Castles can be found throughout Europe. But only France has such wealth and variety. A visit to one can feature in many a holiday itinerary, and they offer a happy combination of visual drama, sumptuous interiors, stunning gardens and grounds and, perhaps best of all, a tantalising glimpse into a past history which has long disappeared.
But when is a castle not a château? This is a challenging question, but as a rule of thumb, castles are fortified (and usually more austere looking), whereas châteaux are typically ornate and elaborately designed structures.
Indeed, countless properties around France are billed as 'châteaux' but are neither particularly elaborate nor especially defensive – these might include innumerable manor houses and wine-producing estates.
Think of a French region which best catches the eye of keen gardeners (whilst also providing a side order of fascinating history, stunning architecture and a whiff of romance) and the Loire Valley will no doubt come to mind. It’s a languid, leisurely region with a fittingly royal demeanour about it. Its fertile soils are well-watered and receptive to crops and garden plants alike. In short, no surprise that it is known as the ‘Garden of France’.
In style, they vary from the majestic châteaux of the Loire valley, mostly built in the 16th-17th centuries. These often originated as strategically defensive structures, then later developed into more ornate, luxurious residential estates, often with royal connections. No coincidence that the Loire Valley is also referred to as the Valley of the Kings.
At the other end of the scale are more fortified, functional castles, sometimes called châteaux forts. The fortress-style medieval castles of the Dordogne, mostly products of the Hundred Years War, are more functional, stark and clearly military in origin.
The role of the châteaux
During the Renaissance (15th-16th century), the French royal court gradually took up residence in the Loire Valley. It seemed a perfect spot, strategically well placed for trade, just far enough from Paris and with all the space needed for hunting and building elaborate châteaux, each designed to impress more than the last.
Many courtiers took over ancient defensive fortresses and re-modelled them along contemporary fashionable lines. The sprouting of ornate details and architectural flourishes, superfluous in times of war, reflected the more peaceful times.
Some 300 châteaux were constructed, including those in Chinon, Montsoreau, Orléans, Amboise, Angers, Blois, Saumur and Tours. Most are set close to the river Loire or its tributaries, such as the Maine, Cher, Indre, Creuse and Loir. At their finest, they embody the ideals of the Enlightenment and embrace the newest technological innovations and designs of the time.
In later years, French royalty preferred the comforts of Fontainebleau, the Louvre Palace, and Versailles (notably Louis XIV, the Sun King), not to mention Château de Rambouillet. Eventually, during the French Revolution, many were neglected or ransacked, leaving them at the mercy of the elements and the local populace until, in time, they began to be restored again.
So take your pick from hundreds of France’s A-List: some of the world's most famous, most iconic, best-known châteaux. For sheer drama and scale, you will not be disappointed.
Chateau des Milandes
Chateau des Milandes
Chateau des Milandes is located in the Dordogne region of France. It was built in the 15th century and was originally used as a hunting lodge for the lords of Caumont. In the 19th century, it was purchased by a wealthy French industrialist named Charles Claverie, who added several wings to the castle and transformed it into a luxurious residence.
However, it was during the 20th century that Chateau des Milandes became famous thanks to its most famous resident, Josephine Baker. The American-born singer, dancer, and actress purchased the castle in 1947 and spent the rest of her life there. She renovated and decorated the castle in her unique style, adding exotic animals and artefacts to the grounds and interior.
Baker's presence at Chateau des Milandes attracted many visitors and admirers, including famous guests such as Sophia Loren and Princess Grace of Monaco.
Today, Chateau des Milandes is open to the public as a museum dedicated to the life and legacy of Josephine Baker. Visitors can explore the castle and its grounds, which still feature many of Baker's personal touches, and learn about her fascinating life and career.
An iconic château, famously described by Flaubert as the one that ‘floats on air and water’. It is certainly one of the most visited châteaux in France, being small and immaculate with stunning gardens and grounds that extend along the river and through to the kitchen gardens. It was used as a hospital during WW1 and, during the Second World War, provided an escape route across the river from Nazi-occupied France to Free France on the southern bank.
Perhaps the most beautiful of the châteaux, Chenonceau (in the village of Chenonceaux, with an ‘x’) has several gardens. There are the formal gardens of Catherine de Medici and Diane de Poitiers – featuring spring plantings with bulbs and violas and a summer planting with dahlias, petunias and roses.
The kitchen garden is perhaps the most rewarding of all, with 10,000 square metres producing vegetables for the restaurant and cut flowers that feature in every room of the château.
Château de Villandry is renowned for its sensational gardens with endless manicured box hedging, elaborate geometric shapes and startlingly imaginative garden ‘rooms’. The interior is equally dramatic, with elegant rooms giving the visitor a real sense of history as you wander through.
Built in the early 1500s, Château de Villandry has evolved to become recognised as having the most exquisite gardens. The formally laid out gardens are a veritable patchwork of knot gardens, with miles of box hedging giving a unique neatness and symmetry. Be sure to get the best view from the raised terrace overlooking the gardens.
There’s a water garden with fountains, an ornamental garden constantly changing with the seasons, and a vast ornamental kitchen garden. In season, this ‘potager decoratif’ is a stunning assembly of colour-themed beds (according to the variety of vegetables) – truly an inspiration, no matter how green your fingers are.
Here’s a castle that is not especially elegant or elaborate in the ornate, picture-postcard sense. But wow, is it dramatic. Perched on a hill in the Périgord Noir, not far from Sarlat and Domme, with commanding views of the River Dordogne, it is a perfect example of a medieval fortress from the Hundred Years War. For sheer historical drama, it cannot be surpassed.
