The ramblingly magnificent Fontainebleau Château owes its existence to the surrounding forest, which made it the perfect base for royal hunting expeditions. A lodge was built here as early as the twelfth century, but it only began its transformation into a luxurious palace during the 1500s on the initiative of François I, who imported a colony of Italian artists – most notably Rosso Fiorentino and Niccolò dell’Abate – to carry out the decoration. The palace’s highlights, however, are the sumptuous interiors worked by the Italians, chiefly the celebrated Galerie François I, which are resplendent in gilt, carved, inlaid and polished wood, and adorned by intricate stucco work and painted panels covered in vibrant Mannerist brushwork. The paintings’ classical themes all celebrate or advocate wise kingship, and had a seminal influence on the development of French aristocratic art and design.
Utterly contrasting in style to the rest of the château are the sober but elegant Petits Appartements, the private rooms of Napoleon, his wife and their intimate entourage. You have to buy a separate ticket to join the (obligatory) guided tour, but a tour of the Musée Napoléon – which displays a wide variety of personal and official souvenirs – is included in the main château ticket.
The gardens are equally splendid, but if you want to escape to the relative wilds, note that the surrounding forest of Fontainebleau is full of walking and cycling trails, all marked on the Michelin map Environs de Paris.