Châteaux in France

Experience the magnificent châteaux of France

When you think of France, a number of associations must immediately spring to mind - and we're prepared to bet that the famous châteaux appear somewhere on your list. Although roughly synonymous with the British stately home or palace, châteaux are tricky to define. That's no bad thing: whether it's a sprawling erstwhile royal estate, a once-upon-a-time hunting lodge or a gracious house in the middle of a vineyard, each château is different from the next. And no matter where you're holidaying in the country, you're sure to have at least a couple close at hand.

What are châteaux?

France's estimated 45,000 châteaux encompass architectural beauties as diverse as fortified medieval manor houses, royal palaces, grand nineteenth-century estates and, yes, the occasional castle. While nobility and royalty built many of the châteaux, most famously including Versailles, some were commissioned by those with newer money. Regardless of the original owner, most châteaux were supported by their own lands. In both Bordeaux and the Loire Valley, where you'll find many of the best-known, including Château de Malle and Château de Chenonceau, much of that land was - and frequently continues to be - devoted to vineyards. Of course, private ownership of most of the châteaux ended with the French Revolution. Today, however, they remain as a symbol of France's "ancien régime", giving visitors a fascinating glimpse into the lives and fabulous surroundings of their one-time inhabitants.

Don't miss: drawing up your own châteaux bucket list and immersing yourself in a quintessentially French experience.

Visiting a château

A château visit is a must-do on most French holidays. Explore the building and its grounds at your own pace with the help of an English language guide book or audio tour. Alternatively, English-speaking tour guides may also be available. Some châteaux also have additional temporary exhibitions, for example, focussing on the lives of those who once lived there. Others host festivals: the International Garden Festival at Château de Chaumont is a justifiably popular pick. Then there are the "son et lumière" (sound and light) experiences. Held on summer nights and ticketed separately from general admissions, they're an exhilarating chance to learn about the building's history through the mediums of light and sound.

Don't miss: a "son et lumière" experience, especially if you're in the Loire Valley, where châteaux such as Blois put on some truly spectacular shows.

Staying in a château

Your French château experience doesn't need to end when the entrance gates close for the day. With many castles offering overnight accommodation, longer stays and bespoke experiences such as weddings, there's no excuse not to indulge yourself. Active families might enjoy a stay at Château de Vallagon (with complimentary bikes for exploring the grounds) while golf and wellness fans could opt for the elegant Château de Courban & Spa Nuxe, with its romantic outlook onto a beautiful rectangular pond. And for the history buffs, what about Château La Tour Du Roy? This 12th-century beauty has three towers: why not see if you can guess from which one Henri IV was declared King of France! For something closer to Paris, check out Château de Montvillargenne, the largest castle hotel in France. Alternatively, Château de Labro just outside of Rodez, allows you to stay in the castle, or for sweeping views of the countryside and something a little more rustic, their luxurious treehouse.

Don't miss: Seeking out the quirky and the unusual! Perhaps you want to sleep in a Royal suite or, as at Château de Vault de Lugny, swim in a pool built beneath a 12th-century vaulted roof.

Dining in a château

Many châteaux offer superlative - and very varied - dining experiences. In the Loire, for instance, there's the family-run (since 1636!) Château de Petit Thouars. As a winery, the grape is its understandable focus but guests can expect carefully-chosen food to accompany the various vintages - and to enjoy it all picnic-style in the vineyard. Still in the Loire, there's also L'Orangerie at the incomparable Château de Chenonceau. Alternatively, for a more traditional gastronomic experience, try the Michelin-starred Château de Pray or, during the summer season, Château de Bagnols. Further south, on the Riviera, is the 400-year-old Château Eza, where the delicious food matches the beguiling Mediterranean views. At the other end of the country, there's the restaurant at Château de Locguénolé, overlooking a sea inlet in Brittany. The private pontoon makes this the perfect stop-off for sailing enthusiasts.

Don't miss: gourmet dining, with a menu that changes with the seasons, in the grand, Renaissance-styled restaurant at Château le Prieuré in the Loire.

Popular châteaux regions in France

Loire region

Perhaps more than anywhere in France, it is the Loire that is known for its châteaux. We can thank the Loire-loving French royals and nobility of old for the 300 châteaux that are still situated along 175 or so miles of the river that runs through the valley. While you'll definitely want to see some of the biggest names - Chambord, Amboise, Chenonceau and so on - the smaller ones have plenty to offer too. For a royal story with a difference, visit the opulent Domaine de Candé, which hosted the 1937 wedding of the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson. Or, if you're a Renaissance art fan, try Château du Clos Lucé, which was Leonardo da Vinci's final home and which now displays a fabulous collection of his inventions. Looking for somewhere to stay? You can’t go wrong with the beautiful Château Le Prieuré – a 10th-century castle with incredible views of the Loire River.

