France just wouldn’t be France without the thousands of châteaux dotting the landscape across the country. Testimonials to history and guardians of the best architectural styles, French châteaux also boast enviable locations, often on the banks of the country’s many waterways or perched on lofty heights in the mountains.
Some lie in ruins while others bask in their original grandeur. Many are open to the public, some offer unusual accommodation in possibly the finest hotels in France while others form part of some of the largest wine estates in the country. But whatever their status, every single one provides a unique insight into quintessential France. In this blog post, we look at the history of French châteaux and take our pick of the finest in the country.
When is a château a château?
château has several meanings in English and can include castles, stately homes and palaces in its definition. For our purposes, we’ve taken it to mean ‘stately home’ or a fine residence rather than a castle or palace – so the Cité de Carcassonne and Versailles are not included here.
A bit of history
châteaux originally served a purpose as a fortification in those parts of France in battle. Many in the Languedoc region, for example, were built by the Cathars to defend their beliefs against the Papal crusade. The same is true for those in the Loire Valley, set up as fortified islands against the English during the Hundred Years War.
It was, however, the war against the Swiss Confederation in the early 16th century that turned the tide for the most famous châteaux in France. Victory by King Francis I led to France reclaiming the Duchy of Milan and a peace treaty. By then, victory by Joan of Arc at Orleans over the English had freed the Loire Valley of the English rendering the castles obsolete.
To celebrate, Francis I built the château de Chambord on the Loire as a fitting tribute to the glory of the French victories. Other courtiers and noble families followed suit and the area quickly became a favourite summer holiday destination, dotted with fine châteaux and grounds to match. The brief rule of Milan gave the French a close-up taste of the Italian Renaissance, in full splendor at the time. Francis I invited Italian artists and architects, including Leonardo da Vinci, to the Loire Valley to work their magic. As a result, the design and feel of many French châteaux have a strong Italian influence.
By the 17th century, the French court and nobility had shifted their attention back to Paris, building châteaux such as Versailles and Chantilly whose grandeur outshone even the finest on the Loire. However, many noble families maintained their Loire estates and today most châteaux have kept their original charm and splendour.
Where to see French châteaux
Most corners of France boast a château (or several in many cases) and you’re never far from at least one example of a fine French stately home. But some regions offer château viewing opportunities at almost every turn. And some luxury hotel barge cruises incorporate a private château tour in their itineraries.
Known as the Land of a Thousand and One châteaux, this region of France actually runs up over 1,500. Many form part of Burgundy wine https://www.french-waterways.com/2017/12/burgundy-wines/ estates and have privileged locations set among vines in the region’s rolling hills and woodlands.
Loire Valley châteaux
The most famous French châteaux hail from the banks of the River Loire https://www.french-waterways.com/hotel-barge-cruises/barges-loire-centre-nivernais/ as it meanders its way west to the Atlantic. There are around 300 châteaux along the country’s longest river including some of the world’s most iconic. Those located between Sully-sur-Loire and Chalonnes have World Heritage Status.
A far cry from their northern cousins, the châteaux in the Languedoc region are more castle-like in appearance and many lie in ruins. Their locations tend to be high up and often sit perched on top of a cliff or hilltop, designed to give Cathars the best look-outs for approaching troops.
Our pick of the best
Choosing the finest French châteaux was never going to be an easy task, but we’ve narrowed our choice down to eight gems:
Château de Chenonceau
Built by King Henri II as a mansion to house his mistress Diane de Poitiers, the château de Chenonceau has one of the loveliest locations of any French stately home. It stands astride the River Cher and one of the château’s wings spans the river as a bridge.
Château de Chambord
The largest of those in the Loire Valley, the château de Chambord has 440 rooms and sits on a vast hunting estate. It was built as a hunting ‘lodge’ for King Francis I and one of its most famous features is the double helix staircase.
Château de Azay-le-Rideau
It’s not one of the largest châteaux in the Loire Valley but certainly ranks among the prettiest. Set on an island created by the Indre River, Azay-le-Rideau is a feast of Renaissance beauty and one of the best examples of Loire Valley châteaux.
Slightly down river is this fairytale castle. Perhaps fittingly, Charles Perrault used it as the setting for Sleeping Beauty and Walt Disney drew on it for inspiration for his famous castle. The château d’Ussé sits on an idyllic spot on the River Indre before it flows into the Loire.
Château de Villandry
The last of the Loire Valley châteaux to be built, the château de Villandry takes on a pure French Neoclassical style with little influence from its Italian-designed neighbours. It is most famous, however, for its gardens: some of the prettiest in the Loire Valley with knot gardens, fountains, miles of box hedges and the pièce de resistance, the vegetable garden quite unlike any other.
Château du Grand Lucé
Our last choice from the Loire Valley, this fine example of French Neoclassical architecture was built in 1760 as a summer place for Baron Pineau de Viennay. As well as 26 acres of formal gardens, the château also includes the unique Salon Chinois and is now one of the most discerning hotels in the area.
Explore the luxury havens of the Loire aboard a Loire Princesse river cruise
Château de Digoine
Our next choice of the best French châteaux can be found outside Palinges in Burgundy. Here sits this architectural combination of Baroque and Neoclassical style, overlooking English-style gardens complete with lake. The conversion of a medieval fortress into one of the region’s finest residences took almost all of the 18th century.
Discover the delights of Burgundy from the decks of a luxury barge cruise. https://www.french-waterways.com/france/burgundy-north/
Château du Sailhant
Located in the heart of southern France, in Auvergne volcano country, is a completely different kind of château. With slate turrets and pinnacled roofs, this grand fortress dates back to the 10th century. Commanding a lofty position over cliffs, the castle grounds include a cascading waterfall at its foot.
Find your own favourite French châteaux
One of the best ways to see French châteaux at their best is from the water. A trip down any French river offers unique vistas of the grand stately homes lining the banks. You can achieve this grandly on board a luxury hotel barge, from the pilot’s seat of your self-drive hire boat, or courtesy of a Loire river cruise.
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