It was quite by chance that we were in the Forêt de Fontainebleau in October, renting an apartment in a house by the Seine that was handy for taking our sons to Disneyland Paris as well as for venturing into the Loire Valley. But this spooky forest turned out to be a fantastic place to spend the spookiest of seasons.
The landscape itself was stunning – although only 60km southeast of Paris and easy reached by train (45mins) from the French capital, the forest covers around 280km2 and feels quite wild (it’s home to 7,000 animal species and 3,000 species of mushroom). In amidst the oak trees, Scots pine, European beeches and orchids and other blooms lurk cumbersome limestone boulders, many of which are swathed in mystery and legend. Some resemble human heads, or species of animals that would never have been seen in these parts – were they eroded by the elements, or did human settlers have knowledge of exotic lands, and if so, how? Wood nymphs also once roamed the forest, it is said, as did a ghostly hunter who was visible only to the French kings for whom this was a vast hunting park.
"The boys were very excited at the opportunity to take part in Halloween despite being away
from home, and I was interested to learn that the French take the occasion just as seriously – perhaps even more so – than we do. Families from all the surrounding villages came to creep around the darkened streets of atmospheric Fontaine-le-Port, wreathed in river mist, everyone had gone to town on their costumes, and the villagers themselves went completely overboard on gifts."
In autumn Fontainebleau comes into its own as the leaves, still clinging precariously to the trees or carpeting the forest floor, blaze orange and gold, and the air is deliciously fresh and crisp. Armed with the IGN’s family-oriented ‘Walks in the Forêt de Fontainebleau’, we found it a great place for walking with kids, who enjoy trying to make out the forms in the boulders. You can feel quite remote while being within striking distance of the large town of Fontainebleau itself, nestled in the heart of the forest and boasting not only one of the biggest of the French royal chateaux but a good choice of family-friendly international restaurants by virtue of its being home to an elite business school.
Fontainebleau Castle with its pony-and-carriage rides and boating lake makes for a good day out – and a fine compliment to a day or two at Disneyland Paris east of the capital. October is an equally fine time to visit this themepark, too – it's decked out with spooky scenes and lays on special events for Halloween but is less busy than in high summer.
However, the real highlight of our stay just outside Paris was something unforeseen – an invitation from kids in our village to join them as they went trick or treating. Having come unprepared, we sought out a party shop selling Halloween costumes during a day-trip to Paris and bought a pumpkin from the supermarket to carve for our doorstep, plus goodies for callers. The boys were very excited at this opportunity to take part in Halloween despite being away from home, and I was interested to learn that the French take the occasion just as seriously – perhaps even more so – than we do. Families from all the surrounding villages came to creep around the darkened streets of atmospheric Fontaine-le-Port, wreathed in river mist, everyone had gone to town on their costumes, and the villagers themselves went completely overboard on gifts – to the point that we had to bow out after a couple of hours because we couldn’t carry any more goodies.
The chance to interact with the local community and see how people really live is one of the advantages of not staying in a hotel or holiday village but in real people’s homes. This might be an apartment, as with our trip, or you could try a home swap and ask your hosts to arrange introductions to their neighbours and to friends with kids of a similar age to yours.
For places to stay near Disneyland itself, see our Disneyland Paris guide.