Ten of France’s Finest Châteaux
Ask any French person what a château is and they’ll come up with a variety of different English words: a castle, a palace, a country manor. That’s because there’s no direct, single translation for something that can take so many varying architectural forms, and be used for so many varied purposes. And with more than a thousand châteaux dotted throughout France, you’ll need to see a few examples before you can really understand what the term means. To help you decide which ones to visit, here are our top ten…
Château de Versailles
It may be known as the Palace of Versailles in English, but that’s just testament to the fact that we can’t come up with a decent translation… this grand royal residence is just as much a château as the fortified castle at Vitre. It’s also the most famous château in the country… and for very good reason. Built in the 17th century as a royal hunting lodge for King Louis XIII, it later became famous as the grandiose home of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and also the center of French politics. With its magnificent building and perfectly-manicured gardens combined, it’s a real contender as the largest palace complex in the world.
Château de Chenonceau
Built on the banks of the River Cher, a mere 20 miles from the city of Tours, the Château de Chenonceau passed through many hands before being given to the mistress of King Henry II, Diane de Poitiers… but it was her who commissioned the beautiful bridge for which the château is most famous today. But this magnificent manor is about more than a river-crossing… it also boasts some spectacular interiors, some fragrant gardens and some surprising history (like the fact it was used as a hospital during World War II!)
Château de Chambord
Perhaps the best example of architecture from the French Renaissance, this Loire Valley landmark was built for King Francis I as, officially, a hunting lodge – although it was unofficially built as a way for him to be a little closer to his mistress, and a little further away from his wife! Consisting of an enormous keep with four high towers looming over each corner, this monumental château boasts an incredible 440 rooms, 365 fireplaces and 84 staircases, and is surrounded by over 13,000 acres of wooded parkland!
Even if it’s your first time at the Château d’Usse, you’ll feel like you’ve been here before – and there’s a very good reason for that. It was one of the fortifications that helped inspire the design of Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle. This one’s a little older though, being built in the 11th century and reconstructed in its current ‘Flamboyant Gothic’ architectural style sometime in the 14th century. But it’s not all about the spectacular, fairy tale castle… the Château d’Usse also boasts some beautiful landscaped gardens.
Mont St. Michel
One of France’s oldest châteaux, the Mont St Michel was constructed way back in the 8th century. But that’s not what’s most striking about it… the key feature of this enormous and unique fortification is that it sits astride a rocky tidal island right off the coast of Normandy. Oh, and Mont St. Michel also happens to be breathtakingly beautiful – especially when you see it lit up like a Christmas Tree at night.
Originally built in the 12th century, Pierrefonds has passed hands many times over the course of French history, owned by everybody from the Duke of Orléans to Cardinal Richelieu to Napoléon Bonaparte, and this has given it a very particular character. So while the outside of the castle retains a distinctly medieval appearance, the interior decoration ranges from the 12th century right up until the mid-1800s.
Château de Chantilly
Actually a combination of two châteaux ( the Grand Château and the Petit Château), this place was built back in 1528 for the Constable Anne de Montmorency… and despite some rebuilding after the French Revolution it retains its historic alure. Come for the beautiful architecture, the opulent interiors and the perfectly-manicured gardens, not to mention the spectacular biennial fireworks fest Le Nuits de Feu.
More than just another beautiful French castle, Carcassonne is an entire fortified city, first built by the Romans in around 100 BC! Today it’s one of Southern France’s finest tourist sights, offering medieval jousting displays, on-site wine growing and one of the most breathtaking hill-top views you’ll ever see!
A historic estate with an artistic connection, the 11th century Château d’Amboise is now most famous as the French home and workplace of Leonardo da Vinci. However, his isn’t the only famous name linked to the place: everyone from Fulk III (Count of Anjou) to Louis d’Amboise to Mary Queen of Scots lived here.
One of the most sieged fortifications in French history, this is also one of the country’s most renowned examples of medieval castle architecture. You can still see the original walls of the old Brittany bastion, and marvel at the belfry that told townspeople the exact time (knowledge usually reserved for nobility).
So there you have it – ten of France’s finest Châteaux. And once you’ve visited a few of them, you’ll get a much clearer idea of what the French mean by the term… even if you can’t quite express it in English!