In Part 2 of our châteaux guide, Dominic Bliss explores the most beautiful châteaux gardens and the best châteaux to stay in across France from the Loire Valley, La Manche, Gironde, Dordogne, Calvados and more.
Châteaux with Gardens
At some châteaux, the gardens can be just as impressive, if not more impressive, than the buildings themselves. Manicured flowerbeds, tree-lined walkways, parterres, moats and garden festivals… you can enjoy all these and more besides at these wonderful châteaux.
Château du Clos Lucé (Indre-et-Loire)
In the early 1500s, a certain Leonardo da Vinci spent three years living in this Loire Valley château. At one point his most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, was stored here. In May 1519, the great man died here, in the arms of King Francis I, as the story goes. Nowadays the château rooms have been turned into a museum dedicated to his polymathic genius. Outside, in the château grounds, are interactive displays of some of his greatest engineering inventions. “As you walk, you meet Leonardo the engineer, Leonardo the visionary and Leonardo the painter and architect,” a château spokesman explains. “In the park, climb aboard the assault chariot, action the aerial screw, manipulate the multi-barrelled gun, sail on the paddle boat and walk on the revolving bridge and the 20m-high double-span bridge, all crafted the original way.” Who could resist?
Château de Poncé (Sarthe)
While the gardens of this Rennaissance-style château are stunning – and the neo-Gothic Terrasse Caroline really shouldn’t be missed – it’s the famous staircase that is the most arresting feature of all. There are six flights of steps with amazing carvings throughout of plants, cherubs, salamanders and coats of arms. Some say it’s the most beautiful staircase in France. The château is only open during the warmer months and opening times vary enormously, so check the website for details.
Domaine de Chaumont-sur- Loire (Loir-et-Cher)
From April 21 to November 6 this year, this fairy-tale château (a few kilometres southwest of Blois) is staging the 30th anniversary edition of its garden festival across its 32 hectares of grounds. This year the theme is “the ideal garden”. Here’s what the festival organisers have to say: “An artwork? A nourishing vegetable garden? A therapeutic space? A showcase for organic cultivation? Can the ideal garden unite all our expectations and requirements, whether philosophical, aesthetic, ecological or gustatory? Can it be beautiful, good, organic, healing, comforting, innovative, and water- and energy-efficient all at the same time, and above all glorify harmony and taste, and generate wellbeing and happiness?” You’ll have to come along to find out.
Château d’Ussé (Indre-et-Loire)
Shielded from the outside world by the thick Chinon forest, the Château d’Ussé was the inspiration for the Charles Perrault fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty. And when you view its Gothic turrets, soaring chimneys, grand staircases and sumptuous interiors, you quickly realise why. The pièce de resistance, however, is the terraced garden, designed by André Le Nôtre, the brains behind the Palace of Versailles’ landscaping. Le Nôtre aimed to bowl over visitors by playing around with symmetry, geometrical shapes and perspective, and by adorning his gardens with fountains, ornamental lakes, fruit trees, flower beds and cedars. The results are stunning. Just remember what happened to Sleeping Beauty, though: don’t prick your finger. Open from February 13 to November 14 this year.
There’s also a fashion exhibition, called ‘Telle mère, telle fille’ (Like mother, like daughter), which rather intriguingly celebrates the way parents control their children’s choice of clothing.
Château de Villandry (Indre-et-Loire)
Above all else, the Château de Villandry is famed for its gardens, a meticulous network of tidy box hedges, fragrant herbs and vibrant flowers. Smartly planted, they offer a multicoloured feast, whatever the time of year, thanks to their seasonal plants and veg: in autumn, hues of orange, red and purple prevail, while in high summer you’ll experience dazzling greens and hot pinks. The interior is also a sight for sore eyes, with gorgeous Renaissance decor and rooms laid out 16th century-style. The gardens are open every day of the year, while the château opens its doors to visitors from February 5 to November 13, and December 3 to 31.
