Fontainbleau and Milly la Forêt

Tuesday 17th June 2008, Grez-sur-Loing, Ile de France
The municipal campsite at Sens was all it promised to be and we slept peacefully beside the little river beneath the plane trees. This morning the campsite manager told us of an area of parkland nearby – Le Parc du Moulin de Tan. It was formerly the grounds of a tanning factory, now given over to lawns, mixed woodland, streams and the old mill leat. We discovered a small lake for waterfowl and geese; a mini zoo with goats, pigs, sheep and donkeys; a stunning rose garden and a series of greenhouses for exotic and tropical plants, cactuses, and orchids. Groups of small school children were being taken around armed with their observer's books and crayons, listening very attentively to their teachers, fingers on their lips in case they were tempted to chatter. We were told the tropical greenhouses were not officially open to the public until the afternoon, but if we could try to look small we could go around with the kiddies. It was much more entertaining that way!

Huge lily leaves on the pool at le Parc du Moulin de Tan, Sens

Orchids in the greenhouse, Parc du Moulin de Tan, Sens

Our class mates, Parc du Moulin de Tan, Sens

Rose garden, Parc du Moulin de Tan, Sens

In the woods we found a fitness trail with all sorts of tortures you could self-inflict -like press-ups, swinging along the underside of a ladder and moving along a couple of horizontal poles on your hands, several feet above the ground. Ian didn't seem to realise it was not designed for pensioners and happily swung around by his hands looking rather a chimp. We also discovered a small ecological project on the banks of the river run by one man, trying to raise awareness to the needs of local wildlife. He invited us to take a look round at his hens, rabbits, hares and huge Bourgogne snails.

He even forgot to remove his rucksack! Parc du Moulin de Tan, Sens

After an early lunch back at the campsite we moved on across the rolling fields of barley to Nemours, a town dating from the 12th century. We knew nothing about the town and after walking around it for a couple of hours we still knew very little. It is a pleasant old town set on the river Loing. It has some very attractive timber-framed mediaeval houses and a magnificent defensive castle on the banks of the river with a grey stone donjon beside it. The town has a peaceful, gentle charm, but before we could enjoy it we needed a town plan and some basic information. We also wanted to know whether the town had a campsite. The tourist office was closed, the Hôtel de Ville was nowhere to be found and the streets were busy with stalls and bouncy castles being set up as workmen prepared for the town fete at the weekend. Having admired the castle from outside and discovered it was closed, we cut our losses and continued to this little village of Grez-sur-Loing where we knew we could find a campsite for the night.

Castle and Keep, Nemours

Church of St. Jean Baptiste across the river Loing, Nemours

It is a charming grey stone village with mediaeval streets, completely unspoilt, lying in grassy meadows leading down to the river, crossed by an old stone bridge. The village was once fortified and the remains of the Ganne Tower, or keep, are still standing near the river. The church has a simple, carved portico where swallows fly continuously in and out, tending their fledglings peering down from the dozen or more nests in the ribs of the arches over the door. There are several picturesque streets of old stone cottages bright with geraniums, climbing roses, honeysuckle and tall hollyhocks. Beside the church stands the house where the composer Delius lived and where he died in 1934. The village was discovered by artists and the pretty gardens beside the river were painted by Corot. There is also a plaque to the Japanese painter Seiki Kouroda who lived here at one time. Finally there are two 19th century lavoirs (public area for washing clothes) beside the river.

Stone bridge, Gres-sur-Loing

Ganne Tower seen from the gardens painted by Corot, Gres-sur-Loing

Swallows in the church porch, Gres-sur-Loing

House of the composer Delius, Gres-sur-Loing

Plaque to Seiki Kouroda, Gres-sur-Loing

Village lavoir, Gres-sur-Loing

Our campsite is very pleasant, beautifully situated and yet it is almost deserted. For us it has been a perfect find. It is only ten kilometres from the magnificent château of Fontainebleau which we plan to visit tomorrow. There are so many interesting and beautiful places to visit in this area, but time is running out and we are expected back in Caen in two days time.

