France’s most ravishing chateaux
Text: Arne Adriaenssens
France, the country of castles! Wherever you look, both in the city, as well as in the countryside, you will see majestic palaces, castles and forts – all more impressive and bigger than the next. Yet, the French palaces are more than just relics of the nation’s lush past. The so-called chateaux also play an important role in today’s life; be it as a museum, a hotel, a wedding venue, a film set or – true to their initial purpose – a unique and spacious residence. Let’s visit some of France’s nicest castles and discover what makes a French chateau unique.
Where better to start our journey than in the city of Versailles? If it weren’t for King Louis XIII and his son, Louis XIV, nobody would ever have heard of this provincial town, 20 kilometres outside of Paris: yet, today, it is one of the most touristic places in France. In the 17th century, this swamp was one of King Louis XIII’s beloved hunting grounds. To be able to hunt in style, he ordered the construction of a ‘humble’ (it ‘only’ counted 26 chambers) hunting lodge in it. After his death, his megalomaniac son expanded the chateau step by step to the unparalleled proportions it has today, giving him the nickname ‘Le Roi de Soleil’, or Sun King. With 700 rooms, 2,513 windows and 500 mirrors, the palace of Versailles is one of the biggest and lushest castles in the world. It is, therefore, no surprise that it adorns the top-three of the most-visited places in France, after the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. If you have visited the humongous palace before, you know that you can also come to stroll through its gardens. The 800-hectare-large yard is big enough for an entire day of moseying in the sun.
The 300 chateaus of Pays de Loire
But France, of course, counts many more castles than just Versailles. If you want to see plenty of them without too much driving, you can go to the Pays de Loire, a beautiful region in the north-west of the country. The 32,000-square-kilometre-large region counts well over 300 castles. The biggest of them all is the Château de Chambord, a Renaissance palace with 440 rooms and 365 towers on a humongous piece of land. The wall surrounding the estate measures no less than 32 kilometres.
A bit further down the Loire river, you will find Château d’Ussé, also known as Sleeping Beauty’s castle. This dreamy castle amidst the greenery is said to have been Charles Perrault’s inspiration to write the legendary fairy tale. Its big rose garden truly makes you believe that you have entered a fairy-tale book. Architecture aficionados will also enjoy the interesting mix of Gothic style with medieval elements, making it difficult to keep your eyes off it.
That also applies to Château de Chenonceau, a fascinating palace built on top of the river Cher. The castle itself, its gigantic courtyard and its galleries, are all floating above the water, supported by mammoth, white pillars of rock and brick. Its big gardens are built on the shore and display textbook French elegance. The vegetable and flower gardens still produce top-notch ingredients for the castle’s banquets and colourful, odorant flowers to spruce-up the chambers with. In the shadow of the chateau, you enter a mystique maze of hedges. Trying to escape might seem easy, but it is trickier than you might think.
Up to 7,000 chateaux
And like these castles, there are thousands more spread around France. How many exactly is unclear. Depending on your definition of the word chateau, you might end up anywhere between 1,000 and 7,000. The French National Monuments Centre clocks up 6,450 of them. Visiting them all, of course, would take a lifetime. That’s why we have selected our absolute favourite ones. Flip the page and join us on a road trip past Château de Lesigny, the castle that starred in the BBC series Versailles; Château de Siradan, a picture-perfect wedding location, a stone’s throw away from the Pyrenees; and Château de Cheverny, where comic book legend Hergé found his inspiration for Moulinsart, the castle of Captain Haddock.
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