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Covid times can be pretty tough when you usually can’t stay in place. With all these travel restrictions, the thought of faraway places sometimes obsesses us. However, I recently brought friends of mine to Barbizon, a village close to where I grew up, and the way they marvelled at this place I’ve always known got me thinking. As the famous French writer Marcel Proust wrote, « the only true journey isn’t travelling to new places, but rather seeing the world with new eyes« . And it reminded me that adventure, just like beauty, is everywhere you look for it. So let me bring you along this tour of Barbizon, the painters’ village. Ready?
What’s Barbizon ?
Barbizon is a super charming little village located 45min South of Paris, which famously inspired pre-impressionist paintings. The place is also well-known for its direct access to Fontainebleau’s forest and of course, Fontainebleau’s Castle. The Seine-et-Marne department, where it’s located, is the perfect countryside week-end getaway from Paris. Stay tuned until the end of the article to know which other spots are worth the visit!
In the early 19th century, what was still a humble peasants and lumberjacks village started to attract numerous young artists eager to connect with untouched nature. This new « hotspot » hosted more than a hundred painters in the course of time. That includes the very well-known Narcisse Díaz de la Peña, Jean-François Millet and Théodore Rousseau. The « school of Barbizon », or Ecole de Barbizon, was born. This artistic movement aims at painting nature directly on the spot, as it is. Later, Monet, Renoir and Cézanne will walk in the footsteps of their « elders » and bring their easel to Barbizon. The painters’ love for nature even lead Napoleon III to pass the first ever law of natural area preservation worlwide. There you go, you learnt something!
Immerse yourself in the village
But enough talking, I’m not claiming to be an art history teacher! All so more as you don’t need to know a lot about art to understand why our artist friends were deeply inspired by the place. Just stroll along the Grand rue (main road) until you reach the forest and you’ll feel this very bucolic, timeless atmosphere. In terms of visit, it couldn’t be easier: everything is gathered along the Grande rue, which name later changes to Allée des Vaches (alley of the cows) as it enters the forest. Starting from the center of the village, you’ll admire:
The 20 mosaics, scattered here and there along the street. They represent the 20 most famous masterpieces of Barbizon.
The Auberge Ganne, the tavern where the painters used to meet to engage in intense debates until the early hours. Today, it is the official Museum of Barbizon’s painters.
The Chapel Notre-Dame de la persévérance, which simple and ancient charm I love. Right beside it: the House-Museum of Théodore Rousseau, famous painter of Barbizon.
The Besharat Gallery. Barbizon is full of art galleries (you’d better have a fat wallet), but this one is remarkably beautiful. Make sure to stop to admire the georgous villa and the entrance of its garden, where some of the contemporary pieces are displayed.
The House and Workshop of Jean-François Millet. Millet, another major figure of Barbizon, painted here the masterpieces that made his fame: les Glaneuses et l’Angélus (which you can see today at the Musée d’Orsay).
From Paris, there’s unfortunately just one way to come to Barbizon: by car. If you don’t have a car, check the Ubers (although for this distance, it might be pricy…) or look for a private tour. By car from Paris: leave around 10am, spend one hour visiting the village, have lunch in one of the restaurants of the Grande rue and end the day with a hike in the forest! You could also spend the whole week-end there: sleep in Barbizon (some ideas further in the article) and the next day, visit the castles of Fontainebleau or Vaux-le-vicomte.
Out in the woods…
The section of Fontainebleau’s state forest that surrounds Barbizon is stunning. Although I spent a major part of my childhood there (the perks of having nature freaks as parents!), I still go there regularly, throughout all seasons! As soon as you’ll step foot in it, you’ll understand why this place keeps attracting people from all over the world. The massive granite boulders, the century-old oaks and the multitude of hilly paths will transport you straight to an enchanted world where nature reigns. It’s the perfect playground, not only for nature lovers, but also for sports lovers.
If you’re up for a hike, you can stop by the Tourism Office in town to check their map with all the best itinereries. I recommand you try my ultimate favorite: the path of the Brigand’s Cave (la Grotte des Brigands). The one-hour loop, to which you’ll probably add a pic-nic break, starts by the snack bar of the Bas-Bréau parking lot. The path is uphill, but no worries, overall the it’s super easy and ideal with kids. After just about 15 min of walking, you’ll reach one of the best viewpoints of the forest. If you’re bold enough, grab your flashlight and enter in the famous Brigand’s Cave! You can walk through the tunnel and reach another way out 100m further in the rock! Be aware that you’ll have to crowl, so avoid it if you’re claustrophobic…
What if you’re not into hiking? Well, Fontainebleau’s forest is also the ideal spot for trail running, moutain biking… and most of all rock climbing! No wonder why you’ll cross paths with many people carrying their unmistakable blue mats 😉
Barbizon: where to eat / sleep ?
Prices mentionned are for a double room. From the cheapest to the most extravagant:
P’tit Angélus Guest House (from 90€)
Hotel of the Bas Bréau (from 140€), right on the main road and just a few meters away from the forest.
The Pléiades Hôtel-Spa (from 180€). Outstanding service in this beautiful 4* hotel.
The Coutess’ Manor (from 270€). A breathtaking mansion, a heated pool and a beautiful interior design that will transport you to another century.
The Besharat Suites, in the same villa as the previsouly mentionned gallery (from 450€). For an incredible immersion in the art collector’s atypical world.
In terms of food, you can choose among the 10 or so good addresses on the Grande rue! From the cosy crêpe place to the fancy restaurant, there’s everything you might need.
To wrap up this article, here are other gems of the department that you could add to your itinerary:
– Fontainebleau and its Château, located only 10 min away from Barbizon! Click here to read my article about Fontainebleau.
– Vaux le Vicomte, the castle that served as a model for the Château de Versailles!
– Moret-sur-Loing, one of the most beautiful villages of the department
– Milly-la-forêt, historical village that hosted the greatest, such as Christian Dior
So who’s up for a country-style week-end getaway?