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France’s castles and palaces draw in the crowds all over the country. There are thousands to choose from, from the medieval castles of the Dordogne, the renaissance castles of the Loire Valley, to the spectacular palaces of kings and popes spread across the regions. Look out for the cheapest flights into Paris or Tours Val de Loire Airport to begin exploring France’s history. Here are five of the top castles and palaces to get you started:
Château de Chambord (Loire Valley)
‘Château’ in French has a wider meaning than the English word ‘castle’ and encompasses palaces, manor houses and vineyards as well. The fanciest B&B ever, the royal Château de Chambord was intended to be used by King François I when he was hunting in the region. Constructed with the help of 2,000 workers between 1519 and 1545, the Château is the biggest in the Loire Valley. It really is vast, with over 400 rooms and 80 staircases, and its mixture of French medieval and classical Italian design gives it its individual style. François I obviously lost interest in it somewhere along the line though, as it was never fully completed and he rarely visited.
Château d’Azay-le-Rideau (Loire Valley)
Home to nobility rather than royalty, the Château d’Azay-le-Rideau is one of the earliest examples of the French Renaissance châteaux as well as one of the most beautiful. It stands on a small island in the Indre River whose still water reflects its delicate architecture, and inside its refined style continues with an impressive grand staircase. Built by François I’s treasurer Giles Berthelot from 1515-1527, unfortunately the Château’s splendour attracted some suspicion and Mr Berthelot was accused of embezzlement meaning he had to flee in 1528, never seeing it again.
Château de Fontainebleau (Île-de-France)
The Palace of Fontainebleau is another product of François I’s reign and is surrounded by a very pretty forest, previously used as a royal hunting park, 37 miles south of Paris. The Mona Lisa once hung on its walls and the Palace was Napoleon’s favourite château and the place where he said goodbye to his troops after his abdication in 1814.
Château de Versailles (Île-de-France)
Palaces do not get any more spectacular than Versailles. Only 13 miles southwest of Paris, the court of Versailles was the centre of political power in France from 1682 until the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. The costs involved in creating the artificial splendour of this palace was one of the reasons many of its inhabitants got the chop; there is more decadence at every turn, including a network of canals in the 800 hectare gardens. You can also see the Grand and Petit Trianons, where Marie Antoinette may or may not have said ‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche’.
Palais des Papes (Avignon)
In 1309 Avignon became home to the Pope when Rome became too hostile an environment to stay in. This magnificent building is one of the most important medieval Gothic buildings in Europe, and testament to the huge wealth and influence of the Catholic Church at that time.
Katherine Conlon likes to a get a feel for the history of the places she visits, and seeks out the bits which reveal something about the culture in different areas of the globe. She has travelled in four different continents and is looking forward to exploring the rest.