Why we love French Chateaux
Here in Australia, our oldest building is Government House in Parramatta, built in 1810. My family often took picnics in the surrounding parkland. My sister and I enjoyed the occasional school excursions to the building to learn about early colonial history. A history which seems so very young compared to European history.
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Unique French Castles
This would be why we were drawn to explore the centuries-old castles dotted around Europe. There is something magical about a fairytale castle. Some are crumbling ruins while others have been faithfully restored. The same families have lived in some castles for over 1000 years. All are centuries older than any man-made structure we see here in Australia. We could soak in so much history within a very small area when visiting Burgundy.
Each of the Chateaux we visited during our time in France were unique in their own special way.
Some told their story through tours of the ancient rooms, others through displays of artefacts and artworks. Family homes were opened to the public to assist with the massive upkeep costs.
A number are owned by historic societies, serving as museums, interactive displays or educational resources which show construction and restoration methods used throughout the ages.
The magnificent Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy in Dijon is now the city’s fine arts museum. Others such as the castles at Gilly-le-Citeaux, Salon-le-Rue and Chateau de Ribourdin, operate as hotels and B & B’s. Many French chateaux provide romantic settings for weddings and other functions.
Yet all of them have withstood countless wars, rebellions and revolutions across the ages to tell their story.
Ian and the other boys sometimes inwardly groaned at the prospect of “another chateau”. But we all found something unique and interesting in each of them, as can be seen by the thousands of “castle photos” taken during our visits.
Here are some beautiful chateaux we explored during our time in France.
We came across Chateau Commarin between Beaune and Dijon. The same family has owned the castle for 26 generations. Original sections of the building date back to the 12th century.
Passing through the castle walls, the castle now encircles a central courtyard, set in beautiful gardens with views across Burgundy, which we enjoyed exploring after our tour.
Our French-speaking tour-guide showed us through the original “west wing”, starting with the 14th century chapel, to the upstairs apartments still retaining original 18th century furnishings.
Walls are hung with heraldic tapestries and the daily accoutrements of life on display is if their owners had momentarily stepped into the next room.
After our formal tour, we were free to explore the gardens, including the surrounding carp-filled moats.
High on a rocky hill near Dijon, in the fortified village of Chateauneuf you can still see houses with pediments and stair turrets dating back to the 14th century, when wealthy Burgundy merchants made their homes here.
We arrived at Chateauneuf in time for the traditional lunchtime siesta. Finding a shady umbrella at local restaurant we watched Ian and Stuart sample a plate of escargot, while the rest of us enjoyed a slightly less adventurous, but equally delicious lunch.
We spent some time roaming the narrow streets, admiring the ancient stone buildings until the castle re-opened to visitors at 3pm so we could begin our tour.
The Chateau Commarin family once owned the castle, which is now a heritage building.
The large square tower dates back to the 12th century.
During the 14th century, towers and defensive walls were added and it was also “modernised” during the 15th century.
We took a self guided tour around the stone buildings, the knights hall, and the stone chambers upstairs with their “long drop” gardeloos, which would have been icy in winter.
An interactive display in the stone keep showed the various layers of restoration over the centuries.
This imposing renaissance castle holds the oldest mural collection in France.
Set on acres of landscaped gardens, we first enjoyed a contemporary sculpture display in the gardens before taking a recorded self guided tour (in English).
The oldest section of the building explains the extensive restoration work which has gone into many of the murals, the oldest dating back to 1540. The display enables you to see the various layers of paint and wallpaper which have been applied during “modernisation” over the years.
The massive arched windows in the great hall shows you the genealogy of the families over the generations through uniformly painted murals.
Spectacular views across the canal can be seen, including a purpose built “folly” on the man made lake.
Chateau Tanlay was one of the more unusual castles we visited. The exterior may have been a little on the sombre side, but once inside, the luxurious interior has been well preserved
Entering Chateau Tanlay from the village, two towering obelisks sit each side of the bridge across the moat, drawing you through the two ornate towers which frame the courtyard.
The same family has been in residence for over 300 years and offer limited tours of the castle.
The upstairs aparments are sumptuously appointed, with marble fireplaces, original artworks and collections of antiquities. Photos are not allowed, except for in the Grand Gallery overlooking the moat and gardens, decorated with an unbelievably realistic trompe l’oeil suggesting a Roman courtyard.
This was the one privately owned castle in France where the guide made a particular effort to give us an English translation of his narrative.
Castle of Montrottier, Lovagny
Set on a rocky outcrop near Annecy, the 14th century fortress told a sombre story against the backdrop of leaden, grey clouds on the day we visited.
The Castle of Montrottier at Lovagny was built between the 13th and 16th centuries. The castle now houses an extensive collection of weapons, armory, porcelain and pottery which were bequeathed to the state along with the castle.
Climbing the narrow, spiral stone stairs of the 13th century tower provides magnificent views over the surrounding regions.
Guides were dressed in period costume. Knights and ladies, ambassadors and pages delighted groups of children with their medieval tales, adding an authentic touch to the fortified castle.
Because the tours were in French only, we saw little point in paying for a guided tour, strolling around taking in the exhibits instead.
Chateau de Menthon,
Set high above Mt Annecy, Chateau de Menthon once home to St Bernard and his rescue dogs, looks like something straight out of a fairytale.
The chateau has been home to the same family for over 1000 years.
Limited group tours of parts of the castle are only available on Fridays and Saturdays. So we planned a much anticipated visit on our final afternoon in Annecy.
We arrived on a cold, wet day, negotiating our entry passes in French, then wandered around exploring the ramparts. We then waited with the other “peasants” for the porticullis to raise allowing entrance to the next group of tourists.
Because the tour was exclusively in French, we relied on an English leaflet to explain the features of each room.
Once inside, we found ourselves in an inner courtyard surrounded by three medieval square towers. This was adjacent to the chapel dedicated to St Bernard,which we passed through to the former kitchen, which was used until 1945.
Climbing the narrow stone spiral stairs to the first floor, we were in the library, which also once formed the main room of the fortress. The Library now contains a collection of richly illuminated books and a carved 15th century mantlepiece depicting the life of St Bernard.
The grand sitting room and chamber are lined with tapestries and sumptuously furnished with pieces from the Louis XIII era, Venetian and Florentine pieces.
Downstairs in the former kitchen, lords received pilgrims on their voyages, with a display of ancient weapons including a Celtic bronze sword dating back to 900BC.
We were thankful to the many families who opened up their homes to quench our curiosity and were pleased to be able to help in some small way with the upkeep on these ancient monuments.