When you think “whooping it up,” I’m sure French cathedrals and chalets are among the first things to spring to mind, no? No?
At any rate, with a week to while away in the City of Lights, Ayaz and I decided to make multiple day trips outside the city center. Paris is, of course, a major transportation hub, and it’s quite easy to reach any number of destinations by train. Among your choices is the most obvious — and popular — day trip: Versailles.
Knowing that Versailles would be teeming with tourists and tour groups and generally unpleasant to visit if you (like me) aren’t a big fan of overwhelming crowds, we opted instead to get our chateau fix at Château de Fontainebleau, an opulent respite that’s a mere 40-minute train ride outside the city center.
Château de Fontainebleau
Once the home of French monarchs from Louis VII through Napoleon III, the chateau sits in the midst of 130 acres of parkland in the heart of the town of Fontainebleau.
Now, here’s the thing. I’ve never been to Versailles, so I can’t really make a fair comparison between the two. That said, I’ll do it anyway! But seriously, having spoken to multiple people who have been to both chateaux, it seems universally agreed upon that while Versailles is much larger, Fontainbleau gives it a solid run for its money in terms of sheer splendor, plus it’s FAR more enjoyable to visit because of an utter lack of maddening crowds.
The Grand Apartments are the chateau’s most obvious highlight, and include Marie Antoinette’s boudoir, the Throne Room of Napoleon, and the Apartment of the Pope (my personal favorite since it turns out the Pope was actually being held hostage in said “apartment” — those wacky French!).
As you absorb the lavishness of the entire estate you, too, might better understand exactly why, as a starving French peasant you’d be PISSED at the monarchy and primed for revolution.
Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres
At the other end of the day trip spectrum, was the super-charming town of Chartres and its imposing cathedral.
Now, I can write about how the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres is a revelatory example of Gothic architecture, or how it’s lauded as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, or even its exceptional stained glass windows, which are original and considered among the finest stained glass in the world. But, instead, I’m gonna talk about its two towers.
As you’ll see in the photo, they’re two very different-looking towers, the result of one being built in the 12th century, and the other in the 16th century. Understandably, styles had shifted. But I ask you – why, oh why, wouldn’t you still want your cathedral’s spires to match? Why, oh why, would you give the nod to clashing spires?
I puzzled over this while meandering through the church and listening to the guided tour. While I never came up with a satisfactory answer, I did learn an awful lot about the massive church’s architecture, history, art and statues, and brilliant stained glass.
The tiny town of Chartres is also a bit of a revelation, and an excellent escape from Paris’s crowds and noise.
Cathedral fun fact: During World War II, all of the cathedral’s stained glass was removed, and returned, undamaged to its windows after the war. The town of Chartres suffered a lot of damage during the war, and the cathedral was ordered to be destroyed. An American officer challenged the order, went on a reconnaissance mission to determine it wasn’t occupied by Germans, and the order to bomb it was withdrawn. Go, Allies!