There are said to be between 1,000 and 7,000 castles, or chateaux, in France. They range from medieval fortresses to grand royal palaces, with various mansion houses and aristocratic residences also claiming the title of chateau – and many of them are open to the public.
Those in the Loire Valley – including the Atlantic Loire Valley – are often considered the most spectacular. Many of the chateaux there were built or renovated during the Renaissance, resulting in some spectacular architecture. Towers, turrets, helix-like staircases, vaulted ceilings, moats, formal gardens … the more ornate and opulent, the better.
The big hitters in the Atlantic Loire Valley include Château de Montsoreau, a flamboyant gothic-style castle, and the only one to be built directly in the Loire riverbed – today it doubles as a museum of contemporary art. Among the other must-sees are the imposing Château de Saumur, which also houses a museum, this time of decorative arts; the enchanting Château de Brissac, whose aristocratic owners had a tiny belle epoque theatre for operatic performances built within its seven storeys; and the Château d’Angers, originally built in the ninth century before being expanded by Louis XI in the 13th century. It later became a prison – and one of its dungeons features the graffiti of captured English sailors.
While the wider Loire Valley is the destination that chateau aficionados and tourists make a beeline for, it’s worth considering that there are plenty of other impressive castles scattered around both Brittany and Normandy.
Perfect for a road trip, you can cross into either region in the comfort and safety of your car by travelling with Brittany Ferries from Plymouth, Poole or Portsmouth. You’ll find plenty of open spaces on board, your own personal cabin, and ample fresh air both inside and out on deck. As soon as you hit French soil, you’re free to embark on a castle tour, long before you reach the Loire Valley – or, alternatively, on your way back from it.
Starting in Brittany, there’s a lovely loop that encompasses six spectacular chateaux, perfect if you’re disembarking at Saint-Malo. First though, it’s worth lingering in this charming, medieval-walled coastal town, which used to be a base for pirates and was heavily fortified against English attack. You can walk around the old part of the city on the ramparts, then crisscross its narrow streets and browse the shops, cafes and restaurants.
Around an hour’s drive westwards, you’ll come to Fort la Latte. A fortress dating to the 14th century, it perches on a jagged cliff edge overlooking Fresnaye bay with a clear view out to the Channel; kids will love the drawbridges, secret passageways, and pretending to put their parents in the stocks!
Several films have been shot here, including the 1958 movie The Vikings, starring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, and it’s been recognised as a monument historique by the French ministry of culture.
Just 30 minutes’ drive away is the pink sandstone Château de Bienassis at Erquy, once owned by François I. Dating from the 15th century, and renovated in the 17th century in baroque style, it’s still inhabited today. You can explore its gardens, stables, chapel and wine cellar, and marvel at its moat and crenellated walls. Teenagers will enjoy playing the on-site Escape Game (for those aged 15 and above) and all ages will be drawn to the historical re-enactments.
Drive two hours west and you reach the port city of Brest, which was designated as a military harbour in the 17th century by Cardinal Richelieu, a clergyman and nobleman who became first minister of France. The unmissable, hulking, stone Château de Brest dates from Roman times and is believed to be the oldest castle in the world still in use (as a naval fortress). Sitting at the mouth of the River Penfield, it’s now also home to the city’s maritime museum.
Now for something completely different: an hour away, via the scenic Parc naturel régional d’Armorique, is the Château de Trévarez – also known as the Pink Castle. Yes, that’s because its exterior decor is largely pink, thanks to the vision of politician James de Kérjegu. In 1893, he began the construction of a grand property that was to incorporate all the latest trends of the belle epoque, and included mod-cons of the time such as lifts, central heating and hot water.
It sits in more than 80 hectares of parkland, classed as a jardin remarquable by the French ministry of culture for its camellias, rhododendrons, hydrangeas, maple trees and more. The castle itself suffered bomb damage in the second world war but has since been restored to its former glory.
Two more chateaux worth a visit are to the east, on a route that sweeps back up towards Saint-Malo; first the Château de Comper, a handsome structure that sits by a lake within the beautiful Paimpont forest and is said to have been owned by Saloman, a ninth-century king of Brittany. An hour farther to the north is the gorgeous, medieval Château de Combourg, its location next to Lac Tranquille bestowing a picturesque, fairytale-like atmosphere.
If you’re arriving into Normandy with Brittany Ferries, head to Dieppe to discover the Château de Dieppe, originally constructed in 1188, destroyed less than 10 years later, then restored in the 14th century. Today it’s a museum that is home to Europe’s largest ivory collection – Dieppe was one of France’s main centres of ivory trading and carving between the 17th and 19th centuries. To further pique visitors’ interest, there are also paintings and maritime objects, from maps to navigational instruments.
A route southwards will take you towards a couple of other chateaux of interest, via Rouen, one of the region’s bigger cities, which lies on the River Seine. Rouen is known as the place of Joan of Arc’s martyrdom, and there are several monuments dedicated to her, including a church and a tower. You can also visit Place du Vieux-Marche, where she was burned at the stake in 1431.
Less than an hour away lies Château Gaillard, a ruined medieval castle overlooking the Seine. It was built rapidly in 1196 under the command of Richard the Lionheart, though the remarkable speed of its construction meant its costs were huge.
Farther along the river is the Château de Bizy, constructed in 1675 by the nobleman Michel-André Jubert de Bouville, with additional work on its grand stables in the mid-18th century. Inside you’ll see magnificent Gobelin tapestries and items that once belonged to the Bonaparte family, while the elegant gardens are well worth a wander.
Now head west for a final couple of castles. Close to the town of Bayeux and the D-day landing beaches is the Château de Fontaine-Henry, known for its well-preserved Renaissance facades. The same family has owned the chateau for more than 800 years and inside its vast, high-ceilinged apartments you’ll find an array of sculptures and paintings from masters such as Rubens and Titian.
Less than 20 minutes’ drive away, in the port city of Caen, is the Château de Caen, which was constructed around 1060 by William the Conqueror – not long before he earned his nickname at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Good old Richard the Lionheart makes an appearance in its history, taking part in a Christmas celebration here in 1182, an event attended by more than a thousand knights. Today it serves as a museum, and stands as one of the many captivating chateaux of north-west France that are not to be missed during your visit.
Book your journey to north-western France at brittany-ferries.co.uk