Castles can be found throughout Europe. But only France has such a wealth and variety. In this, the first of our two part look at French châteaux we peer over the battlements of some of the most illustrious, attention-seeking, headlining grabbing châteaux.
A visit to one can feature in many a holiday itinerary and they offer a happy combination of visual drama, sumptuous interiors, stunning gardens and grounds and, perhaps best of all, a tantalising glimpse into a past history which has long disappeared.
But when is a castle not a château? This is a challenging question but as a rule of thumb castles are fortified (and usually more austere looking) whereas châteaux are typically ornate and elaborately designed structures.
Indeed there are countless properties around France which are billed as ‘châteaux’ but which are neither particularly elaborate nor especially defensive – these might include innumerable manor houses and wine producing estates.
In style they vary from the majestic châteaux of the Loire valley, mostly built in the 16th-17th centuries. These often had origins as strategically defensive structures, then later were developed into more ornate, luxurious residential estates, often with royal connections. No coincidence that the Loire Valley is also referred to as the Valley of the Kings.
At the other end of the scale are more fortified, functional castles, sometimes called châteaux forts. The fortress-style medieval castles of the Dordogne, mostly products of the Hundred Years War, are more functional, stark and clearly military in origin.
So take your pick from hundreds of France’s A List: some of the most famous, most iconic, best known châteaux in the world. For sheer drama and scale you will not be disappointed.
Château de Chenonceau
Chenonceaux, Loire Valley
An iconic château, famously described by Flaubert as the one that ‘floats on air and water’. It is certainly one of the most visited châteaux in France, being small and immaculate with stunning gardens and grounds that extend along the river and through to the kitchen gardens. It was used as a hospital during WW1 and during the Second World War provided an escape route across the river from Nazi occupied France to Free France on the southern bank.
Château de Villandry
Near Tours, Loire Valley
Château de Villandry is renowned for its sensational gardens with endless manicured box hedging, elaborate geometric shapes and startlingly imaginative garden ‘rooms’. The interior is equally dramatic with elegant rooms giving the visitor a real sense of history as you wander through.
Château de Castelnaud
Here’s a castle that is not especially elegant, or elaborate, in the ornate, picture-postcard sense. But wow is it dramatic. Perched on a hill in the Périgord Noir, not far from Sarlat and Domme, with commanding views of the River Dordogne it is a perfect example of a medieval fortress from the Hundred Years War. For sheer historical drama it cannot be surpassed.
Château de Cheverny
One of the most iconic, most elegant châteaux of the Loire Valley, Château de Cheverny was built between 1624 and 1630. It is known as the inspiration for the fictional Château de Moulinsart in the Tintin comics. The interior is rich and atmospheric but the grounds are well worth a wander too. Try and time your visit to witness the feeding of the hounds – the pack numbers over 100 and it is truly dramatic to see the control a man has over a pack of ravenous hounds.
Palais du Luxembourg
Although technically not a château, the Palais de Luxembourg is included in our list for its elegance and uniqueness. Located to the north of the serene Luxembourg Gardens in the 6th arrondissement of Paris, it was originally built for Marie de Médici, mother of Louis XIII. She pined for her native Florence and the architecture, and the design of the neighbouring gardens, were intended to ease her heartache. Since 1958 it has been the seat of the French Senate.
Set between Saumur and Tours in the Loire Valley, Château d'Ussé is a froth of multi-turreted spires and towers. This flamboyant exterior was the inspiration behind Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle. The formal gardens were laid out by Le Notre – he of Versailles fame – and indeed some visitors don’t set foot inside, such is the charm of the grounds and the exterior architecture.
Villandry By Jean-Christophe BENOIST - Own work, CC BY 3.0
Palais du Luxembourg By Photo: JLPC / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0