Tuesday 12th August
Our final full day in Europe (not counting UK) today and a 34 degree day to finish with in Paris. We were up and about early to get first a local bus to Gare de Lyon and then the 40 minutes direct train to the Royal palace of Fontainebleu or the Chateau de Fontainebleu.
The Chateau was continuosly in royal hands from the C12th to the fall of Napoleon 111 in 1870. The major periods of development were the Renaissance revival under King Francis 1; substantial building work by Henry 1V in the C17th In the C19th some galleries were added to under Louis XV and in the C19th, although the furniture and fittings were destroyed in the Revolution, Napoleon made it an imperial residence and had it refurnished.
To say the least it is a vast complex in wonderful gardens of diverse nature. The self taken tour (once you get through the very slow queue..Richard’s fifth!) is ordered and excellent. The reality is that many of the rooms have had various uses over 800 years and the Government has made certain that the tour is coherent and gives sufficient information to cover the whole series of periods. Napoleon’s two wives Josephine de Beauharnais and Marie Louise had a lot to do with furnishing the Chateau and Marie Antoinette also had some designs to add although not living long enough to enjoy them! Anne of Austria, married for years to Louis X111 also had sumptuous living spaces at Fortainebleu. The highly moral Madame de Maintenon also had apartments at Fontainebleu and an influence on one of the two chapels, a very severe classical chapel unlike the decorative Trinity Chapel built during the Renaissance.
A highlight of Fontainebleau is a complete wing devoted to a museum of Napoleon, his family and descendants,belongings even his camp tent, equipment and his famous coat and hat!
After invading and conquering Italy, Napoleon held the Pope hostage at Fontainebleau for two years and forced him to sign a concordat…an interesting time for the papacy. The Palace is a return to the complex frescoed and carved ceilings of Italy and the furnishings are marked in particular by some absolutely astonishing clocks of all shapes and sizes and the vast and very well curated tapestries. As you can imagine my favourite room was the vast library which we did not have access to but could see its length and quality.
Arriving back in Paris hot and bothered at about 4.15pm I persuaded Ann to make one last adventure in Europe chasing down the remarkable Basilica Cathedral of St Denis in the south of Paris which closed at 6.00pm with last entry 5.45pm What seemed to be a relatively simple exercise on the underground proved (why am I surprised?) to be nothing of the sort. Firstly we had no underground pass and had to negotiate a ticket machine to get individual tickets and the line to St Denis was a direct line from Montparnasse our “own” station. This is all fine and we are enjoying the underground stops only to look up at the bouncing ball on the train wall to see that the Basilica stop is not functioning for the two “summer” weeks of August. It was the one station rubbed out! We jumped off at the next station and found no taxis ..time now about 5.15pm. We hunted around for buses (most had no drivers and were just parked, but one turned up as we hunted and was going to St Denis (thank you Lord). Buses are slow! by the time we jumped off it was 5.30 and still no cathedral in actual sight though plenty of signs. We tumbled along as rapidly as both our deteriorating backs would let us and waded through lanes and shopping centres getting hotter on the scent finally putting a foot in the door at 5.47pm and sweet talking the gate -keeper with a sob story about coming from Australia to enable us to have a look around.
It is a hugely historic cathedral. Christians worshipped there from the C5th and from the C10th to the C18th nearly all of the French Kings and Queens and indeed some Emperors of the Holy Roman Emperor including Charles V have been buried there. It is arguable the first Gothic church with mediaeval Abbot Suger “inventing” some of the support systems to enable the enormous height of the columns to achieve a much taller and more graceful effect thant the old round arch Romanesque churches. There are no real towers or spires and the Rose window in the truncated crossing is quite low (and all the more wonderfully amazing because you can see it close up). The beautiful royal tombs are laid out all around the East end of the building behind the fairly simple altar and there is, as ever, beautiful stained glass. It is a magic space.
Our adventure did not end there of couse because we now had neither train nor bus to get back to the hotel. We found first a tram to take us to a rail junction then a helpful person not a machine to sell us tickets to get back to Montparnasse with one train change. Arriving at an unfamiliar platform at huge Montparnasse I think it took us 25 minutes to get out of the station into clean air. So ends our adventures in Europe. The British Isles await tomorrow!