If you're looking for an easy and enjoyable day trip from Paris, look no further than the charming city and nearby Chateau de Fontainebleau, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You’ll enjoy all the beauty and grandeur of an iconic French Chateau, without the hordes of crowds at Versailles.
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It's incredibly easy to get to Fontainebleau from Paris, from the Gare de Lyon station in central Paris. That said, I find transit in Paris to be very confusing (and I do speak French). What you likely need to get from central Paris to Fontainebleau is the miraculous Mobilis ticket - these can be purchased in the metro/train stations from the machines and are not expensive (approximately 18 Euros for the zones 1-5 pass). There are, of course, a variety of other travel options in Paris, but this is what we went with, as we didn't have any of the longer-term options.
That said, if you go with the Mobilis, you should buy the Mobilis pass BEFORE you start your travel to Fontainebleau- it covers metro, train, and bus travel. In fact, unless the guy in front of you gets his bag stuck in the metro barrier (GRRRR), this will likely cover all of the travel you will take to and from Fontainebleau. Ok, so buy your Mobilis, use it on the metro to get to the Gare de Lyon (which is a monster - allow plenty of time). At the train station, don't forget to stamp your ticket before getting on the train. There are small, yellow machines in the train stations with some form of "composter" written on them (normally "compostage" - stick your ticket in there. It'll get stamped (not recycled, which is what I thought would happen). The suburban line train (as opposed to high speed) will be toward either Montargis Sens, Montereau or Laroche-Migennes.
Once the train arrives in Fontainebleau (the Fontainebleau-Avon station), you'll need to take either a short bus or cab trip to the heart of town and the Chateau. One of the things I liked most about Fontainebleau is that the Chateau is easily walkable from the town center (which is not common with country estates). We opted for the city bus (Ligne 1 toward Les Lilas), which met the train, and for which we could pay with our Mobilis passes. The bus was quite crowded and stopped quite a few times in a short distance, but perfectly easy, overall.
Fontainebleau is a nice, quiet town. We took a few minutes to stroll around, seeing the downtown (don't get off the bus too early in the more industrial/residential area - wait until the Chateau stop - our bus driver yelled "Chateau!!!" and everyone hopped off). We had a nice and reasonably priced lunch at La Taverne, located close to the bus stop and the Chateau, and serving the largest salads I've ever seen.
Walking to the Chateau, on the corner of town, you'll enter through the gardens, which are stunning. Be sure to make time for the gardens either before or after your trip to the Chateau (we opted for after). Buy your tickets (there's also a WC right outside the ticket sales area), which are reasonably priced at 12 Euros/adult for the self-guided tour. Tickets are reduced to 8 Euros/person in the 1 hour before closing, which is sufficient to see the Chateau, if you did the gardens first. If you’re looking to avoid the crowds at Versailles - this will be your first of many pleasant surprises - not a line in sight!
Self-guided tour warning: The signs are all in French. A "video guide" is available and maps are available in English.
Begin your tour, following the map (it's a one-way tour and you're clearly directed). Unlike some Chateaxu, Fontainebleau is an amalgamation of the reigns of various monarchs (Louis XIV portions are next to Napoleonic artifacts) which, to me, provides a uniquely authentic experience.
One thing to keep in mind - those responsible for the preservation of the Chateau have decided to keep many of the wooden shutters closed, to preserve the fabric and furnishings within (not in all rooms, clearly). It does take a minute to get used to, but certainly does not impact your experience.
Taking the tour at our own pace, we were in the Chateau for about 45 minutes. After you've wrapped up, check-out the shop, which has a large collection of nice souvenirs (scarves, tasteful Christmas ornaments, tea towels), which are largely Napoleon-themed. I'm now the proud owner of a Napoleon hat Christmas ornament and toile tea towel. There are additional WCs inside nearby, along with vending machines. Afterward, spend some time in the lovely, massive, and well-cultivated gardens, which are not to be missed.
Once you've finished in the gardens and completed your time at the Chateau, it's just a hop, skip, and a jump back to town. For us, it was time to head back to Paris, and we grabbed the bus from town back to the train station (quick and easy!). Don't forget to stamp your ticket in the scary yellow machine before boarding the train! If you're careful about train times, this could easily be a half-day trip.
Prior to our trip, I really enjoyed reading Finding Fontainebleau : An American Boy in France, by Thad Carhart - the link to which is below. It's a memoir by well-known Carhart about the time spent with his family when his US Air Force officer father served as a NATO envoy after WWII (whose office was actually in the Chateau itself). Carhart tells a number of interesting stories that illuminated French culture for me - including the elaborate pre-work handshaking ritual, and an amusing vignette about the difficulty caused by his first name, along with his visits and tours of the Chateau as an adult, given special access to see the restoration efforts. Happy Travels!
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