Sunday, May 31, 2009

STI: French city of kings

May 31, 2009

French city of kings

Fontainebleau, a quaint suburban hub minutes from bustling Paris, was a favourite haunt of royals

By Deepika Shetty 




Nadir Ali Zafar

Age: 30

Occupation: MBA student

Length of stay: Six months


Fontainebleau is a small city in the middle of a forest. Located about 30 minutes by train from Paris, it is renowned for the large and scenic forest of Fontainebleau, which holds some of the best rock-climbing sites in the world.


Fonty, as it is affectionately called, is also home to the majestic Chateau de Fontainebleau, which once belonged to the kings of France, and is now the site of Insead, one of the world's elite business schools.


Mr Nadir Ali Zafar says it was his passion for travelling and studying that brought him to Insead. 'I decided to pursue an MBA and to do it in Europe to learn more about this part of the world. Also, Europe has a lot to offer, culturally and historically,' says the 30-year-old who was among the pioneer batch of students at the Singapore Management University.




The best way to get around the place is...


On foot. Fontainebleau is so small that you will not get tired walking the length of its main shopping district on Rue Grande. Instead of the huge malls in Singapore, expect to find little boutique shops and trendy cafes with alfresco seating. The atmosphere is very relaxed.


The best way to explore the place is by...


Asking people on the streets what is happening. Also, pay a visit to the Office De Tourisme Du Pays De Fontainebleau (4 Rue Royale, tel: +33-160-74-9999, They have Englishspeaking guides who are very helpful.


The best time to visit the place is....


Certainly not in winter, unless you love the numbing cold, white trees and grey skies. Best months to visit are from July to August when the temperature hovers between 15 and 25 deg C.


Which places really excite you?


The Chateau de Fontainebleau is really beautiful. It is one of the largest French royal chateaus and was home to many French monarchs. It was built in the early 16th century. Napoleon helped make the chateau the place that visitors see today. The building is arranged around a series of sprawling lush courtyards and a scenic pond complete with graceful swans. It is inspiring and breathtaking.


Must one know the language to get around?


Although many people have a basic understanding of English, do not expect them to speak it. French is very necessary to get around. Get a basic phrasebook, if you need one.




Where does one start exploring the city?


The Chateau de Fontainebleau is to Fonty what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. So start there, then stroll over to the restaurants and shops on Rue Grande nearby.


History buffs must visit the Musee Napoleonien, which is also called the Museum of Military History of Fountainebleau (88 Rue Saint Honore, tel: +33-164-74-6489. Open Tuesdays to Saturdays from 2pm to 5.30pm).


One cannot leave without visiting...


It would have to be Insead. The campus itself is not an architectural marvel, but visitors will feel the buzz of energy at one of the world's top business schools. Insead is on Boulevard Du Constance.


Another place that deserves mention is the famed Fontainebleau forest.


It is the former hunting grounds of the kings and is home to numerous animals including boar and deer. For a guided tour on the forest, contact the Forest Tourist Office at the Faisanderie (tel: +33-164-22-7259). This is open only on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays from 10am to 1pm and 2 to 6pm.




Any key festivals to work into one's travel plans?


As the tourist guide book of Fontainebleau says, the city itself is one permanent event. It is a favourite weekend getaway for Parisians. There is a lot that one can do walking through the town centre and exploring the many little shops that offer a truly French experience.




The best bargains and richest variety of products are at...


The Place du Marche, or Market Place, where you can find French produce like wine and cheese, vegetables and meat from all over, sold at reasonable prices. It is open on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday mornings at the open carpark just behind the church in town.




Do not leave without trying...


Authentic French cuisine. There are two restaurants I highly recommend for this. The first is Cote Sud (1 Rue Montebello, tel: +33-164-22- 0033), a fine-diner. Its fish dishes are a must-try. A meal for two would cost around &euro60 (S$121).


Another recommendation is Le Caveau Des Ducs (21 Rue Ferrare, tel: +33-164-22-0505). This has more traditional French cuisine and is more expensive. Order the foie gras. A meal for two would cost around &euro70.


Also try Brussel's Bar (47 Rue Grande, tel: +33-164-22-2127). As its name suggests, Belgian food, such as mussels, is its speciality. Expect to pay &euro30 for a meal for two.


Then there is Houston (4 Rue de La Corne, tel: +33-164-22-0020, Do not be fooled by its name. It actually specialises in Mexican food, such as chimichangas and fajitas. A meal for two costs around &euro50.


Close to Houston is a popular student hangout called Pizza Mimi (17 Rue Trois Maillets, tel +33-164-22-7077). There is a wide selection of pizzas here at affordable prices and the staff are friendly. A meal for two costs &euro30.


For those with a sweet tooth, I recommend my favourite pastry shop, Frederic Cassel (21 Rue Des Sablons, This place has the best pastries, from rich chocolate creations to colourful macarons to fresh strawberry tarts.


I have also discovered cheese. There are many cheese shops where you can find the soft creamy Le Fontainebleau variety. But La ferme des Sablons (19 Rue Des Sablons, tel: +33-164-22-6725) is said to be one of the best cheese shops in France.




What is the coolest place to chill out?


Fontainebleau does not have any discotheques. Instead, the hip and happening people of Fontainebleau chill out at Le Shaker, a trendy bar (15 Rue Denecourt, tel: +33-164-72-8035). A few doors down is Le Diam's, a bar with karaoke facilities. (7 Rue Denecourt, tel: +33-164-22-8353,


And since this is France after all, the must-try drink has to be wine. Bars here have a selection of wines from all over the country. Prices vary greatly depending on the type of wine you pick.




What is there to explore?


Fontainebleau is surrounded by many charming towns and villages. One of them, Babizon, has inspired many painters past and present.


You can see landscapes of this quaint village in some of Van Gogh's paintings. Along the main street leading directly to the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau, you will find the museums of the Barbizon School, art galleries and artists' studios.

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