Château de Chambord (Centre-Val de Loire): the most alternative
Buying old vegetables from the Renaissance in the most dazzling of the Loire chateaux? At Chambord, the vegetable gardens cultivated on the estate since the 17th century have been revived: over five hectares of plots are organic. Fruit and nut trees, vegetables, aromatic and medicinal plants... The site, which aims to be a laboratory of innovation, also aims to raise awareness: guided tours, permaculture workshops, weekends in the vegetable garden... Alongside the fabulous interior decor of the most majestic of Renaissance chateaux, you can don your gardener's boots in the wake of the kings of France, who loved beauty and goodness.
Versailles (Ile-de-France): the most unexpected
What if we explored the Château de Versailles off the beaten track? In the shadow of the sumptuous château bequeathed by the Sun King and its formal gardens, another, wilder Versailles is revealed to the nature-loving visitor. A hunting reserve in the 17th century, the 315 hectares of woodland are now also a biodiversity reserve that the château's managers have decided to preserve and develop. Wetlands have been created, pollinating beehives have been added, and species are tracked... Open your eyes and listen carefully, and you're bound to come across grey herons, warblers or squirrels.
Château des Ducs de Bretagne (Pays de la Loire): the most civic-minded
No trip to Nantes would be complete without a stop at its chateau, which has stood at the heart of the medieval quarter of the former capital of the Dukes of Brittany since the late 15th century. Behind the beautiful facade punctuated with sculpted decorations in the tradition of the Italian Renaissance, the 32 rooms of the museum tell the story of Nantes and, beyond that, of other universal stories - sometimes darker ones such as the slave trade, the Second World War or industrialisation. The exceptional collections contain more than a thousand objects, some of which have been collected from local residents - and the chateau has been awarded the Tourism & Handicap label.
Chenonceau (Centre-Val de Loire): the most aquatic
By bike or by canoe, all roads lead to the Château de Chenonceau! Built overlooking the Cher, a tributary of the Loire, this Renaissance building can be visited at the pace of slow tourism. You can follow the cycle paths that line the Cher valley between mills and forest, and paddle along the water in a canoe, watching for carp, birds and lock gates designed by Leonardo da Vinci. The highlight? The passage under the arches of the gallery of the Château de Chenonceau which delicately spans the river, enchanting especially at dawn or dusk!
Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg (Grand Est): the highest
What an eagle's nest! Perched on the Stophanberch mountain at an altitude of 755m, this former stronghold of the Duke of Swabia has always been a strategic point, at the crossroads of the wheat and wine routes in the north and the salt and silver routes in the south. From the north tower to the south tower, you can walk through the 1.5-hectare pink sandstone fortress and admire the impressive structure restored in the 19th century by an architect with a passion for the Middle Ages. This is a good way to start your visit before sitting down in the bastion's restaurant, where you can enjoy medieval cuisine served on plates made of spelt, and a range of organic specialities.
Château des Baux (Provence): the most 'mineral'
At the heart of the Alpilles, here is a fortress with a very singular patronage: the princes of Baux who built it in the 11th century claimed to be the descendants of the magus king Balthazar! It's a legend that fits well with the spirit of this medieval chateau, a fantastic collection of remains and ruins from a tumultuous history. From the 13th century keep to the Val d'Enfer, which houses the Carrières de Lumière digital art centre, via the village embedded in the chateau and the troglodytic houses, the visit invites you to take a real journey to the centre of the stone: the white rock of Les Baux de Provence was used to build the complex, as well as the neighbouring ancient site of Glanum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
Château de Villandry (Centre-Val de Loire): the most decorative
Want to know why the Château de Villandry is called the garden of France? Go to the top of the dungeon, the only vestige of this fortress that became a jewel of late Renaissance architecture. Crosses and plant hearts, green boxwood cut to the millimetre to enhance the colours of the season, tulip red or forget-me-not blue, a water mirror to reflect the sky, and thousands of shapes and plants... It's from above that you must admire one of the most remarkable gardens in France! Amongst the six gardens, the decorative vegetable garden spreads out its nine vast squares forming checkerboards in the purest Renaissance style. You can sample the 40 varieties of vegetables that flourish there, all of which are organic.
Château du Clos Vougeot (Burgundy-Franche-Comté): the most wine-focused
At the Château du Clos Vougeot, a beautiful Renaissance building buried in the vineyards, go back in time to the sources of Burgundy wines: the most sought-after nectars have been produced here for over 900 years! The winery with its four old presses, the cellar and the dormitory are all reminders of the patient work of the winegrowing monks who shaped the Burgundy landscape. Following in the footsteps of the brotherhood of the Knights of Tastevin, whose lair it is, the visit ends with a sensory escapade: on the menu are five wines of the Tastevinage and gougères, savoury choux pastries with cheese, to savour the art of living in Burgundy from glass to plate.
