Where royalty once hunted in France, green forests welcome everyone

France's Château de Fontainebleau is generally considered to be inseparable from its grandeur. But when I visit, I usually don't visit the castle at all. Indeed, his 1,500-room Château de Fontainebleau, home to French kings and emperors for eight centuries, may seem like the most eye-catching attraction in the region, 37 miles south of Paris. But what makes me want to visit again and again is the surrounding forest.

The 50,000-acre Fontainebleau Forest was once prized as a hunting ground for royalty. It is now France's second largest national forest and part of the Fontainebleau-Gatinet UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Thanks to its mixed forest, wetland and dryland terrain and the three massifs of Fontainebleau, Les Trois-Pignons and La Commanderie, 15 million people annually enjoy activities such as bouldering, trail running and forest bathing. Many tourists are visiting.

“There are human traces and carvings that date back tens of thousands of years,” says archaeologist Sophie David, Foret des Exceptions project manager at the National Forestry Office (ONF). “While its history is exceptional, so are its 12,000 species of flora and fauna, making it one of the most biodiverse places in Europe.”

I first encountered this forest 17 years ago when I met my then-boyfriend, now-husband, Cedric, an avid climber, and since then I've spent years researching to better understand this legendary place that the French call simply “Blue.”

My first stop was Les Trois Pignons, on the western edge of the forest and one of the most attractive places for beginners. I expected towering old trees, moss and lichen-covered forests, and a palpable mystical atmosphere. I did not expect the amazing geological diversity that awaited me.

From the car park at Roche aux Sabots, Cedric and I walked for about 20 minutes along a footpath covered in sand, fallen leaves, and pine needles to arrive at Les Sables du Cru du Chien (literally, the dog's ass sand). It's sand that's perfect for the Mediterranean. Surrounded by red pine and birch trees, this vast site is dotted with sandstone boulders of various shapes, sizes, and difficulty levels, perfect for climbing or hiking. As Cedric pointed out, the most iconic was Bilboquet. Resembling a cup-and-ball toy, this rock stood alone in the middle of a sandy clearing and looked as if it had sprouted by magic. Curious visitors were snapping photos and picnicking around it, as they had done on any other day of our visit.

This area's environment, like the rest of the forest, is the result of a unique geological history. More than 30 million years ago, the sea covered the area that is now forested. When the waters receded, they left behind sand dunes and sandstone rock formations. This, naturally, triggered a large-scale sandstone quarrying business that began in the Middle Ages. In the 19th century, this material was used to build the Château's iconic horseshoe staircase, and was also transported along the Seine to lay the cobblestones of Paris.

“The sandstone is what makes this forest such a mysterious place,” says Lucien Martinez, an elite mountaineer and deputy editor-in-chief of the French rock climbing magazine Grimper. .

Cormac O'Keeffe, a 50-year-old Australian who has lived in France and worked as an educator since 2004, was also fascinated by the forest's picturesque trees and thousands of species of mushrooms.

“I had never seen such a gradation of green,” he said. “Fontainebleau's sometimes dense canopy provides dark, lush green groves and soft light.”

In the early 1830s, the woodland landscape and animal-shaped rocks began to attract artists who settled in the nearby village of Barbizon. Among them were painters such as Camille Corot, Jean-François Millet, and Théodore Rousseau. In plein air painting, they broke with the French Royal Academy tradition that nature is intended to serve as a background but not the subject of the work. Their artistry later became known as the Barbizon school.

At the same time, Claude-François Denecourt, a veteran of Napoleon's army who was said to have been miraculously cured of depression by walks through the forest, took it upon himself to promote Fontainebleau to the public not as a wild and threatening place, but as one of natural attractions for adventure and recreation.

In 1842, he laid out the world's first marked trail called Les Sentiers Bleus., It was named after the blue patterns he painted on trees and rocks. Guidebooks, fountains, caves, and even guided tours were created for him, and he attracted much attention. Wealthy people discovered the Forest of Denecourt, but it wasn't until the arrival of the railway to the nearby town of Avon in 1849 that his concept of nature tourism became truly viable. Today, its proximity to Paris, less than an hour by train, remains one of the forest's greatest attractions.

However, soon after Denecourt tried to open the forest to tourism, a fight to protect it from overexploitation began. Rousseau and other artists and intellectuals led campaigns to preserve the forests as they knew them. It worked. Napoleon III issued a decree in 1861, making Fontainebleau the world's first natural reserve, 11 years before Yellowstone in the American West was designated a national park.

This act protected over 3,954 acres from cultivation, of which approximately 2,471 acres were specifically dedicated to artists' work. Today, these protected areas, which make up about 10 percent of the total length of the forest (over 372 miles), are maintained by the ONF and the nonprofit Friends of Fontainebleau Forest and welcome forest bathers, hikers, rock climbers, cyclists, trail runners, mountaineers, bikers, horseback riders, and city dwellers in need of fresh air.

Fontainebleau is a pilgrimage destination for rock climbers, who engage in short, intense climbs over rock without the use of ropes or harnesses. From the 19th century to his 20th century, local mountaineers trained on forest rocks and other areas in preparation for their climbs, gradually developing into modern bouldering.

Currently, Boulder receives the majority of the region's 15 million annual tourists, according to ONF.

Unfortunately, the signs of this forest's popularity can be seen everywhere in the most visited places.

Eroded trails, trash, and unauthorized camping are now common problems. Also, excess climbing chalk left on rocks can change the face of the rock over time. In recent years, some of the rocks have become inaccessible due to soil and sandstone erosion and fragile vegetation.

When we last visited, the parking lot was full of vans and campers at all hours of the day and night. Groups of picnickers and hikers were blasting loud music and using portable camp stoves, while others were improperly disposing of their waste. That brings with it a continuing risk of forest fires, with firefighters saying that of the dozens that occur each year, nine out of 10 are due to human negligence.

The solution is not as simple as adding more forest rangers. Public forest management in France differs from general forest management in the United States, whose sole mandate is environmental monitoring and public acceptance. What is needed is greater awareness of the impact visitors have on forests, regardless of the activities they visit.

“A family having a picnic, clearing up their litter and walking on a regular path obviously has a different impact than, say, a mountain biker slipping all over the place, or a climber with chalk and crash pads,” ONF's David says. “But the numbers of people visiting the same place also matter. We know that 75% of visitors stay within 500 metres of a car park, which means a recurring burden.”

She also expects interest to increase during the 2024 Paris Olympics and Paralympics, as rock climbing becomes an official competition and becomes a more mainstream sport. In preparation for additional visitors, ONF has updated its communication materials, posted English translations on its website, and installed signs in forest parking lots advising on proper management of the park.

“What we're seeing now is that many city dwellers who have completely lost their connection to nature are coming to the forest to go to the climbing gym,” David said. Ta. “They turn up the speakers and want to climb all the time. They come to try their hand at sports, but they forget that they are guests in this natural space.”

Further protection for forests may be achieved in the near future. The French Ministry of Culture has supported a bid to add the Fontainebleau Forest, as an extension of the Chateau de Fontainebleau and its park, to UNESCO's World Heritage List. The forest was added to the World Heritage Tentative List in 2020, an important step that could lead to additional funding from the French government..

“The problem of overtourism isn't just our problem today,” David says. “If we don't do something, what does the future hold for the next generation of this forest?”

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