Tuesday, October 7, 2014


The past two days have been of legends awakened, things vaguely known brought into experience. Fontainebleau! The forest, the palace, that painting. The forest took us in and told us it was fall now: a loamy feel to the ground, that sweet smell of things starting to rot, carpets of faded ferns. We mapped out possible paths amongst the 27,000 acres, tried to figure out what was walkable whence and how far, and found ourselves within this extended fantasy scape of green and grey and brown, of tiny groups of walkers and bikers, of paths unfolding and turning and, throughout, and knowing there were hundreds and hundreds to see, coming upon agglomerations of boulders: massive and not so massive forms that seem to clear the space around them and turn the trees into frames.

About 150km of trails were marked out by one Claude-François Denecourt, a veteran of Napoleon's armies who, in his refuge (not quite exile) and retirement from the world shaped the forest, ancient hunting ground of François Ier and other kings of France, into a Sunday in the country. Today you take the Transilien train from Gare de Lyon (or, if there's construction like there was for us, you get rerouted to the RER D platform) and you can get out at Bois le Roi (a nostalgic name) or Fontainebleau-Avon (as we  did, thereby enjoying completely unexpectedly, a really quite fantastic meal at the Buffet de la Gare!). Walking on 19th-century trails is probably something that I can do in Indiana, but knowing Denecourt was a veteran, seeing the signs venerating his trails, laughing to realize that there were rond-points and trails radiating outwards like the streets do around Charles de Gaulle Étoile, it was rather wonderful to be aware of the presence of this French wanderer, to walk in such bucolic footsteps. It was Denecourt who named things in the forest: the trails, remarkable trees, dozens and dozens of boulders, crossroads, and fountains. Legend-maker, trail-blazaer.

 This now-famous formation, for example, has been dubbed the Boulder of Hercules. We had come because of our dear friends' passion for bouldering, a world unto itself of effort and triumph, and a true passion at Fontainebleau. It's been happening since the 19th-century (did Denecourt himself have a go? I think of all those Bretons on boulders in the old postcards), this kind of incredible strategic litheness of the climber onto the rock. You figure out where to put each hand and toe and you pull yourself along, writhing along the surface - it takes incredible strength and, depending on the surface of the rock you decide to take on, can take several tries. It's. Totally. Cool.

Here is the intrepid young climber of our company taking one of the sides of the Boulder of Hercules. Past boulderers leave thin arrows to show their solutions - none of them look possible or even logical to the eye. It's the body's logic that makes the decisions here - there's this thinking time, this sizing up, and then swift motions in momentum, as though you're planning a gymnastic routine the second before you're executing it, choreographing a dance seconds before performing it. It's quite beautiful and nerve-wracking to watch. Our kids scrambled up a possible way, with assistance and encouragement and glee.

There are few places you can go that are pilgrimages for sporty folk and for art history folk (that's probably completely untrue if I think about it) and Fontainebleau gives a great deal to art. There's the palace itself and its spectacular grounds (and some day I will see the salamander on the fireplace of François Ier), and then of course the forest itself was an inspiration for countless artists (Renoir was there, there's an entire Barbizon school). Seeing a street named after Rosa Bonheur made me and Mac both so happy - I haven't figured out her association with Fontainebleau yet save that a monument to her was raised there (and then destroyed in 1942). But there she is.

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