It was just after our picnic lunch on the Carrefour de Denecourt when Mrs. Easy Hiker started to sing the praises of hiking in the Ile de France, thanking the Hiking Gods for making all local trails so conveniently flat. She hadn’t quite finished her sentence when we went on a steep rise and found ourselves climbing up and down the rocks of Fontainebleau for the rest of the day.
Forest Fairies in the Rocks of Fointainebleau
And it was just after I had thought to myself: if I were caught in a “Groundhog Hike” and had to pick a trail to walk over and over for the rest of my life, this would surely be the one, that we lost our way in the maze of intersecting loops of Fontainebleau (ordinary maps are useless once you are inside one of the rocky massifs) so badly that it took two good fairies of the forest to guide us out.
Still, my prevailing memory of the Fontainebleau hike is, and will forever be, one of dramatically scattered boulders, enchanted lakes, slopes with colourful patches of heather and of passages between stones so tight that I certainly was glad having left the second croissant on the breakfast table that morning.
First, however, a word about the local castle. Most tourists who make the trip to Fontainebleau (38 minutes by fast train from Gare de Lyon, € 16.80 pp round-trip in July 2012), after all, come here exclusively for that. If you want to see the castle, you are best advised to do so before you start on the trail.
Take bus no. 1 from the station, but watch out: it may say “Chateau” on top of the bus, but the castle is not the final stop, and you can’t even see the place clearly from the window because it is largely obscured by trees. It is, however, located in the centre of Fontainebleau town, so once life gets busy outside, watch out or ask one of your fellow passengers. (The bus stops in front of the rear entrance, one stop after the local church).
After your visit, take the same bus back to Fontainebleau station and walk up the stairway on your right (with the station in your back). Upstairs, cross the road into Route Gaston Bonnier and continue (with the railway line on your right hand side) for a while, turning left into the forest to follow the red-and-white balisage, 20 metres or so after passing an underpass on your right.
Walk straight into the forest for about 30 minutes up to the complex Carrefour de Denecourt, an intersection of semi-asphalted forest roads and hiking trails. Look on your right hand side (”two o’clock” on the directional dial) for a path which is highlighted by two arrows, one pink and one blue.
This path will guide you up the hill to the Tour Denecourt, a tower that looks as if it had once been part of a medieval fortress or some such like. As a matter fact, however, there was no tower here at all until 1851, and the present tower was erected in the 1880s after its predecessor was destroyed by – of all things – an earthquake. Several circular trails around the area start from here – just walk around the tower, and you will find the various trailheads – some of which will eventually join other trails a little further down the road.
The entire network of hiking trails in the Foret Domaniale de Fontainebleau, the old hunting grounds of the castle and (with 25,000 hectares) one of the largest contiguous forest areas in all of Western Europe, comprises 19 trails. Some of these trails start further to the west, near Barbizon, some start in the south of Fontainebleau castle, but in this area, to the north of the town, there are four such trails, numbered 1, 2, 3 and 4.
The entire network is called the Sentiers Denecourt and named after Claude-Francois Denecourt who was almost certainly not the first to discover the amazing beauty of this area but the first to write a book about it. Denecourt, born in 1788, was a career soldier and a veteran of several Napoleonic campaigns who remained faithful to his Bonapartist beliefs in a period of restoration and was therefore sent into “exile” from a more central Parisian position. It was there in Fontainebleau where he went hiking for the first time in his life at the age of 44. There cannot also have been many authors around who were – like Denecourt – functionally illiterate until they reached their early 20s.)
We took Sentier no. 2, which merges into no. 3 after 15 minutes, all the way to the Rocher Cassepot. The fun starts immediately and is only briefly interrupted for about 10 minutes on either side of the busy D116 road that you will need to cross.
The Rocher Cassepot is a large massif rather than a single rock, so there is plenty to explore, and blue markers before and after every twist and turn ensure you can concentrate on enjoying yourself rather than having to focus on orientation.
Overall, we agreed that this was the greatest of all the hiking trips we ever undertook in the Ile de France and that it matched up rather well with the best hikes we have ever had, anywhere, anyplace.
On our way back, however, we got lost, just 30 minutes away from the Tour Denecourt, and we were half way through Sentier no. 3 again before we realized that, rather than walking back to Denecourt Tower, we were running around in circles along the rocks in Fontainebleau. A middle-aged French couple, experienced Fontainebleau hikers, showed us a way out of the maze, but we came out of the forest on the other side, nowhere near the Tour or the train station, and we had to take a long detour.
So if ever we were to come back to tackle one of the other Fontainebleau routes, we would definitely trace back our way immediately at the first sign that something is not quite right (as soon as we failed to spot the blue trail markers, for example).
As it was, we were back in Paris at 7:30 p.m. Had we not lost our way among the rocks of Fontainebleau, we would have been home at least two hours before that. And that although we started our hike after mid-day, having visited the castle beforehand.
Another proof that cultural exploits and the Small Outdoors go very well together, if only there is a will.