Thursday 19th June 2008, Caen
Here we are, back in what has come to feel like our second home. We were too weary last night to write up about our interesting day at Fontainebleau. Built, developed, altered and rebuilt, this was the personal retreat of the French kings for several centuries, particularly Francois II and his son Henri IV. Later it was used by the Emperor Napoleon I, and it was at Fontainebleau that he was forced to abdicate. In the main courtyard he made his farewell speech to "Les enfants de France" before being exiled to Elba. It was also occupied later by Napoleon III and his wife the Empress Eugénie who built up an impressive oriental collection still housed in the château.

Chateau de Fontainebleau from the formal gardens

Fontainebleau lies about 50 kilometres south of Paris surrounded by huge areas of forest that originally provided sport for the kings and courtiers. Hunting was perhaps even more important then than it is today in France, the difference being that in those days it was the sport of kings. There is even a formal garden in the extensive grounds dedicated to Diana, goddess of hunting. The centrepiece is a rather distasteful fountain of Diana with a stag, surrounded by four hunting dogs that supply the waters of the fountain through their genitalia!

Fountain to Diana the huntress, Fontainbleau

We arrived early, fearful we would be unable to park. We need not have worried. Beneath shady trees within sight of the palace, we parked Modestine and walked through the huge iron gates into the stunning geometric gardens executed by Le Notre typical of the grand design of French parks. Lawns, gravel paths, immaculately shaped yews and firs directed the eye to a square lake and fountain. Beyond, flanked by avenues of neatly pollarded lime trees, lay a long, formal canal leading away to the distance. Turning from this we made our way through huge, impressive arches and gateways to the main courtyard that had been the formal entrance to the château during the time of Napoleon. An elegant curving staircase led up to the main entrance and it was from here Napoleon made his farewell speech to his followers.

Formal gardens laid out by Le Notre, Fontainbleau

Lintel over the gateway to one of the courtyards, Fontainbleau

Main entrance and façade with the staircase where Napoleon made his farewell speech, Fontainbleau

Main façade, Fontainbleau

The eight euros to see around was very modest for the splendours that awaited us. We were given an audio guide in English – by far the most sensible way for large numbers of people to see around at their own pace without disturbing everyone around them. It took us several hours to visit all the rooms open to the public. Eventually it became too complicated trying to understand the genealogy of French royalty and who was responsible for constructing various wings of the palace, and we simply gave ourselves up to enjoying the magnificent decorations, painted ceilings, wall hangings and tapestries, paintings, lavish carpets and furnishings, huge beds, sofas, chairs, card tables, dinner services, writing cabinets and even Napoleon's bathroom. There was the long gallery of Francois I, the ballroom of Henri IV, the library of Napoleon, the bed of the Empress Josephine and much, much more.

Decorated ceiling, Fontainbleau

Decorated ceiling in the ballroom of Henri IV, Fontainbleau

Ballroom of Henri IV, Fontainbleau

Chapel, Fontainbleau

Long gallery of François I, Fontainbleau

One of the royal apartments, Fontainbleau

Napoleon really was something of a megalomaniac. After appointing himself Emperor his lifestyle was almost as ostentatious and lavish as that of the monarchs he replaced. Having summoned the Pope to his coronation he snatched the crown from the Pope's hands and placed it on his head himself. Later he held the Pope prisoner at Fontainebleau until he agreed to sign a document giving even greater power to the Emperor. What can be said in Napoleon's favour however is that he was not afraid of hard work. He did much for France that still stands it in good stead today. Thanks to him routes were opened up across the Alps, huge road building programmes were introduced right across France, resulting in the wide, well laid-out designs of many of the major cities today. He created the Banque de France, established a code of civil law, restructured education and introduced reforms that significantly affected civic institutions throughout Europe.

