Fontainebleau—The Château de Fontainebleau was part of my childhood, for I lived in the town as a boy. Even then the ballroom, la Salle de Bal, made an impression on me. It was the big, airy room on the tour, a welcome surprise after the series of dark and heavily decorated chambers of greater renown, from Marie-Antoinette’s boudoir to Napoléon’s throne room. I’ve now lived in Paris for more than 20 years, and yet this singular room never disappoints when I make the 40-mile trip south to savor its delights.
Originally a royal hunting lodge in the depths of a forest and now a national museum, the château was a favored residence of French kings for more than 700 years. Each left his mark with a new wing, a chapel, a ballroom, so that the accumulation of styles is itself a history of French architecture. Somehow—and this is Fontainebleau’s great allure—they add up to a poetic and deeply satisfying whole. Still, the ballroom remains my favorite: Completed in 1558 during the reign of Henri II, it captures perfectly the French spirit—sensuous indulgence married to sober discipline.
One comes upon the ballroom almost unawares. Entering the space from a series of small antechambers, I am never prepared for the subdued glory that is revealed: a room both long and wide, of majestic proportions, bathed in light from vast window bays on both sides. Outside to the left lies the Cour Ovale, one of the most intimate courtyards in the château, while to the right I look across the formal gardens to the middle distance, where the forest begins. Below the frescoes of classical nudes, painted by Nicolò dell’Abbate after the drawings of Francesco Primaticcio, the wood-paneled walls are delicately limned in gold. Together with the patterned marquetry of the vast oak floor, the expanses of honey-hued wood suffuse the room with a magical glow.
Iimagine Henri II and his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, reveling in a party filled with music, pleasure, and intrigue. Their interlaced initials appear everywhere, as does De Poitiers’s own insignia, a symmetrical array of crescent moons. And I see Catherine de Médicis’s informants scattered among the guests—her coat of arms also graces the room—eager to bring her, the queen, news of her husband’s liaison, which lasted for more than 20 years. It was in this room that I learned a king’s mistress could hold sway over all of France, that even a queen could be outmaneuvered, and that though appearances mattered greatly to the French, behind the beautiful surfaces there was always a more complex matrix of passion and power.
Then I pull back from the heart of it all to a small lake adjacent to the château. In the summer I occasionally rent a rowboat and taste something of the voluptuary’s delight as I glide among swans and floating leaves, through breezes redolent of boxwood and roses. The perfect inverted image of the château’s facade shimmers slightly, then disintegrates as I paddle. When I look back, I notice that the silhouette of the château’s roofs, irregular and massive, is akin to the skyline of a small village that has been built, piece by careful piece, over many centuries. “Someone made all this fit together,” I think for a moment, and then I realize that that someone is France.
The train trip from Paris’s Gare de Lyon to the Fontainebleau-Avon station is 45 minutes. From there it’s a 15-minute ride on the Véolia shuttle bus. For more information, call 33-1/60-71-50-70.