French villages Fontainebleau and Moret-Sur-Loing are a traveller's paradise

Jul 14, 2013, 06:40 IST | Dhiman Chattopadhyay

A 700-year-old palace that has hosted 34 emperors over the years. A magical forest with mushrooms ready to be plucked. And a quaint bridge across a lazy river where famous artists spent many a month painting. Just an hour from noisy Paris, the villages of Fontainebleau and Moret-Sur-Loing are rich with French culture and history, finds DHIMAN CHATTOPADHYAY

The journey began on a strange note. At the end of a 15-day holiday that took us to four countries of Europe -- some icy cold, some simply wet -- we found ourselves at the Victoria Terminus in London, on a bus which we thought was taking us to Dover to take the night ferry to Calais and on to Paris. We were keen to save money and had asked a cousin to book us the “cheapest tickets”.

The Chateau of Fontainebleau looks majestic from across one of the lakes surrounding it. Pics/Dhiman Chattopadhyay

Our cousin, with all noble intentions, had indeed booked us the cheapest ride -- a bus that went straight inside the hold of the ship all the way across the Channel. We woke up to realise the road signs were now in French and we had crossed the channel all right, but instead of being on the ship’s deck, we were in her tummy.

An artists’s impression of the Fontainebleau forest

Soon, we reached Paris, one of the most romantic cities in the world. But we had been here earlier and this time our destination was different -- a slice of rural France just an hour from the capital, where mighty kings and impoverished artists rubbed shoulders.

An old bridge in Moret

After a 50-minute train ride from the Gare De Lyon station in Paris, we disembarked in Moret-Sur- Loing, a quaint village on the banks of the Loing River, where another cousin, (good to have many cousins, no?) owned a riverside bungalow.

A villa in the banks of the river Loing in Moret

With a little over 4,000 residents, this medieval village on the edge of the famous forest of Fontainebleau is rich in culture and heritage. Although it has long been a favourite weekend retreat for Parisians, not too many foreign tourists come calling here, thankfully. If it looks like a scene out of an Impressionist painting, it’s probably because it is one! The noted artist Alfred Sisley spent the latter days of his life here, immortalising for all time its narrow streets, quaint church, bridge, watermills.

On our first day here, after a brunch on the verandah of the house (which oversaw the river), we walked down to the old town through the historic Porte de Samois gate, built sometime in the 12th century. Here, a few hundred metres down the road is a small French villa, which had a special visitor one night in 1815 -- a man called Napoleon Bonaparte, who spent a few days here after a victorious campaign. We did the usual touristy stuff and smiled for the camera.

There are no malls in Moret. Nor did we see any souvenir shops. Yet Moret looked pretty enough to take back home. Large paintings done by the Impressionist master Alfred Sisley, hung on walls near ancient bridges that creaked under our collective weight. The small thatched-roof homes looked straight out of a picture postcard. And to sit on a lawn on the banks of the river and enjoy a barbeque as ducks quacked and boats went by. This is what life was meant to be. Sigh!

We finally walked into one of the few restaurants in town, where a friendly matron offered us a grand menu of soup of the day, a choice of breads, salad and steak. But why would you need more to choose from when the scenery around you was enough to forget all about food.

Next morning, we planned a full day at the neighbouring town of Fontainebleau. Armed with a picnic basket, we climbed onto the car and headed 10 km south to Fontainebleau, once a favourite weekend retreat for successive French monarchs and now best known as the home of the prestigious B-School INSEAD.

Our first stop, the awe-inspiring Chateau Fontainebleau, a palace with gardens and lakes where kings from Louis VI (1081–1137) to Napoleon, all spend days and weeks at a time.

We arrived in Fontainebleau at around lunchtime, and walked around the Chateau, amazed at how opulent the lifestyle of the French royalty must have been. The gardens (we were told they were the largest in France, even bigger than those at the Place of Versailles) had hundreds of flowers and sloped down to different lakes. Inside, the chateau crystal chandeliers the size of a bedroom in Mumbai, hung from the ceilings as French monarchs, both evil and noble stared back at us from the walls.

After lunch we spent some time admiring the surroundings and reading up on the place (unlike in India, every statue, painting, piece of curio and even gardens had plaques next to them, explaining the significance of different objects). And then -- on the spur of the moment -- we went mushroom gathering at the forest of Fontainebleau. Deer and fox abound here as do a wide variety of birds but we were out hunting for something more dangerous -- wild mushrooms that were not poisonous. What fun! We climbed trees, scaled large rocks and spotted half-a-dozen deer before finally picking up some mushrooms that seemed harmless.

Back home, on our last night here, we dined out on the garden porch as boats passed within handshaking distance, the candles inside flickering in the wind. Suddenly on our left, something rustled. Then a pair of eyes appeared briefly and vanished again. And then, almost like a fairytale book, out came a deer, seemingly lost and searching for his parents. It quickly darted back into the bushes, before we had a chance to grab the camera. But who needs a camera when you have such memories to live with.

Paris by moonlight can go take a hike. Nothing compares to this. 

Fast facts
>> Moret-Sur-Loing is best known as the place where Impressionist Alfred Sisley spent most of his life, painting landscapes.
>> The forest of Fontainebleau connects this quaint village with the bigger town of Fontainebleau
>> The Chateau of Fontainebleau, which looks similar to the legendary Versailles Palace, was the venue of several historic treaties over centuries and home to 24 royals.
>> Fontainebleau has good accommodation with the presence of star hotels such as Novotel and Ibis (R 4,000-7,000 per night) as well as budget hotels.
>> Buses and taxis leave every hour for both destination from different parts of Paris. These day trips are very popular too.

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