Château de Chantilly (Hauts de France): the most foodie
The French garden designed by Le Nôtre in the 17th century and its exceptional collection of mirrors and water features restored in the traditional way, the 2.5 kilometre long Grand Canal, the Hameau which inspired Le Trianon in Versailles... To explore the 115 hectares of the Château de Chantilly park, you can go by little train, bicycle, little car or electric boat, and you may even come across some of the wild animals that live in the nearby forest. Also visit the château itself, in particular the Condé museum (home to the second largest collection of old paintings in France after the Louvre), and refuel at the Hameau restaurant, serving - of course - authentic Chantilly cream.
Château Gaillard (Normandy): the most Impressionist
Perched on a cliff at the bend of the river for over eight centuries, the former fortress of Richard the Lionheart now only watches over the Seine and the surrounding areas classified as Natura 2000. Its chalky grassy hillsides crowned with ramparts and towers are home to numerous protected species, particularly plants. A privileged environment that inspired the Impressionists, whose paintings immortalised one of the most photogenic landscapes in Normandy!
Château de Carcassonne (Occitanie): the most fortified
Eight towers, two dungeons, ramparts... Inside the ramparts of the UNESCO-listed city, the 'château comtal' of Carcassonne is a fortress within a fortress! A model of sentry castles, its 12th-century military architecture would have been forgotten without the enormous restoration work undertaken by the architect Viollet-Le Duc in the 19th century. Put on your trainers and walk through the old palace between the barbican, the main courtyard, the watchtower and collections dating from the Roman era or the time of the knights, such as the Romanesque frescos rediscovered in 1926 illustrating their battles against the Saracens.
Château d’Abbadia (Nouvelle Aquitaine): the most eclectic
Gargoyles, crocodiles and snakes embedded in the walls... What a strange bestiary on the walls of the Chateau d'Abbadia! Perched on the Basque coast overlooking the sea, this Irish neo-Gothic building designed by Viollet Le-Duc is as eclectic as its founder. Passionate about travel, linguistics and astronomy, Antoine d'Abbadie made it his home and his observatory. A real cabinet of curiosities to be discovered during fascinating guided tours through the rooms mixing orientalist motifs and medieval decorations. The highlight: the master of the house's bedroom, of the purest flamboyant Gothic style. You can also take the opportunity to explore the Abbadia estate, classified as a Sensitive Natural Area, with its equally varied landscapes, from steep cliffs to moors carpeted with heather and gorse, via the meadows.
Château de Grignan (Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes): the most literate
On one side, oak and pine woods and moors speckled with broom; on the other, lavender fields and vineyards that mingle under the sun. From the XXL terrace of the Château de Grignan, the spotlight is on the Drôme Provençale and its breathtaking panoramas of Mont Ventoux and the Dentelles de Montmirail. Perched on a rocky outcrop, this former medieval fortress, now a Renaissance chateau, was for a long time the holiday resort of the epistolary Madame de Sévigné. Concerts or plays, wine tastings, yoga sessions... you can explore the history of the Renaissance but also a very contemporary Provencal art of living.
Château de Combourg (Brittany): the most romantic
At the Château de Combourg, you probably won't come across the ghost of the Count with the wooden leg. But you will plunge into the sources of French romanticism: this medieval fortress, restored in the 19th century in a neo-Gothic style, was one of the first homes of the writer François-René de Châteaubriand (1768-1848). The grand staircase where the wooden leg "sometimes walked alone with a black cat" he wrote in "Les mémoires d'Outre-tombe", his childhood bedroom in the tower ... The spirit of the father of Romanticism infuses the place, including the 25-hectare park restored in the 19th century by Denis and Eugène Bühler on the basis of the descriptions in his posthumous work. Like the writer, who felt he was in communion with nature, you can recharge your batteries in the alleys of oak, lime and chestnut trees.
Château de Quéribus (Occitanie): the most breathtaking
Hikers, get your boots on! A stage on the GR367 Cathar Trail, the Chateau de Queribus sits at an altitude of 729m. You have to cross three enclosures and then climb a few hundred metres more before reaching the keep crowning the ancient fortress. It is a spectacular climb: the 360° panorama extends from the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean. At the foot of the chateau, the village of Cucugnan, perched on a hillock surrounded by vineyards, is a must-see: between medieval vestiges, 15th and 16th century houses, there is an authentic restored 17th-century mill. Visit the nearby bakery where bread and cakes are made from ancient flours.