Visits to a pair of grand châteaux bracketed our 2012 European excursion. We recovered from our arrival jet lag with a stop an hour to the south of Paris at Fontainebleau. On our return a month and a half later our last stop was in Compiègne, an hour to the north of Paris. Both Fontainebleau and Compiègne feature grand chateaux.
Along with Versailles, the palaces at Compiègne and Fontainebleau were wrested from the French monarchy during the French Revolution. Several years after the start of the Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte was using both Fontainebleau and Compiègne as residences. It seems that Versailles, with its strong link to the Bourbon monarchy, was not politically viable as an imperial home.
With Napoleon’s rise the Revolution effectively replaced the French monarchy, the Ancien Régime, with an empire. The chateaux were no longer the domain of a monarch. They were now imperial property. For the French, Napoleon’s ascent with his many reforms was a step in the right direction. For the rest of Europe, Napoleon’s climb to power signaled the beginning of a new period of war that resulted in the death of 6.5 million people.
Inside, the Palace of Fontainebleau and Château de Compiègne have a similar layout. Indeed, many grand European palaces have a comparable arrangement. Elaborately decorated rooms are linked together in a chain one after another. There is no large central hallway connecting the rooms. Passing to the inner chambers requires visitors to walk through several rooms. It’s a floor plan that worked in the age of Kings and Emperors with their teams of servants. It is not particularly practical for modern life.
Outside of Château de Compiègne is a large planned garden. Beds of plants, well maintained lawns, and meandering paths fill the palace’s backyard. Beyond the landscaping is the Forest of Compiègne, a vast expanse of open space. Today the lands serve as a park area for the town’s residents. It is a popular place to walk a dog or to go for a jog.
Away from the forest and adjacent to the château is the comfortable town of Compiègne. The town’s church, L’Eglise Saint-Jacques de Compiègne, is included in the Les Chemins de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle en France (The Way of Saint James in France) UNESCO World Heritage listing. It is another historic stop on the way to Santiago de Compostela.
Compiègne was the location for another iconic element of our journey, a French lunch. We’d soon miss lunch salads featuring such dishes as confit de gésiers, duck gizzards cooked in duck fat, and the accompanying demi pichet of an acceptable rosé from the south. UNESCO also believes that the gastronomic meals of the French are worthy of note. They’ve added French meals to the Intangible Cultural Heritage list. The truth is we’re not sure why UNESCO needs such a listing. But we do know that we always miss the pleasures of the French lunch as soon as we leave France.