Chateau de la Batie, Vienne, France

Vienne Batie

Chateau de la Batie, Vienne, France

Vienne is most famous for its Roman ruins – the Temple of Auguste and Livie, amphitheatre and obelisk – though there is far more to this ancient place than that. A bit eerie and yet hauntingly beautiful, Vienne’s Pipet Cemetery is a fascinating place to visit. Vast alleyways and avenues are lined with massive tombs and headstones making a sort of French city of the dead. Climb to the top of the hill for a view of the fantastic ruins of the medieval castle, Chateau de la Batie, which still cling to the rugged hilltop, crowning Vienne’s dramatic skyline. The view of Chateau de la Batie seems straight out of Victorian-era painting, of a folly perhaps—dramatic cliffs, dark forests, a ruined castle, a grey cemetery, a hanging sky—and yet, the view is entirely authentic. Perched at the top of Mont Salomon, the castle Chateau de la Batie was built on the foundations of Roman ruins in 1225 by the archbishop of Vienne in order to protect the city from would-be medieval attackers. While the castle is not open to the public, it turns a rather ordinary landscape into something dramatic, romantic and even extraordinary to behold, and both the cemetery and Vienne’s hilltop are well worth the visit.


Pro tips:  In the summer months of June and July, the city comes alive with the annual festival, Jazz a Vienne. Just across the Rhone River is Saint-Romain-en-Gal (only a separate town because it crosses county lines), find the ruins of a Roman city and an excellent museum of Roman archeology. Sometimes the site even hosts living history festivals. Vienne is an easy day trip from Lyon.


More Great Day Trips from Lyon


This post was originally published in November 2014. It has since been revised and rewritten. 

Chateau de Val, France

Chateau de Val, Cantal, France

Chateau de Val, Cantal, France

Chateau de Val is certainly one of the luckiest castles in all of France. Built from the 13th to 15th centuries, Chateau de Val is a little-known castle located in the centre of France in a remote and little-visited region known as Le Cantal. Le Cantal itself is within the underrated region of Auvergne, known for its extinct volcanoes, rugby team, and Michelin (and locally, its cheeses!). In fact, poor Cantal is one of France’s least-populated (and least-visited) regions – though this is not for lack of beautiful sites! Tucked into this quiet region is one of the most dramatically romantic castles of France: the Chateau de Val. Once upon a time, the castle of Chateau de Val overlooked a massive and fertile valley in the Cantal Mountains, ancient volcanoes that have been ground down with time. Then, in 1942, the dam of Bort-des-Orges was proposed – and a decade later, water from the dammed river filled the valley – lapping softly and perfectly at the feet of the castle as if it was meant to be so. And yet. When the Bort-des-Orges dam was proposed and the valley’s villages were evacuated, the castle was purchased from the ancient family – with the full intention of the castle being left to drown under the new lake. But – an error occurred, a miscalculation, a change in water levels or equations or perhads funds. In any case, instead of water pouring through the medieval halls of a once-proud castle, hiding it forever from the eyes of the 21st century, fortune intervened, and the water level was lowered. The lake arrived just below Chateau de Val, giving it a dramatic position on a newly-formed peninsula. The electric company that built the dam tried to sell it back to the previous owners (who rejected it on the grounds that it had lost all of its ground) so instead, the electric company sold Chateau de Val to the town hall for €1 symbolic. And that’s why one could say that the Chateau de Val is the luckiest castle in France!


Pro Tip: Cantal is remote and not very touristy so don’t expect big visitor centres or roadside tourist signs, menus in English or many local English speakers. Other local sites to visit are: the medieval sites of Besse & Chateau de Murol, as well as the village of St Nectaire (where the cheese of the same name comes from!). Cantal is also the name of a regional cheese – both are delicious and should be tasted while you’re there! The whole region is an outdoor lover’s paradise with plenty of trails and panoramic views. 


