Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Fontainebleau - a fabulous slice of French life

It's maybe not as well known as it's more famous cousin Versailles, which lies to the south-west of Paris, but Fontainebleau is definitely a town worth more than a casual visit.

Fontainebleau rue Grande

And it has probably been given an extra boost - in terms of tourism here in France - by being featured in this week's edition of one of the country's leading news magazines.

L'Express sells around half a million copies each week, and is a pretty good read, bringing anyone who's interested, bang up to date with what's happening here in France.

Of course it has a political bias, but that can be balanced by maybe reading one of its competitors such as Marianne or Nouvel Observateur.

Anyway I have a subscription and receive my copy every weekend.

Imagine then my combined horror and surprised delight as this week's edition popped through my door, and there emblazoned on the front was a banner headline "Fontainebleau and its surroundings" with the promise to reveal 60 top names and addresses of "must sees" and "have-to-go tos" in the town itself and the neighbouring villages.

One of those neighbouring villages is the one in which I live, and about which I wrote here a couple of weeks ago.

Without waxing too lyrical, it's a great place. It's home to around 1,500 people, sits on the edge of one of the largest forests surrounding Paris and is chocolate-box pretty while retaining a real soul.

Any thoughts I might have had when I first moved here a year ago that it was one of those "best kept secrets" we all like to look for, were quickly dispelled when I realised that it attracted bus loads of Japanese tourists - come rain or shine - who visit to pay homage to a hotel in which Emperor Hirohito once stayed.

Add to that the fact that it also has a school of painting named after it (one of its most famous sons was Jean-François Millet), has numerous artists' ateliers, restaurants and hotels and a calendar jam-packed with cultural events, then it's no surprise perhaps that it pretty much acts as a magnet for tourists all year round.

Still it was a bit of a shock to see the face of the local butcher staring back at me from the cover of L'Express, with the recommendation to all readers within driving distance that this was the place to buy some of the juiciest and most tender cuts.

I mean it's not as though I disagree - far from it. It's just that I feel a little protective towards a man I've come to know and like over the past year. He's MY butcher and I don't want anyone else muscling in.

Philippe Auguin. is the guy from whom I buy some of the best meat available - all of which is organic, top quality and simply delicious. So much for my "find". Now the rest of the world (or at least those who read L'Express) are likely to make a beeline for the village to stock up

Mind you, his popularity and great reputation are more than fully deserved, and it's hard to begrudge him his new found notoriety. He's the kind of fellow who is very much the heart of the village, always has a smile for his customers and makes the chore of shopping a pleasure, by offering a personal and personable alternative to the anonymity of the "Grand Surfaces" superstores.

Philippe loves his job, works a long day and takes the shortest of holidays simply because as he told me recently he "loves being back home and at the centre of what's happening."

Somewhere in that is a lesson for all of us perhaps.

His is not the only "address" featured in L"Express. The special pull-out lists 60 of them, all in villages surrounding the main town of Fontainebleau - just over 50 kilometres south east of the French capital.

For sure It's less well-known that Versailles but that doesn't make it any less worth a trip out to the "sticks".

By no stretch of the imagination is it poorer architecturally, culturally or in terms of setting.

Château de Fontainebleau (from Wikipedia, Carolus)

It too has its own chateau, which although less ornate that the one in Versailles is actually older. With its trademark horseshoe staircase, the château de Fontainebleau was the largest one built be François 1 in the 16 century.

For French history buffs, François 1 was prone to building chateaux all over the shop, leaving them empty and instead just moving the royal court (complete with furniture) around when he fancied a change of scenery.

For those planning a visit, the opening hours are a bit haphazard - depending on the time of the year - and it constantly seems to be undergoing renovations of one sort or another, but it's definitely a must see.

Fontainebleau also boasts one of Europe's premier business schools, INSEAD, and during the 1950s and 60s was home to Nato's HQ allied forces central Europe - until that is the former French president, Charles de Gaulle, took the country out of the organisation.

What really sets it apart though from many other towns in or around the French capital is its forest.

It's enormous - more than 250km2 and hugely popular with Parisians looking for a weekend break in the countryside while not wanting to face the dubious delights of spending huge chunks of Friday and Sunday evenings sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

At the moment of course there are guided crack-of-dawn tours to help those that are interested in identifying and collecting edible mushrooms. There are huge boulders for rock climbers to tackle, cycling pistes for the lycra-clad cross-country enthusiasts, bridle paths and a criss-crossing network of footpaths for the serious or even more humble rambler.

Throw in the enormous variety of fauna and flora, the stags currently roaring their night time rut and wild boar rampaging through the place, and you have an ideal cocktail of preserved nature just a 40-minute train journey from Paris.

The townsfolk go by the delightful name of Bellifontains or Bellifontaines and are well used to foreigners dawdling around the centre of town with maps in hand and phrase books at the ready.

While their English might not be the most robust, they're a pretty friendly bunch with none of the infamous arrogance for which the French, and in particular those living in the capital are often accused.

Fontainebleau café

And if all you want to do is sit outside a brasserie or café and watch the world go by or see what a "proper" French market is all about (three times a week) it's all here (and more) in living technicolour.

So there you go. L'Express has done its bit at telling the rest of France a little more about Fontainebleau, and now I've chipped in giving readers here a taste of what they can look forward to.

Just promise though that you won't all be descending on Philippe and depriving me of the joy of bagging the best cuts for myself.

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