Château de Hautefort (Dordogne)
The interior of this neoclassical château in the Périgord is impressive enough. The exterior, though, will take your breath away. First up is the three-hectare French garden, with its parterres, consisting of geometrical boxwood hedges, bright flowerbeds and yew topiary. Beyond this are the organic vegetable garden and a 30-hectare English-style park with a network of woodland paths and some remarkable tree species. The château is open every day from April to October, and at weekends in March and early November. Tickets are currently €11.
Château de Chenonceau (Indre-et-Loire)
Looking like it’s almost floating above the River Cher, this château, with its stylised moat, turrets, towers and drawbridge, is a veritable beauty. However, it’s the 70 hectares of landscaped gardens and lush forest rather than the tourist-heavy interiors that are most interesting. On either side of the river you can visit the gardens of Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de’ Médici, the Jardin Vert, the yew maze, and the vast flower garden. Both the château and the gardens are open every day of the year – even Christmas, which as everyone knows, is a rarity in France.
Château de Versailles (Yvelines)
Undoubtedly the most famous château in France (possibly even on the planet), Versailles served as the political capital and seat of the royal court from 1682 until revolutionaries dragged off Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to the guillotine. To avoid getting overwhelmed by a sea of other tourists, head for the wonderful 800-hectare Parc de Versailles where you can enjoy vast manicured, formal gardens populated by endless statues and water features, the English-style Jardins du Petit Trianon, the Orangery, the Grand Canal where rowing boats are available to hire, and the Lake of the Swiss Guard. You will be amazed.
Châteaux to Stay in
Fancy playing at being a real aristocrat – for a few days, at least? Why not stay at one of the many châteaux across France which welcome paying guests? Some feature adjoining swimming pools, spas and tennis courts; others even offer golf courses.
Château de Gizeux (Indre-et-Loire)
The landlady of this château, Stéphanie de Laffon, doesn’t really see herself as the building’s owner. “Not in the way that you might have an owner of an apartment or a house,” she says. “We feel like we are guardians of something that is much more important than us. We’ll be here perhaps 20 or 30 years, in a place that is 600 or so years old. So we’re really just a tiny part of the château’s history.”
With five suites and one larger apartment available, Stephanie hopes her guests might be a small part of the château’s history too. Once you’ve checked in you can enjoy a guided tour of the building, its parks and its gardens before taking a dip in the heated pool. It’s just heavenly.
Château de Chambiers (Maine-et-Loire)
Whatever the size of your party, there are rooms to accommodate you at this château not far northeast of Angers: double rooms, triple rooms, family rooms, a ‘romantic apartment’, a gardener’s cottage that sleeps nine, an orangery cottage that sleeps ten, and a former orangery that houses up to 26. The restaurant is overseen by Elie and Anne Crouan, both self-confessed slow-food enthusiasts. They also offer cooking and wine-tasting courses. The estate includes beautiful gardens (the focal point of which is a 400-year-old oak tree), a heated outdoor swimming pool, pitch and putt golf, a fishing lake and a neighbouring forest.
Château d’Ainay-le-Vieil (Cher)
Viewed from above, this octagonal 13th-century fortress (with a Renaissance house tacked on) looks almost perfect, with its moat, seven cylindrical towers, portcullis, arrow slits, ramparts and crenellations, all encircling a central courtyard. Slap bang in the middle of France, not far south of Bourges, it has five chambres d’hôtes and four gîtes to stay in. There is also a museum of arts and crafts, a restaurant and even escape games.
Château de Verrières (Maine-et-Loire)
This five-star hotel in the Loire Valley boasts ten bedrooms, all in the actual château. There are four acres of surrounding grounds, the highlight of which is the outdoor swimming pool, heated from May to September. Inside there’s a spa with sauna, Jacuzzi and treatments. There’s also a bar and a great selection of wines.
Domaine des Bidaudières (Indre-et-Loire)
An elegant 15th-century château, the Domaine des Bidaudières is in the heart of the Vouvray vineyards in the Loire Valley. Owners Sylvie and Pascal have nine guest rooms on offer, each one named after a local vineyard. On one side are views over the estate grounds and lake; on the other is the swimming pool terrace.
