Queens, kings, emperors and empresses of every country have always built castles, palaces and manors where they lived, welcomed their friends and family and ruled their kingdoms. In China, there is The Forbidden City; in Germany, the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria; and in your own country, dozens of royal abodes you might be thinking of at this moment.
Well, today I will tell you about the enchanting castles of France.
Castles are very important to us. We call them châteaux. The houses of our great, great grandmothers and fathers have been well preserved, thanks to our mild climate, the absence of earthquakes in the French territory, as well as the constant care taken by the French people and institutions for historic monuments. Castles in France are often associated with winemaking. For these reasons, you’ll see hundreds of them in our wine regions. Let’s begin with the Loire Valley.
Enjoy reading… an appetizer before visiting!
Lavish and golden: Versailles
With more than six million visitors every year, Versailles is the most popular palace in France.
It has 2,300 rooms, 1,000 of which you can visit; 2,143 windows; 5,200 pieces of antique furniture and a floor area of 6.7 hectares – the equivalent of 721,000 square feet. From west to east, the gardens are half the length of Paris.
It is a luxurious palace, with crystal ceiling lights in every room, colourful tapestries of hunting scenes, paintings of the Greek gods on the walls, gilded statues and baroque decorations everywhere.
The history of the palace is strongly related to King Louis XIV. Known as Le Roi Soleil, Louis XIV (1638-1715) was a compulsive spender, a patron of the arts and a conqueror.
Hyacinthe Rigaud [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
- Compulsive spender? Well, just see the luxury of Versailles.
- Patron of the Arts? You might have heard of Molière, Racine, La Fontaine (writers); Lully and Couperin (composers). Louis XIV often commissioned (hired) them for their artistic talent.
- Conqueror? He annexed (added) Alsace, Franche-Comté, Roussillon, Artois and Flanders to the kingdom of France.
For almost a century after Louis XIV died, the royal court kept living in Versailles until the French Revolution.
Opening hours :9am – 5pm from Tuesday to Sunday.
Chateau de Versailles official website
Wild and gloomy: Alsace’s beautiful ruins
Two years ago in December, I hiked with an alpinist friend in the Alsace Mountains. It was 5am, a dark winter morning, and the trees were glowing with crystal snow.
We had been walking for two hours when we came to a hill and discovered a ruined fortified castle. It was abandoned. We went in and carefully climbed the stairs that were coated with ice and snow. We found a comfortable spot in the defensive wall and decided to have our breakfast there. Then, we went back down the stairs, had a snowball fight in the castle for a few minutes, and left.
This is quite a common experience in Alsace. Only a few castles are well-kept and open to tourists, such as the Haut-Koenigsbourg which is close to the French-German frontier that looks over the Black Forest.
Aristocratic and romantic:
Seven castles from the Loire Valley
Once again, the Loire Valley ranks top in my must-visit list for wines and also for castles. There are approximately 71 castles to visit in this region. Each one is wonderfully well-kept. Many of them are owned by families who live there during the year and open their royal doors on weekends. Castle owners need to be passionate, because castle living involves lot of hard work and a large cash investment.
There are hundreds of private castles that are not open for visiting, as well. When you drive in the Loire Valley countryside, you can see a few of them secretly kept in the middle of a private park or hidden behind old stone walls. Inside, the interior is generally modern, and the families live normally.
The Ladies’ Castle, that's its surname. Chenonceau is the most well-kept, peaceful and popular of all the castles visited in the Loire Valley. It is perfectly furnished and always looks young and pure year after year. I love it.
It was designed by a woman, Katherine Briçonnet, and built in 1513 under her supervision. Through the centuries, it was embellished and well maintained by women including Diane de Poitiers, Catherine de Médicis and Louise Dupin.
Opening hours : Every day, see the Chenonceau official website for hours.
The Brissac family still owns the castle. It is located in the village of Brissac. The park is adorable, and the anjou-village is red. Awesome.
Image by Brigitte Hersant
Opening hours : see the Château de Brissac official website.
An architectural jewel in the middle of a romantic lake.
Opening hours : see the Château d'Azay-le-Rideau official website.
4. Le Plessis-Bourré
Jean Bourré had the castle built in 1468. The man was an alchemy geek of the time, and the interior of the castle is very funny, with magic symbols and witchcraft imagery of the Early Renaissance painted on the ceiling of the Alchemy room.
Image by Brigitte Hersant
Opening hours: see the Le Plessis-Bourré official website.
This massive fortified castle from the Middle Ages looks original, compared to every other castle of the region. A real knights and princesses castle! You can visit the inside gardens, walk on the top of the defence walls and have a snack in one of the best bakeries just outside the castle.
Image by Brigitte Hersant
Opening hours: see the Château d'Angers official website.
6. Villandry gardens and the autumn feast
Among all castle gardens, the gardens of Villandry are the most representative of the French gardening style.
Don't miss the Kitchen Garden Days festival on the last weekend of September. The Villandry gardeners offer vegetables and fruits from the castle to the visitors, and organize activities for children and adults around the hobby of gardening. It’s a very nice atmosphere and a great way to meet people.
Opening hours : see the Château Villandry official website.
The Castle of Amboise offers a gorgeous panorama over the River Loire. In the evening, the sunset reflects in the running water and on the white limestone walls of the monument: breathtaking.
It is also well known for having been the last home of Leonardo da Vinci. Stop a few hours there; you won’t regret it!
Opening Hours: Amboise Royal Château official website.
For more information on how to travel in the Loire Valley: Loire-Chateaux