Barbizon: In the Footsteps of Painters and Prostitutes

The distance between Fontainebleau and Barbizon is just under six miles as the crow flies and, for the most part, the crow flies through the attractive surroundings of the Forêt de Fontainebleau.

Barbizon is a characterful French village, made famous in the mid part of the nineteenth century by the Barbizon school of painters, who specialised in landscape paintings––often of the local Forêt de Fontainebleau––in the Realist style.

The Barbizon school of painters numbered amongst its members Jean-François Millet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Théodore Rousseau and Charles-François Daubigny.  It is possible to follow an organised trail of the village, which includes visits to both Millet’s and Rousseau’s houses and studios.

Located so close to Paris, the village is very popular with day-trippers and coach parties, as I was to discover to my cost in one of the local restaurants.

It was a beautiful sunny summer’s day, and I was lucky to find a free table for lunch outside L’Art de la Table Brasserie, a small bistro on the eastern edges of the village.  Inside, the restaurant was packed, every table taken by what looked like a coach party of French old-age pensioners from the capital.  I reconciled myself to the inevitable long wait to be served, but in the beautiful surroundings it was no hardship just to sit, admire the view, and people-watch.  In the end, my food turned up surprisingly quickly: a simple dish of roast chicken and chips, elevated by the excellent cooking, which the French make appear so effortless.

Before departing, I went in search of the bistro’s toilet: a single cubicle in a small room at the rear of the establishment.  I went to push the toilet door, when I was halted by a howl of geriatric protest rising up all on sides of me.  At first, I couldn’t work out what crime I had committed that had caused this synchronised outburst of elderly anger, and then I twigged that I was queue-jumping: every one of the seated oldies was waiting to use the toilet, too.  And there were dozens of them.  An entire coach party.  Filing in to the small cubicle one at a time, I estimated that it would take over an hour before everyone had relieved themselves.  I pitied the poor bus driver, who was probably working to a tight schedule: by the time the last OAP had managed to use the toilet, the one that had gone first would probably be needing to go again.  It was like being trapped in a recurring nightmare.

I didn’t hang around to see if the coach ever managed to depart; for all I know they are still stuck in their perpetual lavatorial-loop to this day.  I fled back to the forest; plenty of discrete al fresco peeing spots there.

The Forêt de Fontainebleau is justifiably as famous as Barbizon.  On the walk out, I had followed fairly well-travelled tourist trails, passing oak, beech and pine trees, and stopping to admire the large boulders and strange rock formations, which have made Fontainebleau a mecca for fans of the sport of bouldering.  I was content simply to spot shapes amongst the trees and boulders; imagining fantastical stone creatures hewn from the rocky outcrops; watching the ever-changing play of light and shade on the forest floor; finding quiet avenues away from the picnickers and hikers.

Returning, I branched off on a different route, hoping to forge a new path through the forest.  Instantly, the forest seemed a darker place; colder and more sinister.  There were no ramblers here; no families enjoying a day out; no tourists.  At a point where the path bifurcated, and where there was a dusty apron of concrete where a car could turn, a hard-faced prostitute leant on an iron gate; the darkness of the path beyond littered with white scraps of soiled toilet paper.

Her silent cold-eyed stare said louder than words that I had taken a wrong turn and hastened my footsteps back the way I had come.

© E. C. Glendenny

E. C. Glendenny goes down to the woods.

Check out some of E. C. Glendenny’s other travel writing in Easy Come, Easy Go; Resting Easy; Easy Pickings; and Easy on the Eyes.

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