Everyone knows France has a rich history, lots of pretty buildings, etc. (re: yada yada yada…). But when you actually take a look, it is absolutely incredible how many castles exist in France today. Though the term châteaux might cover a wider breadth of buildings than “castle” might strictly refer to, such as historic mansions or medieval fortresses, there are thousands of these architectural masterpieces all over France. And the ones worth visiting aren’t necessarily postcard-perfect. Sometimes, a châteaux that’s in ruins or has been abandoned is way more impressive.
One of the witnesses to the 100 Years War, Château Gaillard was built in 1196 by Richard the Lionheart, King of England. Looking out over the Andelys mountains, this beauty has served as inspiration for Impressionist painters, English Romantics, and writers throughout the centuries. The site is also an important one ecologically, classified as a Zone of Faunistic and Floristic Interest. Entrance costs €3.50, and the château is closed during the winter months.
One of the last great Cathar castles in France, perched high in the Pyrénées, the name of this castle literally translates to “pierced stone.” It can’t get much more obvious than that when you’re talking about a ruined fortress that seems to have grown out of (or back into) the rocky promontory on which it is seated. The site has been occupied by Romans, Catalans, counts, earls, and kings. When taken over by Barcelona in the 12th century, it even served as a de facto border between Spain and France. This is the château for any hikers or rock climbers looking for an adventure, or for anyone looking to take in the incredible views.
Built in the 13th century as a fortress, the Château de Ranrouët was adapted and updated throughout the centuries depending on its occupants, until it was all but destroyed in the French Revolution. Entrance is €4 for adults, and they host a broad variety of family-friendly theatrical, musical, and storytelling events.
One of the few castles on this list that did not meet its end during the French Revolution, the Château de Grandval made it all the way to World War II, during which time it was used as a hiding place for factions of the French resistance. Destroyed by Nazi forces when the hideaway was found, the château has been in ruins ever since. Technically, you’re not allowed to visit, but that hasn’t stopped the more adventurous explorers, although it might be difficult to access depending on the season, due to frequent flooding in the area. At the least, you can legally enjoy a picnic on the shores next to the château.
If a castle also known as the Elven Towers isn’t enough to help you live out your ultimate Tolkien fantasy, then you may be at the end of this particular cobbled road. The Château de Largoet is a marvel of medieval architecture, with its majestic round tower and octagonal dungeon, where the future King Henry VII of England was once imprisoned. Take a picnic across the lake with the castle in view, or pay a few euros to visit.
In 2018, an independent collective called Adopte un Château decided to take a new approach to ownership of historical monuments. They made big headlines by proposing a crowdfunding project to buy the Château de la Mothe-Chandeniers, a gorgeous abandoned fairytale castle that had been half returned to nature. 27,910 people donated money to purchase shares in the castle’s future on the crowdfunding platform Dartagnan, and the estate is now being renovated to serve as a tourist attraction and event venue.
Adopte un Château followed this up with a similar project involving the Château Fort de l’Ebaupinay, a 14th-century castle that was burned to the ground in 1796 during the War in the Vendée. Abandoned up until recently, almost 12,000 donors chipped in to restore this castle, offering “complete immersion into the Middle Ages,” as well as both a piece of history, and a place in the history of historical preservation.
The current project, Château de Vibrac, is located on an archipelago of three islands on the Charente River, this 9th-century castle was built up over time as a fortress, and then a castle, whose farms fed the people inside and in the valley below. Though almost 500 people are on the waiting list to claim their piece, it might be worth keeping an eye out to see which castle they choose next, if you’re in the market for a very different kind of farm share. Shares start at €50.
Constructed by the lords of Lavardin in the 11th century, this majestic ruin was later sold to the count of Vendôme, and then taken over by the Catholic League. In 1590, it was dismantled on the orders of Henry IV, and spent the next four centuries deteriorating until it was marked as a monument historique in 1945. Entrance is €4, and includes access to the rooms and underground passages.
Featured image: Stock Photos from Romain Talon / Shutterstock