Find Other Amazing French Castles & Chateaux

Chateau de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

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Chateau de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

The Loire Valley is one of the most spectacular castle regions in Europe. Full of what can only be described as French chateaux, the Loire Valley houses some 300 extravagant palatial buildings!! Among the most famous are the immense Chateau de Chambord and the spectacular Chateau de Chenonceau. Spanning the River Cher in a unique castellated bridge, the river literally runs through the castle. Though it has had many owners, Chateau de Chenanceau is really a tale of two women and their rivalry for King Henri: Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Medici. Diane de Poitiers was a noblewoman – beautiful, talented, intelligent and elegant – who fall in love with young King Henri II. In order to take control of Italian states, Henri was married to the much younger Catherine de Medici. Despite his marriage, Henri spent his entire life dedicated to the beguiling Diane de Poitiers and their children, culminating in gifting her Chateau de Chenanceau. Though it took many years of delicate legal manoeuvres to make Diane the true owner of Chateau de Chenanceau, she loved the castle and was responsible for the phenomenal bridge across the Cher, as well as the flower and vegetable gardens. When Henri died in a jousting accident, his jealous widow Catherine de Medici illegally forced Diane to yield her the castle – though she was then forced to offer Diane  Chateau de Chaumont in exchange. Catherine further renovated the gardens and the castle interior, as well as adding new rooms and a service wing (of course she did, she’s Catherine de Medici…). Unlike her more enlightened rival Diane, Catherine was a girlish socialite whose favourite activity was hosting lavish parties at Chenanceau, including France’s first ever fireworks show. Chenanceau’s third notable woman was the enlightened Louise Dupin, who hosted countless literary salons in the chateau – Louise saved the castle during the French Revolution by claiming that it was essential to  commerce as it was the only bridge for miles. Though Catherine may have stolen the chateau from Diane and Louise saved it from demolition by angry hordes, Chateau de Chenanceau remains synonymous with Diane de Poitiers and her love for King Henri.


Pro Tip: Chateau de Chenanceau is far more lovely when visited in the off season – despite the lack of flowering gardens, the lack of tourist crowds allows you to feel the romance of the castle. No car? It’s a short and easy train ride from the town of Blois. 


Visit Other French Chateaux

 

Chateau des Adhémar, France

Chateau des Adhémar, Montélimar, France

Chateau des Adhémar, Montélimar, France

The 12th century Chateau des Adhémar remains one of the last true examples of Romanesque architecture, a style defined by rounded arches, thick walls, squat towers and sturdy pillars. This study, box-like castle was built atop a sunburnt hill which overlooks the orange-tiled, sunny town of Montélimar (located in the Drôme department in the south of France). Appropriated by the papacy in the 14th century until 1447 when it re-entered the Kingdom of France, the castle has been used as papal residence, an armament for several conflicts and wars, a citadel, a prison, a country residence, and now a contemporary art museum. In fact, Chateau des Adhémar was largely saved in the last few centuries as it was put to use as a prison. The famed loggia, or loge, with the striped design and rounded windows attached to the main keep was added during the Renaissance to ‘beautify’ what was considered a ‘plain’ Romanesque design. The beautiful Renaissance loggia was also built to add light to formerly gloomy rooms as well as show off the expansive countryside on Chateau des Adhémar’s toes. Located in the inner courtyard is the ancient 11th century St Pierre Chapel. Once a part of the wide-reaching monastic network centred at the Monastery of Ile Barbe in Lyon, the simple Romanesque chapel was later incorporated into the castle complex by the powerful Adhémar family. Today, the castle is a fine example of Romanesque and Renaissance architecture, as well as the modern art movement. It offers splendid aerial views of Montélimar and is a perfect stop on a road trip heading from Lyon to Nimes, Avignon, Montpellier or any other destinations in Southern France!


See Other Fascinating Places in the South of France
  1. The medieval village St Guilhem le Desert
  2. The famous Roman Aqueduct, the Pont du Gard
  3. The Nimes Arena
  4. Balazuc village in Ardeche
  5. Largentiere village in Ardeche
  6. The ancient citadel of Carcassonne

 

Chateau de Chambord, France

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Chateau de Chambord, France as Seen From Across the Moat