Provence

Travel "La Route des Châteaux de Provence" (the Provence Castle Route) to experience some of the finest castles in the whole of France. Taking you along picturesque country roads and through enchanting villages, highlights such as Château de Lourmarin await. This converted castle began life as a 12th-century fortress before a reimagining as a Renaissance private residence some three centuries later. Open all year round, its restored interior gives visitors the chance to experience both of these important eras in its history. Then there's the very grand, classical-style Châteaux de Sauvan, which emerged unscathed from the French Revolution bar some minor damage to its pediment. Le Grand Pré, Château d'Arnajon, Château d'Ansouis and Château de Saint Martin de Pallières make up the rest of this impressive group.

Medoc

If you want to combine wine-tasting with châteaux, the Médoc region, close to Bordeaux, is hard to better. The vineyards at Château Papa Clément have been producing grapes since the 1200s. Nowadays, the award-winning winery makes this an excellent place to enjoy a private tasting with the château's own sommelier. To really savour the experience and give yourself time to wander in the beautiful gardens, you can also choose to stay here. If you're a wine connoisseur, Château Siran and Château Lascombes are two other châteaux in the region that are well worth visiting. Booking a half or full-day wine tour is a good way of ensuring that you don't miss any of the must-sees - or must-tastes!

French Basque

Look beyond the glitz and the glamour of Biarritz to explore the French Basque. Top of your exploration list might be the Neo-Gothic Château Abbadia with its sweeping sea views. Its associations with Antoine d'Abbadie, an explorer and life-long defender of Basque culture, make it a unique place to visit. As well as the intriguing architecture (keep an eye out for monkeys, elephants and a range of chimeric animals), it has an important scientific collection and - unusually among châteaux - all of its furniture is original. For beautiful gardens in general, and medicinal plants in particular, make time for Château d'Urtubie. And don't miss enjoying the views from the hilltop Château-fort de Mauléon.

Auvergne Rhône Alpes

Despite its great natural beauty, the Auvergne Rhône Alpes is still relatively unvisited. It also has several magnificent châteaux, such as the medieval Fort-Queyras. You'll find it 1500m up on a rocky overhang above a gorge in the Queyras Regional Nature Park. Originally a fortified camp, the site became a castle in the Middle Ages and the views it affords over the surrounding area tell you why it was so important to those who used it. Similarly venerable in terms of age but totally different in architecture is Château de Grignan. Very much a Renaissance palace - and the largest in south-eastern France - this grand edifice occupies a rocky headland in the Drôme provençale. A fascinating place to visit, it also puts on an annual summer programme of cultural events, including theatre and "nocturnal feasts".

Alsace

Having spent centuries moving between German and French control, it's no wonder that the château of Alsace are quite unlike those elsewhere in France. Perhaps the best known - and with a name that reflects the influences of both France and Germany - is Château Haut-Koenigsbourg. Built in the 12th century, it's a marvellous place to learn more about Alsace's chequered history. It also has stunning views that, on clear days, extend to the Alps. Even on cloudier days, the Alsace plain, the Vosges Mountains and the Black Forest are a panorama fit for any landscape photographer. Others well worth visiting include the ruined Château Saint-Ulrich (allow around two hours to hike up to the ruins, tour it and return to nearby Ribeauvillé) and, during its seasonal opening (April to November), Château du Hohlandsbourg. It's also a ruin but one with eminently walkable walls.

Côte d’Azur

The Côte d'Azur is even more than warm weather, sparkling seas and beautiful beaches. It's also home to a selection of châteaux sure to spark the enthusiasm of even the most particular of visitors to the French Riviera. Close to Nice is La Colline du Château. Once a supposedly impregnable fortress, Louis XVI destroyed much of it but the remains are now part of a gorgeous park and, in the summer, an Art Deco elevator takes visitors to the very top of the monument. Then there's the medieval Château de Roquebrune. Also now a ruin, it started life as a dungeon for a vast fortress that encompassed the whole of the nearby village. However, it's a well-preserved ruin with outstanding views across to Monaco, and you might even be lucky enough to have the site to yourself. For an unforgettable stay in a castle, check out Hôtel Château de la Tour in Cannes.

Ariege

Close to the Pyrenees, Ariège in southwestern France offers charming rural outlooks and plenty of space and silence. And, among - or overlooking - its peaceful landscapes lie a number of châteaux. The best-known is probably Château de Montségur. Occupying a dramatic hilltop spot, it was the last of the Cathar strongholds and, more soberly, is reputed to have been the site of the burning alive of 200 Cathars who had refused to renounce their faith. The ruins are open to the public, while a museum in the nearby village provides further information on its place in Cathar history. If you're up for a steep scramble, Château de Roquefixade is another ruin with a view that's worth the climb. For a third option, Château de Foix offers yet more exceptional views - plus the Ariège Département museum, which includes Henri IV's bed.

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