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France Travel: Weekend Picnic in Fontainebleau Forest

Fontainebleau forest is so much a part of the French imagination, it’s so full of history, legend and weirdness. Wadering off the path and heading up one of the house-sized granite formations that rise up from the pine-needle floor of the Fontainebleau forest, I came face-to-face with two French painters who had made the local scenery internationally famous with their lush canvases, Théodore Rousseau and Jean-François Millet. The two groundbreaking painters, both from the pre-Impressionist artist colony based in the local village of Barbizon, were silhouetted in a sculptured relief imbedded on the side of the Henry Moore-like rock protrusion.

It was yet another historical monument one might bump into in this vast forest.

A few miles south along an isolated intersection, my companions and I had come across a tall stone cross commemorating where, in 1804, Napoleon encountered Pope Pius VII, on his way to Paris to bless Napoleon’s coronation as emperor of France — this, of course, before he had Pius imprisoned in luxurious apartments in the Château de Fontainebleau.

Farther up the lane we had driven around a soaring obelisk on a leafy roundabout, a memorial to Marie Antoinette who, judging from the sumptuous and tasteful rooms she had designed for herself in the chateau, thrived here when the royal court moved in during the autumn hunting season. Along another secluded roundabout near the A6 highway to Paris, we came across a more modern sight: a haggard-looking prostitute standing by her cramped red Fiat, where she patiently waited for clients.

“Fontainebleau is so much a part of the French imagination,” one of my companions, Nathalie Degans, who used to live in the area, commented. “It’s so full of history, legend and weirdness.”

A swath of woodlands three times the size of Manhattan (65 square miles versus 23 square miles) the forest of Fontainebleau, with its mysterious rock formations and gorges, has for at least eight centuries held a special place in French culture and history. Every Sunday hordes of Parisians hop into their cars or take the 40-minute commuter train out here to frolic along the ruler-straight pathways that seem to go forever through the trees.

Here, one seems to sense ghosts amid the woods where generations of French royalty had their favorite hunting grounds and where some of Napoleon’s most intimate dramas were played out. It was also here that the bucolic canvases of the Barbizon School, so vital in shifting French urban artistic sensibilities to a naturalism that found its ultimate flowering in Impressionism — were painted, and where big thinkers like the Eastern mystic G. I. Gurdjieff and the artist Jean Cocteau held court away from the bustle of Paris.

Almost half a century after his death in 1963, Cocteau is still holding court in the tiny 12th-century stone chapel, St. Blaise des Simples, near his former home in the medieval market village of Milly-la-Forêt. During our visit a few months ago, a steady cluster of visitors paused to contemplate Cocteau’s strikingly modern, Picasso-like murals of the crucifixion and resurrection surrounded by local medicinal herbs — according to tradition, St. Blaise was a doctor. Cocteau is buried in the center of the chapel beneath an inscription carved in his distinctive handwriting: “Je reste avec vous” — I remain with you.

A 20-minute drive through the woods brought us to the famous artists’ village of Barbizon. It’s still an outstandingly picturesque spot. The ancient stone houses where Millet, Rousseau and their crowd use to drink, gossip and paint are now art galleries, cafes and inns shaded by giant elms and pines. During the weekends, Barbizon’s narrow country lanes can get pretty crowded with Parisians shopping, taking in the atmosphere, and using the village as a jumping off point for walks in the woods.

All paths and roads seem to point in the direction of the Château de Fontainebleau, at the edge of its namesake town right in the center of the vast forest. The chateau is a 15-minute walk from the train station, where the hourly commuter train comes in from Gare de Lyon in Paris. Strolling along the pleasant Rue Grande, where once swells and armies paraded when the royal court was in residence, we came across families from Paris frolicking in the immaculate lawns and symmetrical gardens surrounding the chateau like gift wrapping.

The chateau itself, with its intimate rooms, eccentric and let’s-build-a bigger-wing-than-the-last-guy’s sprawl, is the antidote to all the straightjacketed pomp and symmetry of Versailles. We could almost sense the ancients royals letting down their wigs in these salons and hallways, richly decorated in hunting motifs and maps of the surrounding forest.

The playfulness continues to this day. Up the Rue Royale the sculptural buildings of Insead, one of Europe’s top business schools, curve into the forest. While wandering the grounds, I randomly caught a Frisbee thrown by someone playing Frisbee football. Soon our group found itself joining an affable gang of international M.B.A. students in a frenzied game amid the trees, another reminder that this last wilderness before Paris is not mired in its rich history, but continues on a pace as vibrant as a weekend picnic.

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