France is known for the many forts and fortresses, castles and châteaux, palais and palaces. From the Palace of Versailles to the extravagant royal castles of the Loire Valley, the ruined castle forts of the Cathars to the many picturesque fortified Medieval towns such as Carcassonne in the south and Vitré in the north. Millions of visitors travel to France each year to see this hugely diverse and fascinating architectural heritage. Such is the interest in these buildings that a multidisciplinary team came together in the 1990s to construct a castle fort in a forest in Burgundy.
Neither a replica of a historic castle in Europe, nor a reconstruction of one. Guédelon Castle is a project that brings together a wide range of expertise to build a castle using medieval methods and techniques. In 1998 construction of this castle started in a disused quarry in rural France. Thousands of people come each year to watch the progress. Not only the building of the castle itself, but also the other related crafts.
While Paris is known for its museums and art galleries, the Eiffel Tower and other iconic landmarks, there are also a number of castles and palaces in and around the French capital. If châteaux are your thing and you have exhausted those within the city itself, there are a number of castles not far from the city centre that are only an hour or so by car, train, or metro. Some of these castles house nationally important collections. As they are further out and in many cases not as well known as other attractions in Paris, visiting them is often a great way to escape the crowds and enjoy a day out of Paris.
Château de Chenonceau spanning the River Cher.
The castles of the Loire Valley are a major tourist attraction in France. The earliest date to the 10th century and are typical fortified residences. French kings were drawn to the area in the 15th century, and were soon followed by nobles wanting to be close to royal courts. As a result there are some 300 castles in the region. Some of these castles are amongst the finest examples of French Renaissance architecture. A number of these Châteaux belong to the state and are open to the public, others are in private hands – some of which are now museums or have been converted into hotels and B&Bs.
The impressive ruins of Peyrepertuse Castle, where you can not easily see where the rock face stops and the walls start.
In the 12th century a new religion spread from the east throughout Europe. But it was in the Languedoc that Catharism flourished, becoming the primary religion in some places. From 1208 the Catholic Church lead a twenty year campaign against the Cathars, known as the Albigensian Crusade. With local support the Cathars held out in the castles and fortified towns on hilltops in the foothills of the Pyrenees. The local lords and Cathars were defeated and the area came under French rule. Visitors to the Occitanie region of France greatly enjoy visiting Cathar Castles.
Notre Dame Gate at Fougères, Brittany.
The Marches of Neustria consist of two marches: the Breton March and the Norman March. They were created in 861 AD by the Carolingians to defend the western lands of the Kingdom of Franks, Neustria, against Bretons and Norsemen. In 911, following peace treaties, the two marches were united. Many of the towns and cities along this frontier developed as a result of the fortresses constructed as part of the marches. Very little remains of these fortresses today. Owing to the strategic importance of the locations, the fortresses were substantially developed into fortified towns.
What started as a medieval castle developed into one of the largest royal and imperial palaces in France. This is where French monarchs from Louis VII to Napoleon III lived. In the early 12th century fortified castle was a favourite royal hunting lodge, given the game in the surrounding forest. In the early 16th century the Renaissance palace was built for Francis I, and succeeding kings and emperors each made their own mark. The palace is only 55km from Paris and is easy to get to on public transport, making this a very popular day trip from Paris.
The Palais des Papes, in fact two palaces, is Europe’s largest Gothic building.
The Palais de Papes was the seat of Western Christianity during the 14th century. It was here that six popes were elected. Avignon became the papal residence in 1309 when Pope Clement V chose to leave the chaos of Rome. The palace is two palaces: the old palais of Benedict XII and the new palais of Clement VI. The palaces were built on a prominent natural rock outcrop, on a site that had been the episcopal palace of the bishops of Avignon. Added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1995, the complex is now a major tourist attraction.
The Napoléon courtyard of the Palais du Louvre.
What most visitors to Paris think is the Louvre Museum was in fact a royal palace. What looks like a single, albeit rather grand, architectural unit actually came about as a result of various additions, modifications and restorations over the centuries. The Louvre first became a royal palace during the 14th century and was used by different kings of France as their main Paris residence until the 19th century. In 1793 part of the palace became a public museum, the Musée du Louvre. The museum now occupies most of the building.
Said to be the best preserved castle in the Perigord region, Château de Beynac is certainly one of the more picturesque. Hence why it has been used as a location for a number of films, including Luc Besson’s 1999 Jeanne d’Arc. Visitors are well catered for, with a very good audio guide to the castle, that follows an interesting route through the various features of the castle, including 15th century frescoes and the crenellated Romanesque terrace. During the 100 Year’s War the castle was on the side of the French.
The picturesque island-like setting of the Château d’Azay-le-Rideau on the Indre River makes this one of the most popular castles of the Loire Valley. Built in the early 16th century, it is now widely recognised as one of the finest examples of early French renaissance architecture. The style of both the exterior and the interior show a striking influence in the then fashionable Italian Renaissance. In 1905 the castle was purchased by the state, and in 1939/40 it housed the Ministry of Education when the French government left Paris.
Mont Saint Michel is one of the most popular attractions outside of Paris. Many think it is a castle. Mont Saint Michel is not a castle. Rather, it is tidal island on which one of the most spectacular medieval abbeys was built on a conical rock, hence why is its called La Merveille (the wonder). A village developed around the abbey and as the island has immense strategic importance it was heavily fortified in the 14th century against attack from the English during the 100 Years War. The substantial ramparts held off English assaults.
Visitor, Ticket, Day Trip Information for Mont Saint Michel >>
Aigues-Mortes with its medieval city walls in the swamps of the Camargue.
This part of the swampy Camargue has been exploited for the salt since Neolithic times. Charlemagne was the first to have a tower erected, in 791 AD to help the fishermen and salt workers. Later in the 13th century Louis IX developed the town’s defences so that France was not dependent on Italy for her involvement in the Crusades. Twice, for the 7th and 8th Crusades, Louis IX left for the Levant from here. But it was not until the very beginning of the 14th century, after some 30 years after Louis’s death that the walls completely encircled the city.