As the most expansive and over-the-top chateau in the Loire Valley and among the most excessive of Europe, Chateau de Chambord is certainly the crowning jewel of the already castle-laden Loire Valley. Known for its rich (and royal or at least very noble) castles, the Loire Valley is full of lavish summer residences – the Chateau de Chambord is no exception. Built in 1547 in the extravagant French Renaissance style (a style which was, by definition, extremely extravagant), it was constructed for King Francis I of France as a hunting lodge, it was though never finished. Among the many distinguished guests who stayed there, the most important was Leonardo da Vinci, and it is to him that we attribute (though without proof) the chateau’s unique and fascinating double-helix staircase – i.e. two intertwined, parallel staircases that twist upwards around each other but never touch. 16th-century chateaux are in many ways faux chateaux. Architects used basic designs of castles – like moats, towers, turrets, crinolines, keeps, drawbridges, etc. – but they were never meant to be defensive, and indeed weaponry and war in this era had changed so dramatically that castles were of less use in combat (to be fair, most of Europe had settled down a bit to form some degree of stability, at least from one region to another, though there were exceptions like the French Revolution). If boiled down, Chambord is really composed of a central keep and four massive bastion towers, connected by high walls; the rest is elaborate design. Chambord is best visited in conjunction with other Loire Valley Chateaux like the Chateau de Chenanceau for example – try driving from one to the next, or if you’re feeling adventurous, consider biking from chateaux – the castles are close enough together to make this a relatively a feasible task!


More Extravagant Castles in Europe
  1. Chateau de Chenanceau, Loire Valley, France
  2. Zamek Malbork, Poland
  3. Vajahunyad Castle, Budapest, Hungary
  4. Chateau de la Batisse, Auvergne, France
  5. Castillo Xativa, Spain
  6. Kreuzenstein Castle, Austria
  7. Gravensteen Castle, Ghent

Château de la Batisse, Auvergne, France

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Château de la Batisse in the Vallée de l’Auzon, Auvergne, France

Once upon a time long ago in a kingdom far away, there lived a fierce lord called Gérard d’Aultier. He lived in a beautiful castle in the charming, sunlit valley known by those who lived there as the Vallée de l’Auzon, a place often passed through by pilgrims following the St James Way (part of Santiago del Compostela). Sadly, the lord had no sons to inherit his magical castle, and so it was passed on to another powerful local family, La Volpillière, who added turrets and towers and other adornments, until they, too, had no male heir. Due to legal quarrels, the chateau lay dormant, slowing becoming derelict, until being bought by a local enterprising man, repairing the castle to its former glory before reselling it. The new owner of Château de la Batisse was Jean Girard, the Secretary of the King, and his newfound seat of power allowed him the prestigious name-change, Girard de Chasteauneuf. A tangled family web handed the château from one heir to the next, finally arriving in the hands of its present owners, the respected family, Arnoux of Maison Rouge from Riom, who lovingly care for the aged yet enchanted building. Defended as much by its defensive walls, thick towers, arrow slits, and keep as by concerned parties such as Monuments Historiques, and La Demeure Historique, Château de la Batisse is also preserved via the prestige, respect and loyalty it inspires in the region’s inhabitants. Nestled into its enchanted woodland valley in the heart of Auvergne, on the cusp of the charming village Chanonat, and under the watchful eyes of the burg Saint-Amant-Tallende, it is safe to say that the fairytale Château de la Batisse is living its happily ever after.

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Chateau de Chambord, France

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Chateau de Chambord, France

The biggest chateau in the Loire Valley, and one of the most distinctive chateaus in the world (thanks to its smooth blend of Medieval and Renaissance styles), the Chateau de Chambord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is as absolutely magnificent as it is immense. The chateau (for there is no other word to use; Chambord and its fellow Loire Valley neighbours define the usage of the word ‘chateau’ in English) was built by Francis I as a hunting lodge – a break from his royal residences at Blois and Amboise (each no more than a stone’s throw away by modern distance standards). The castle rooms themselves are relatively simple – large, rectangular, few in number but large in size. The roof, on the other hand, is an intricate network of sculptures, buttresses, statues, odd angles, elevated passageways, elegant windows and pointed towers, all arranged together like a miniature city. But that’s not the most remarkable part of this structure. No, that honour goes to the intricate and astoundingly unique double helix staircase, serving as the centrepiece and central element of the building. Elegantly carrying visitors up three floors, the two entangled staircases curl around each other but never meet, making it an architectural unicorn. There are rumours that a one Leonardo da Vinci (who stayed there for a time) was the creator of the DNA staircase, and this is quite possible, as the inventor was known for his unique and often outlandish projects, though his involvement has not been proven. In any event, the massive and iconic chateau certainly merits its place on Loire Valley itineraries!