Au Château (All regions)
This online agency features 65 or so different châteaux dotted across France. “Share in the charm and ambiance of stately manor houses, medieval castles, Renaissance châteaux and aristocratic family homes,” they say. “We offer a wide selection of properties, from unique small castles and country manors offering understated elegance to opulent and stylishly decorated luxury châteaux.”
Rather conveniently, you can search for a château to stay in using preferences ranging from art classes, French lessons, dance courses and wine tasting to swimming pools, tennis courts, horse riding and spas. You can even opt for helicopter landing facilities, should that happen to be a requirement.
Château de Vigiers (Dordogne)
This lovely 16th-century château, just half an hour’s drive from Bergerac airport, has been converted into a four-star hotel, complete with a 27-hole golf course, a spa, two heated outdoor swimming pools, an indoor swimming pool and two restaurants, one of which – Les Fresques – boasts a Michelin star. “This gourmet restaurant is classic, intimate and elegant,” says the Michelin Guide. “It prides itself on fine, meticulous cuisine, excellent ingredients (truffles in season) and local wines. These start with those from the estate’s own vineyard.”
Château de Monfréville (Calvados)
“Whether it’s sitting around a campfire toasting marshmallows, gazing at the star-drenched skies, eating oysters, having a dip in the glorious swimming pool, or tasting cider and calvados, Château de Monfréville is the perfect retreat to relax.” So say Perrine and Thibault, the owners of this small but perfectly formed Norman château. Unfortunately you can’t stay in the château itself, but there are two adjoining cottages and a lovely campsite, which more than make up for it.
Château des Arpentis (Indre-et-Loire)
Standing majestically amid 30 hectares of parkland, the Château des Arpentis – a neo-Gothic structure with 14th-century origins – offers 13 rooms and apartments, all decorated with murals and tapestries. Breakfast is served on the ground floor, or out on the terrace during the warmer months. In front of the château is a lawn and elegant swimming pool, accessed via a tunnel. Beyond that is the lake and lush woodland.
Château de Césarges (Isère)
Château de Césarges, just half an hour from Lyon, was fully renovated in 2018 with chic modern decor and soft furnishings. Its rural setting is charming too. Wander the seven hectares of parkland at dusk or dawn and you might spot deer and pheasants milling around. The château offers a large reception room of 170m2 that can be separated into three rooms, making it popular for weddings and business seminars. There are also multiple bedrooms available.
Château de Tocqueville (La Manche)
Once home of the noted diplomat and political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, this Norman château combines a mix of 16th, 18th and 19th century architectural styles. Nowadays it is owned by the Count and Countess de Tocqueville d’Hérouville. If you yourself fancy playing the aristocrat, you can rent the very impressive tower wing, on the south side of the château (from €600 a night). Recently renovated with all modern comforts, it is spread across four floors, sleeps up to ten guests, and offers sea views. Outside are 14 acres of handsome parkland designed in 1836 by Tocqueville’s English wife, Mary Motley.
Château D’Ortaffa (Pyrénées-Orientales)
In France’s most south-westerly corner, near Perpignan and picturesque Collioure, you’ll find the lovely Château d’Ortaffa. This former episcopal palace, with origins dating back to the 12th century, is run by hosts Michelle and Alain. There are four guest rooms, all benefiting from the glorious light in this region of France. Enjoy a leisurely breakfast on the large terrace overlooking the village of Ortaffa.
Château Carbonneau (Gironde)
Here’s your chance to enjoy luxury bed and breakfast in the heart of the vineyards of Gironde. Château Carbonneau was built around 1860 and now offers five guest rooms. The style is a blend of French family antiques and fresh country charm, with each room overlooking the two hectares of parkland and vineyard. Naturally, no stay here among the vines is complete without a tasting of the family wine. There’s also a swimming pool.
Find out more in our PDF version of the guide.
From France Today magazine
Lead photo credit : Christmas at Château de Chenonceau © Jean-Christophe Coutand
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