It is summer and it is hot and life is simple. The day starts with a trip to the boulangerie. At midday, everything closes, except the cafes in the town square. Craggy men with lined faces play boules on the gravel, shaded by plane trees, while their grandchildren ride scooters and practice flirting. Days pass with walks in the woods, and the evenings with wine and dinner on the terrace. The shimmering world of Monet and Renoir is so close you can touch it.
This is “la France profunde," deep France, the very heart of the country. La France profunde is proudly local, un-globalized, un-Anglo, a world in which 24/7 refers to the number of locally produced cheeses and wines.
La France profunde is a wonderful concept but, as ever, reality gets in the way. It’s a long way from international airports, everyone speaks impossibly fast French and, if any of your party is aged from 12 to 21, there’s a risk of the profound boredom better known to the French as ennui. What is needed is France deep enough for the most ardent Francophile, but with the fleshpots of Paris and modern child-friendly attractions such as Disneyland Paris an easy day trip away.
Enter the Forest of Fontainebleau. This former royal hunting ground is a deeply charming region of honey-colored stone villages, rolling hills and shady forests, which lies less than 40 miles south of Paris.
The town of Fontainebleau, with its magnificent royal chateau, is the geographic and administrative center of the Forest. However the bijou village of Barbizon is perhaps its spiritual heart, thanks to a most Gallic combination of revolution and painting.
From the 12th century up until 1789 the Forest was the king’s playground, but after the fall of the monarchy it became public land, accessible to all. It took another generation and the rise of the Romantic movement before people began to view the Forest and its rough and ready villages as picturesque rather than backward, a change spearheaded by young Parisian artists. In the 1830s they were eager to break free of old-fashioned landscape painting, dominated by idealized scenes of the ancient world, and escape the city to paint in the open air.
The Forest of Fontainebleau was perfect for landscape painters. Its hills are small enough to climb while laden with an easel, but large enough to give fine vistas. The rocks and trees were complemented by a human world of laborers and woodsmen still untouched by the Industrial Revolution. Barbizon became their summer base, the place where French painting strode out of the studio and into the woods and fields.
The Barbizon School, as they became known, pointed the way for the Impressionists; in the 1860s Monet, Renoir and Cézanne all began their artistic journeys in the Forest. They weren’t the only ones. The railway arrived in Fontainebleau and with it middle-class Parisians and their money. Barbizon is no longer a cheap bohemian hang-out but an achingly chic village, the perfect place to browse art dealers and antique shops, followed by a classic French dish such as a Niçoise salad or a crêpe at one of the many excellent restaurants and cafes. The original painters’ inn has been restored and turned into a museum displaying works from the Barbizon School.
It’s easy to walk, bike or horse ride in the footsteps of the 19th-century painters thanks to the network of forest trails, known as the “Sentiers Denecourt," Claude-François Denecourt was a Napoleonic soldier whose republican ideals led to his exile in Fontainebleau during a period of the restoration of the monarchy. In 1839 he published the first ever walking guide to the Forest, and followed this by marking out Forest trails by painting arrows in blue, the color of the republican cause. Around 150kms of the current 500kms of walking trails are the original paths traced by Denecourt himself, still marked in blue. Shorter, family-friendly loops which take between an hour and three hours are marked in yellow.
One of the finest of forest paths starts at the edge of Barbizon and takes in the jumbled rocks of the Gorges d’Apremont. A few miles away lies the Gorges de Franchard, a pine-scented glade which exudes an almost prehistoric atmosphere. Another fabulous area is the Trois Pignons (Three Gables, i.e. small pointy hills). Here short walks from the parking lot take pleasant sandy tracks to the summits of the Pignons, which reveal views of forested ridges stretching for miles.
In good weather rock climbers flock to the boulders which can be found across the Forest, and for small children of all ages it’s a wonderful place to scramble about, hunting for pine cones and secret passages between the rocks. For those of a less active disposition, a blanket and a picnic are essential, but to do the Forest in real style take a hammock and sling it between the pines for the ultimate in arboreal comfort.
Close to the Trois Pignons is Milly-la-Forêt, a charming market town. Come on Thursdays for the market, which is held in the central square under the “halle," a 500-year-old wooden pavilion. This is the place to stock up on regional produce: Stalls feature an array of cheeses, including goat and sheep cheese, hams and smoked meats, and seasonal fruits such as red currants and apricots. As well as great wines, it’s possible to hunt down liqueurs that are rarely found outside of France, such as the sweet and floral Liqueur de Mirabelle, a plum brandy.
The square also features a herb shop (a speciality of Milly for centuries) and two patisseries which exemplify the best of French pastry-work. Less than five euros buys a fruit tart, some eclairs or a selection of sweet chouquettes, presented in a little box and tied with a bow. As with the rest of the Fontainebleau region, Milly is well-heeled and cosmopolitan, and very accommodating for non-French speakers.
Milly was the home of Jean Cocteau, the writer, artist and filmmaker, who lived here from 1947 in a restored chateau where he received guests including Picasso, Edith Piaf and Yul Brynner. The house serves as a museum to his life and work, featuring paintings, drawings and sculptures, as well as clips from his films. In high summer the walled garden is a realm of delight.
The main town of Fontainebleau itself is a step back into the urban world. It features the Château de Fontainebleau, from the 12th century onwards a home to dozens of monarchs, as well as a Pope, some Medicis and the Emperor Napoleon. A morning spent admiring its frescos and stucco is bound to work up an appetite, which the town can sate with everything from pizzerias and chicken rotisseries to Michelin-starred restaurants.
From Fontainebleau the train takes under an hour to reach the Gare de Lyon in central Paris, and day trips to the City of Light are an essential part of a holiday in the Forest. Other attractions are close by too: the palace of Versailles and Disneyland Paris are both an hour’s drive away, and the town of Chartes, with its famous Gothic cathedral, is just under two hours’ drive.
And of course there is another option at Fontainebleau railway station. Don’t stop here but carry on a few minutes, over the hill and down towards the Seine. Park by the river, walk into the meadows and unpack a picnic. Large traditional houses line the opposite bank. Little boats ply the water. There is cheese, sausage, cakes in a dainty box. It is hot, and tonight there will be wine on the terrace.