Chateau de Murol, France

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Falconer at the Chateau de Murol, France

One of Auvergne’s most popular chateaus, Murol is a round hunk of stone dominating its mountaintop. While in and of itself it’s a very neat castle to visit, another thing that makes it special is the workshops that Murol puts on during holidays and  warmer months. These short demonstrations, activities and workshops show various aspects of what life was like in the Middle Ages for the people of the castle, from nobles to servants. Falconry (or hawking) is one such example. Falconry was quite popular during Medieval times, though only accessible to the wealthy, such as kings, royals, nobles and rich landowners or merchants, as they were the only ones with enough time and resources required to train the birds. Though it began as a means to hunt small game, hawking soon became more for sport than for necessity, as the falconers prided over his own birds and their accomplishments. Birds were trained to return to their trainers’ arms for bits of food and to bring prey back untouched, and hooded when not training. During certain periods at Chateau de Murol, visitors can still experience this ancient sport, watching hawks, falcons, owls and other birds of prey zoom around the castle, only to return each time to the falconers’ gloved arm.


Visit More Beautiful Places in the Rural Country of Auvergne in France
  1. Chateau de la Batisse
  2. The Massif Central in Auvergne Volcanoes National Park
  3. Village of Olliergues
  4. Village of St Nectaire
  5. The Cantal Region 

 

Albigny-sur-Saône, France

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Turreted house in Albigny-sur-Saône, France

Turning a corner and spotting a pair of turrets, even in a small village, is a pretty normal thing in Europe. There was a moment in history where everyone in Europe with a lofty bank account wanted a castle (during the 18-19th century), and there just weren’t enough to go around. So, they started building – and they got creative. Sometimes these ‘new’ castles were habitable, like this one here in Albigny. Sometimes, they were ‘follies’ (more common in England), where people constructed facades of (usually ruined) castles on their property for aesthetic purposes, like Sham Castle near Bath, UK. Their constructors always pretended they were old and ruined but in fact they were carefully constructed to look that way. Or sometimes they renovated their old mansions to look medieval or Gothic, adding turrets, gargoyles, crinolines, moats, towers, or other objects of the same effect (like the gargoyles at the House of Chimeras in Kiev). Sometimes they modelled their new castles on other famous castles, like Vajahunyad Castle‘s Transylvanian inspiration. Other times, in order to maintain some ‘authenticity,’ they bought up bits of old castles and put them together in a Frankenstein-type creation, like at Kreuzenstein Castle. In any case, with all these creations, it begs the question…what is a ‘real’ castle? Is there such a thing? Or are they all ‘real’ castles…?

Chateau de Montmelas, France

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Chateau de Montmelas, France

Owning a ruin in the 19th century was a big thing. If you didn’t manage to own your own ruin, well, that’s no problem because you could always build one! History and authenticity was obviously not nearly as important then as it is today. What mattered more was its aesthetic value. More than that, the 19th century saw owning a ruin (real or not) aligned with owning a piece of history, being in control of the past. So if you couldn’t afford to build your own ruin, but still wanted to jump on the ruin-owning, history-controlling bandwagon, you could turn an existing building into a ruin. We saw it with Sham Castle in Bath (a folly; 100% modern), again with the Gravensteen in Ghent (modified ruin), then later with Kreuzenstein Castle in Austria (a new castle was constructed from old bits of other castles). There are countless other examples (one more: Hungary’s Vajahunyad Castle, based on older ruin).  Now, we see it again here, with Chateau Montmelas. Montmelas began its life as “chateau fort”; that is, a fortified manor house, in the 13-14th centuries. Then, some 500+ years later, crumbling and forlorn, the previous residence of Louis XV’s mistress, it was restored in the Neo-Gothic style. Turrets, crinolines, a keep, courtyards–all very medieval. And in fact, it still retains many qualities and original stonework from the Middle Ages, despite the modifications! Not only that, but it’s appearance is breathtaking. And its current purpose? A winery in the Beaujolais, as one can tell from the surrounding vineyards. While privately-owned, the castle can be visited at certain times of the year. I  guess owning a ruin in the modern day–a real ruin, mind you–is still a pretty big thing!

