Musement takes you to the six corners of the Hexagon to discover 10 of the most beautiful French castles.
A major chapter in French history, the Middle Ages is perhaps one of the periods that fascinates and most stirs the imagination. However, touring the castles of France is also about discovering a long, winding heritage and immersing yourself in the country’s history. From the Gironde to the Bas-Rhin via the Cantal, France’s regions abound with more or less well-preserved medieval fortresses. Here’s a look at 10 of the most interesting that merit a stop.
1. The Medieval City of Carcassonne, Aude
Located in southwest France in Cathar country, the medieval fortified town of Carcassonne is particularly well preserved. Two walls surround this UNESCO World Heritage city, inside which it is possible to visit a charming Gothic cathedral and the not-to-be-missed Château Comtal.
2. The Château d’If, Bouches-du-Rhône
Surrounded by the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea, Château d’If, just off the coast of Marseille, has been open to the public since 1890. Commissioned in 1516 by Francis I, this castle was used as a state prison starting in 1580 and was made famous by Alexander Dumas, who featured it in the “The Count of Monte Cristo”.
3. The Castle of Val, Cantal
With its parapets, conical-roofed towers outfitted with machicolations, the Château de Val — overlooking a valley and now surrounded by an artificial lake — is the exemplary model of the quintessential French castle. Shows and theatrical tours punctuate the summer season, while between March and October, the third-floor houses exhibitions.
4. The Château of Plessis-Bourré, Maine-et-Loire
This true princess castle is a perfect example of a link between typical medieval architecture and the early Renaissance. Its wide moat, drawbridge and keep — characteristic of medieval fortresses and combined with the elegance and refinement typical of the Renaissance — have made it the perfect setting for many French films, including “Peau d’âne” and “Fanfan la tulipe”.
5. Pierrefonds Castle, Oise
Here is another backdrop French cinema buffs will recognize: the Château de Pierrefonds hosted the shooting of the films “Les Visiteurs 2” and “Merlin”. This castle was completely redesigned by Viollet-le-Duc, a famous architect to whom Napoleon III entrusted its restoration. He transformed it into the ideal medieval castle as it would have served in the Middle Ages. Several styles are mixed in this extravagant castle protected by spooky gargoyles.
6. The Castle of Haut-Koenigsbourg, Bas-Rhin
When seen from afar, perched on its spur a short distance from the German border, Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle almost appears like a mirage — especially when floating in its thick coat of fog. Perfectly restored at the beginning of the 20th century, it has all the characteristics of a perfect medieval mountain fortress.
7. The Castle of Fougères, Ille-et-Vilaine
Destroyed, rebuilt and besieged many times, Château de Fougères is a perfect example of medieval military architecture. The charming town of Fougères itself likewise merits a visit. The delicious half-timbered houses at the bend of the cobbled streets animated by the many cafés and bistros will undoubtedly enchant you.
8. The Royal Fortress of Chinon, Indre-et-Loire
A medieval castle in the heart of the Loire Valley? Of course, it exists, and it’s not just for anyone! The Royal Fortress of Chinon was once the seat of one of the most important decisions in French history. It was within these walls that Joan of Arc convinced the dauphin Charles VII to furnish her with the weapons needed to deliver the siege of Orléans.
9. Roquetaillade Castle, Gironde
Classified as a historic monument in 1840, Roquetaillade is not one but two castles in one and the same enclosure: the Old Castle and the New Castle. You can discover the ramparts, towers and dungeons typical of the Middle Ages, but also the first Renaissance-style fireplaces in the region.
10. The medieval construction site of Guédelon, Yonne
A real educational and hands-on site, the medieval construction site of Guédelon makes it possible to understand and apprehend the castle-building methods of medieval times. You’ll be able to observe builders actually working on the construction of the castle, and many ancestral trades are represented, from stonemasons to blacksmiths, as well as quarrymen and carpenters.