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The Pleasures of France's No. 2 Palace

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The Pleasures of France's No. 2 Palace

Because of its enormous scale and spectacular geometric gardens, the 700-room Chateau of Versailles is the most prominent royal palace in France. The estate attracts 3 million annual visitors. On any given day the grounds are jam-packed with tourists.

The Chateau of Fontainebleau, by comparison, is the largest of French royal palaces. And yet it draws a mere 300,000 visitors each year. According to Napoleon Bonaparte, Fontainebleau is a ``true home of kings, the house of the centuries.'' The emperor's endorsement, as well as the smaller crowds, provided me with enough of an incentive to visit.

Located in the village of Fontainebleau (population 16,000) about 40 miles southeast of Paris, the palace boasts 1,536 rooms -- more than double the number at Versailles. As is the case with Versailles, Fontainebleau is a labyrinth of throne rooms and ballrooms, chapels and galleries, gilded boudoirs and silk-lined salons. Erected on the site of a 12th-century castle and expanded over the centuries by a succession of royal tenants, Fontainebleau embodies 900 years of French history.

Inside the palace, I marveled at an assortment of elaborately furnished (if not pompously ornate) state apartments and Renaissance rooms. Among the most memorable is Diana's Gallery. Built by Henri IV for his queen, the 260- foot-long gilded corridor contains 16,000 volumes from Napoleon's library. The narrow concave ceiling is adorned with frescos commemorating Henri's beloved. The Throne Room was originally the king's bedroom, but Napoleon had it converted to a ceremonial chamber in 1808. The domed ceiling, from which hangs a crystal chandelier, is etched in gold, as is the throne, crown and walls.

The Empress' Bedchamber is ornate beyond words, with the walls covered in brocaded silk. A queen-size bed lies beneath a 25-foot-high silk canopy and is surrounded by a golden railing. The bed was made for Marie Antoinette. She never got the chance to sleep in it because the court didn't return to Fontainebleau before the revolution. The Francois I Gallery is a vivid example of Renaissance art. The gallery was constructed in 1528 to allow passage between the Royal Apartments and the Chapel of the Covenant (since replaced by Trinity Chapel). The walls are covered in embroidered walnut wainscoting that bears Francois' emblematic initials. Iron chandeliers dangle from a walnut- paneled ceiling.

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