Napoleon's library, Fontainbleau

Napoleon's council chamber, Fontainbleau

Napoleon's throne, Fontainbleau

Napoleon's bedroom, Fontainbleau

Napoleon's private study, Fontainbleau

Napoleon's bathroom, Fontainbleau

Cards room, Napoleon's apartments, Fontainbleau

Bedroom of the Empress Josephine, Fontainbleau

When we finally left the palace we found it was time for a late lunch back at Modestine before once again braving the hot sunshine for a stroll around the lakes and gardens in search of the fountain of clear water after which the château is named. It took a great deal of finding and was eventually discovered hiding insignificantly, clouded and neglected, in a tiny copse of overhanging trees. Really it was a great disappointment. So we wandered out through the main gate of the palace to find ourselves in the heart of the town of Fontainebleau. Originally this was just a village serving the needs of the château, but today you could be forgiven for thinking it was a Paris suburb. It is a very pleasant town, full of restaurants, bistros and cafes, busy with tourists from around the world stopping off for lunch before or after visiting the château.

Town of Fontainbleau

Grand canal, Fontainbleau

Original fontaine belle eau, Fontainbleau

We left mid-afternoon. There was something we wanted to see in the surrounding forest. About twenty kilometres along our onward route lay the little town of Milly-la-Forêt. Here there is a tiny chapel dedicated to St. Blaise. Soldiers returning from the crusades during the Middle Ages introduced diseases contracted there into France. One such was leprosy. Here at St. Blaise-des-Simples was a little wayside chapel and hospital for the treatment, by means of medicinal herbs (simples in French), for those afflicted.

Chapel and herb gardens of St. Blaise des Simples, Milly la Forêt

The chapel had fallen into neglect when in the 1950s the poet, playwright and painter Jean Cocteau undertook to decorate the interior if the local council would maintain it. We had already seen a museum of his works down in southern France at back in 2006, and having studied his works as students we were particularly interested with this discovery. The tiny chapel stands in a small, peaceful garden of medicinal plants, clearly labelled with the beneficial qualities of each. Inside, the chapel is really a shrine to the memory of Jean Cocteau who lies buried beneath a flagstone in the centre. Along the side walls he has painted several huge, floor-to-ceiling frescos of healing plants, including arnica, ranunuculus, gentian and aconite. To either side of the altar are profiles of guardian angels in unmistakable Cocteau style with the head of Christ wearing a crown of thorns above. The decoration is very much in the boldly simple style of Cocteau, and with the distance of time we found it both a place of peace and a fitting memorial to the work of a gifted writer and painter.

Wall decoration by Jean Cocteau, St. Blaise des Simples, Milly la Forêt

Altar with decoration by Jean Cocteau, Chapel of St. Blaise des Simples, Milly la Forêt

Main square and market hall, Milly la Forêt

We continued to Etampes where we hoped to camp. The town is a nightmare to drive around in with one way systems, narrow, badly surfaced roads and no road signs. We were completely lost, the tourist office was closed and nobody seemed to have heard of the campsite. When we eventually ran it to ground it was really expensive and we decided to press on, sleeping by the roadside if necessary. The trouble in that part of France is that the vast, empty plains surrounding Chartres do not make it an area for tourists, or indeed any other inhabitants. There are no villages, nowhere to buy fuel when the tank is nearing danger level, nothing in fact but endless hectares of maize, barley, linseed and rape. From miles away we could see the spires of Chartres Cathedral, the only thing showing above the bread basket of France.

Ian meanwhile was thumbing frantically through our camping guides and announced he'd found a site near Maintenon, not far from Dreux. So we turned off and followed minor roads for miles through the landscape until we eventually arrived. The office was closed and nobody around so we settled for the night, linked up to the electricity, cooked supper and were sound asleep by 10pm. We slept solidly until gone 8.30 this morning. After hot showers we decided we'd best find someone to pay. They were quite happy to have had us as undeclared guests overnight and cheerfully told us the site had previously been a chicken farm and we'd just been showering in the former broiler house! We'd suspected it had had a previous incarnation as it all seemed a bit weird but hadn't thought of it as the stage set for "Chicken run"!

We drove to the outskirts of Dreux for fuel and spent the next few hours driving back across-country to Caen, trying to avoid driving on roads we'd used before. This is increasingly difficult but we did manage to reach the edge of St. Pierre-sur-Dives before finding ourselves on familiar roads, flanked by apple orchards with herds of the Normandy brown and white speckled cattle grazing beneath them.