One of the most iconic, most elegant châteaux of the Loire Valley, Château de Cheverny was built between 1624 and 1630. It is known as the inspiration for the fictional Château de Moulinsart in the Tintin comics. The interior is rich and atmospheric, but the grounds are well worth a wander too. Try and time your visit to witness the feeding of the hounds – the pack numbers over 100, and it is truly dramatic to see the control a man has over a pack of ravenous hounds.
Although technically not a château, the Palais de Luxembourg is included in our list for its elegance and uniqueness. Located to the north of the serene Luxembourg Gardens in the 6th arrondissement of Paris, it was originally built for Marie de Médici, mother of Louis XIII. She pined for her native Florence, and the architecture and the design of the neighbouring gardens were intended to ease her heartache. Since 1958 it has been the seat of the French Senate.
Set between Saumur and Tours in the Loire Valley, Château d'Ussé is a froth of multi-turreted spires and towers. This flamboyant exterior was the inspiration behind Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle. Le Notre laid out the formal gardens – he of Versailles fame – and indeed, some visitors don’t set foot inside; such is the charm of the grounds and the exterior architecture.
Perhaps the most magnificent of all châteaux, with a 20-mile wall surrounding it, this is always a treat at any time of year. The vast grounds are wonderful for walking, with trails going off in all directions and each giving a different perspective back to the château. The newly created (or rather re-instated) formal gardens are a marvel, and the little chapel to the site of the château is always charming. But the good news is you are unlikely to find yourself dodging children on scooters, buggies or even the massed ranks of tourists’ lenses.
The foundations of Château de Chambord were laid in 1519 under the watchful eye of Francis I. This was going to be some hunting lodge.
The visual aim was for a magical castle set deep in the forest, its ornate white tufa stone turrets looming up from the shimmering waters of the moat and catching the sunlight like some celestial structure.
The château is famous especially for its twin, double-helix staircases, designed by Leonardo da Vinci reputedly to ensure that wife and mistress never crossed each other en route to or from the king’s bed-chamber.
Outside, it was always less complicated. In some ways, Chambord has never really had proper gardens. Strictly speaking, in its early years, it was never formally completed, set on its half-island with the arrow-straight canal heading off to the east. And latterly, the huge terraces to the north and east have been maintained as grass lawns (and not particularly manicured at that). Whether this was for budgetary reasons or deliberately aesthetic reasons, it was hard to tell.
The newly restored gardens, in the 18th-century parterre style, were completed in 2017 at a cost of some £3m and genuinely add to the overall picture. Together, the gardens and the ancient building are more than the sum of their parts.
Some 14 years were spent researching this grand project in order to get it right. Ancient documents were dug out, and faded plans were scoured to ensure accurate re-plantings where possible. The east garden is less visible than the north and south and does away with the intricate cut-turf motifs. Roses, alliums, cosmos, echinacea and thyme hedges add interest and a gentler aesthetic.
The gardens are hugely design-led: this is an exercise in geometry and precision rather than a romantic mélange of richly planted borders. It certainly has none of the blousy, exuberant froth of an English garden. As such, it is perhaps not the most interesting to an avid gardener or keen horticulturalists, but that is to miss the point. The point here is for the elegantly formal gardens and their linear paths and symmetrical austerity to act as a counterpoint to the architectural majesty of the château itself (blousy and exuberant and frothy in its own way).
The restored gardens have been an extraordinary success, and it’s almost as if they are the finishing touch to this château of châteaux.
Set on an island in the river Indre, this is a charming château with delicate towers and pointed turrets. Inside features include the Royal Chamber and the ornate staircase, while outside, the parkland is laid out in the English style with water mirrors, intriguing paths and mature trees.
The royal château in Amboise is one of the greats, but close by is the Clos Lucé, once home to Leonardo da Vinci. While time is well spent at the main château, it is Leonardo’s place which is wonderful for whiling away an afternoon on a chilly winter’s day.
Leonardo was invited here by Francois I in 1516 and spent his last years here. Today you can wander through his bedroom, the kitchen and the chapel, complete with paintings by his students. There’s even a secret passageway used when the king wished to chat with his genius guest without all the ceremonial palaver.
But best of all are the recreations of the incredible machines Leonardo invented or designed. The first aeroplane, a helicopter, assault chariot, revolving bridge, and paddleboat. All these and more are here, intricately made from beech wood and demonstrating da Vinci’s vision and engineering skills across all disciplines.
Not far from Chinon and popular with all ages (and, ahem, less than fully committed gardeners), this is a playground of the imagination. With no less than fourteen gardens, each themed with imagination and flair, you can wander and be fascinated, amazed and puzzled, possibly all at the same time.
The elegant towers of the château overlook the gardens, all inspired by the colourful legends of a child’s traditional storybook. There’s Gargantua’s vegetable garden featuring, yes, large pumpkins amongst other produce.
Explore the enchanted forest, the wildflower meadow and the secret garden. Enjoy the sensory overload of 450 varieties of fragrant old roses, not to mention rolling beds of lavender that make the warm air heady as you stroll by. Alice’s Maze is fun with surreal features like outsize boots and a giant watering can challenge your perspective.
Rob is the General Manager at Alan Rogers Travel Group, he is responsible for the ongoing development of the Alan Rogers website and publication of the Alan Rogers Guides.
He has been involved in the leisure industry since completing a BTEC in Travel & Tourism in 1993. Previous roles have included the promotion of tourism in Yorkshire and running a motorcycle touring company in the Australian Outback.
With over 213,000 square miles, France is one of the largest countries in Europe with a rich and varied history. France has played a significant role in many areas, including art, literature, fashion and architecture.
There are some impressive places on the list in France, as you can well imagine, such as Chatres Cathedral, the Palace of Versailles and the fortified city of Carcassone. So why not plan your next trip across the Channel to visit some of these sites, they’ve been given this status for a reason, so you know you’re in for a treat!