The many and fascinating stories that form the history of France are eloquently told through the thousands of castles that form the country's backdrop. Indeed, there are so many stunning and ancient French chateaux of various shapes and sizes that even the smallest village is likely to lie in the shade of a balustrade-lined fortress that once housed a local nobleman and his family. Some are, of course, in better repair than others, although an expertly refurbished French chateau is still a gratifyingly regular sight. However, a select few of the country's castles are so historically significant that a trip around France wouldn't be complete without bearing witness to these epic monuments, with their colorful histories, suitably majestic grounds and imposing facades. Among the embarrassment of riches that is France's quantity of beautiful castles, the following are five of the most epic, the most beautiful, and the most essential for any tourist who wants the privilege of experiencing, first hand, France's rich and fascinating history.
Château de Vincennes is an authentic Medieval palace just outside Paris (with easy access via the city's rail service) and presents an alternative to the jam-packed Versailles Palace with which tourists are so familiar. The partially restored Chateau de Vincennes, which comprises buildings from both the 14th and 17th century, housed several generations of France's royals, and later became a military base. The castle's most distinctive feature is its imposing tower, the highest of its kind in Europe. While Versailles offers sumptuous, decadent opulence, visitors to this lesser known chateau will witness an authentic, historic Medieval structure and Napoleonic-era English style gardens, while learning lots about France's military history.
If you're lucky enough to find yourself in the scenic Indre-et-Loire region of France, then a visit to the Villandry chateau is indispensable. The Renaissance gardens - designed in the early 1900s - which surround this 14th and 16th century chateau are known as some of the most beautiful in Europe. Visit on a sunny day to better appreciate the dazzling flower gardens, dramatic water displays, and impeccable landscaping around the chateau. If there's time to spare after taking in the expansive gardens, a tour inside the chateau offers visitors the chance to witness impressively maintained historical architecture. The nearby town of Villandry is worth a visit, too, as it charmingly and unaffectedly maintains the Medieval ambience.
Another historically rich chateau in the greater Paris region, the Château de Fontainebleau is a World Heritage Site which dates back to the 12th century. Like so many of the structures surrounding Paris, Fontainebleau was of enormous strategic value to the French royals and military leaders throughout the country's history, lending the beautifully restored buildings the weight of historic significance. The chateau - an eclectic but prepossessing array of Medieval, Renaissance and Classic architecture - and its large, peaceful gardens are a painless rail and bus trip from Paris, and comprehensive audio guides are available on site.
The Château de Chenonceau is a sprawling, eye-catching collection of buildings which dominate this area of the beautiful Loire Valley. Directly on the Cher river, the chateau is renowned for its serene, picturesque location and its masterful Renaissance and Gothic architecture dating back to the 16th century. This is one of the most popular castles in France, and although it's typically busy during the high season the relatively remote location, tranquil surroundings, well-informed tour guides and impressive art displays throughout mean the Château de Chenonceau makes for a pleasant day trip.
The immense Château de Chambord is the largest castle in the Loire valley and its some 5,000 hectare grounds contain a delightful forest park, farm houses and, of course, the castle itself which is recognized worldwide as the archetype of French Renaissance architecture. While some French chateaux are renowned for their lavish interiors, or perhaps their impeccably preened gardens, Chambord is a complete and unassuming immersion into French history and culture. Inside and out, the castle is a feat of engineering and art, while the relatively wild gardens allow adults and children alike to adventure and delight in the array of flora and fauna which lie in the shadow of Chambord's extraordinary turrets.