirky collections in museums, browsed in shops and artist studios that featured works of the local specialty, such as pottery or  glass blowing or woodworking, feasted on local French foods from different regions, toured castles and ruins that dated as far back as the 10th century, and visited locations with gorgeous scenery that included stunning mountain, gorge and canyon views, coastal beaches, caves and grottoes, and bodies of water that ranged from bright blue to emerald green.  I'm not sure that we will ever be able to top this vacation, which has provided us with cherished memories that we will keep forever.

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