All European travelers go to Paris, yet few of them know of France more than they see of it through a car window, as they are whirled along the rails connecting the metropolis with Marseilles, Calais, or Geneva. In France the splendor of the capital conceals the milder radiance of the country. Paris may be compared, historically and politically, to a central sun, around which all the other towns of France revolve as satellites.
The capitals of Italy and Germany, on the contrary, resemble constellations, whose luminaries rival one another in respect to brilliancy, while still maintaining to each other the same relative position and importance. The reason for this difference is apparent. While France has always been an undivided nation, with but one grand capital, both Italy and Germany have been till recently composed of numerous duchies, principalities, and kingdoms, each having its own court, cathedrals, palaces, and art collections, besides the usual historical prestige and architectural embellishment pertaining to an independent State. Thus, in Germany, Dresden, Berlin, Hanover, Munich, Stuttgart, and Weimar, and in Italy, Venice, Milan, Florence, Genoa, Pisa, Parma, Rome, and Naples were separate capitals for centuries, and as such, acquired an individuality in architecture, art, and history which makes a visit to them even now, when some of them have fallen into a subordinate rank, instructive and delightful. To neglect France, however, merely because her smaller cities cannot compare in interest with Paris, is a great mistake. Rouen, Bordeaux, Marseilles, Toulouse, Nimes, Arles,and Avignon, all well repay a visit; her noble Pyrenees exhibit the most delightful mountain scenery in Europe, outside the region of the Alps; her Riviera has a charm in some respects unequaled in the world; and in the stately castles of her Kings and Emperors, all beautiful as works of art and eloquent of history, the thoughtful traveler will find a satisfaction and enjoyment hardly surpassed by anything that even Paris can afford.
An excursion in France that I never weary of making is that which takes one forty miles from Paris to the renowned Chateau of Fontainebleau. Among the various derivations of this castle's name, the most attractive is the one that finds its origin in the words Fontaine-belle-eau, in consequence of a limpid spring once highly prized by royal sportsmen. At all events the name was sometimes used, for Henry IV wrote to the charming Gabrielle d'Estrees a letter dated: "From our lovely wilderness of Fontaine-belle-eau." The history of France cannot be written without frequent mention of this palace. Four of her Kings were born, and two have died within its walls, and it has been a favorite abode of royalty for seven hundred years. Hence it may be compared to a magnificently decorated volume of French history, each page adorned with famous names, distinguished portraits, regal coats of arms, and illustrations of the pageantry and pleasure, luxury and intrigue, comedy and tragedy, inseparable from the records of a Court.
To one familiar with what has taken place here (and who is not?), it is an impressive moment when he approaches the chateau and steps within the area known as the Court of Adieux. I felt, in doing so, that I was standing on a stage from which the actors in a stirring drama had departed, leaving the curtain down, the lights extinguished, and the audience gone. The square lay sleeping in the sunshine of a summer afternoon when I walked slowly for the first time over the great blocks of stone that form its pavement, and halted at the foot of the old "Horseshoe Staircase" leading to the entrance. I felt in no haste to mount the steps. In fact, I was not sure that the square itself was not enough to see and to reflect on in one day. It is true, these walls which have beheld so much of royal and imperial splendor are now silent, and these old steps so often trodden by the feet of men and women who can never be unknown to history are now abandoned to the tread of tourists; but must one for that reason pass them with a hasty glance nor pause to comprehend the story of their beauty and decay? The travelers who rush across the Court of Adieux and ascend these steps, eager to be the first admitted, in order to return that afternoon to Paris, do not appreciate Fontainebleau. But now and then a tourist comes to linger a few days at one of the hotels opposite the castle. He studies the historic palace leisurely and thoughtfully, as one sits down to contemplate a painting which others pass with but a hasty glance. He chooses for his visits to it hours before or after the arrival and departure of the crowd of sightseers from Paris. And in so doing he has his reward; for, as his imagination carries him back into the past, he realizes history. His former reading of French Courts and Kings seems based at last on facts whose import he had not before perceived. The sketches of historical characters which he had made in fancy and well-nigh forgotten, are suddenly reproduced by memory and placed here in appropriate frames; and he beholds again enacted in this court the scenes of former years, and hears its pavement echo to the tramp of horses' feet, to the gay music of the hunters' horns, or to the rumble of the royal carriages, as Francis I or Henry IV arrive here with a train of courtiers.