Château de Vimy, Neuville-sur-Saône, France

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The château de Vimy in Neuville-Sur-Saône, France

Of course, the list of reasons why you should fall in love with France is longer than China’s Great Wall, but one of things from the list that particularly stands out is the sheer number and beauty of French villages. While places like Poland, Croatia or Latvia have their own form of beauty (Polish old towns are especially beautiful, Croatia has an magnificent coastline and Latvia has some magnificent “unexplored” wilds), 9 times out of 1o, the villages you encounter in their countryside are just okay. Of course, Spanish and British and German villages are cute too…but nothing beats France. One of the best ways to see France is to get a bike, head out to the countryside – biking along the Saône River, the Rhône River, the Loire River or the Gard River are just a few examples of river-based itineraries – and visit the villages. This particular village, renamed Neuville in 1665 by the archbishop of Lyon, Camille de Neufville, features this castle or une maison forte, as the French say (literally, a “strong house” i.e. a fortified dwelling), that rises up from the town’s centre. Sadly, the castle is in disrepair and closed to the public, but this has little affect on the loveliness of the surrounding village. The Monts d’Or region north of Lyon (literally, “Mountains of Gold”) along the Saône River, is full of adorable, take-your-breath-away villages (and not just because you’re huffing and puffing after putting a few kilometers on that French bicycle!) – so don’t forget your camera. Or a bit of cash – Les Monts d’Or borders the Beaujolais wine region, so be sure to taste local wines, perhaps buy fresh, local produce, or even stop for a quick beer by the river!

 

Château de Chenonceau, France

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Château de Chenonceau, France 

The beautiful Château de Chenonceau, dating back to 1513, owes its life, beauty, and survival to its beloved mistresses. Katherine Briconnet brought it to life, Henry II’s mistress Diane de Poitiers made it beautiful, Catherine de Medici made it extraordinary, and Madame Dupin protected it during the time of the French Revolution. The Château owes its existence and splendour to these women and others who created and cared for this beautiful French château, located in the infamous Loire Valley—a region famous for its regal residences. Chenonceau owes it all to these women who made it into the magnificent, iconic and historic gem that stretches elegantly across the River Cher today. Though all Loire Valley Châteaux are something special, a visit to the Château de Chenonceau will takes one’s breath away by its sheer extraordinary beauty! 

 

 

Chateau d’Annecy, France

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Chateau d’Annecy, France

Construction began in the 12th century on this marvelous French chateau resting on the beautiful shores of Lake Annecy. Though little is known about its beginnings, it served mainly as a residence for the nobles of Geneva for centuries. Located in the Haute-Savoie (Savoy) region of France, this chateau has long graced border of the ever-changing frontier. In fact, until relatively recently, Savoy was an independent region. It was annexed to France in 1792 under the First French Republic, was given back to the Kingdom of Sardinia 23 years later, and then alongside Nice, it became a political bargaining chip used by Napoleon and the King of Sardinia to settle the Treaty of Torin (a city with strong connections to the region)–all of which aided in the process of unifying Italy, which is pretty interesting to remark. Speaking of remarkable, did I mention that Italy was only unified in the middle of the 19th century? Rome only became the capital in 1871–making Rome as the capital of our unified, modern-day, boot-shaped Italy roughly the same age as Mark Twain’s infamous Tom Sawyer. Just something to interesting to keep in mind!

 

Lac d’Annecy, France

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Lac d’Annecy, France.

What better way to experience France’s second largest lake than by boat? Possibly “Europe’s Cleanest Lake” because of all the regulations surrounding it, it seems that Lake Annecy is also one of the prettiest. Nestled on an island among casual, green mountains is the medieval fortress, the Château de Châteauvieux Duingt. One one hand romantic and picturesque, the mountains, lake and château become inspirations for writers, painters and poets abundant. One the other, the silent, ivy-clothed and remote chateau on its tiny island isloated from the rest of the French town, sends a little shiverdown your spine as you are absolutely sure you saw this castle featured in a Scooby-Doo episode where it was haunted by a ghost. Despite this passing shudder, one must admit that the melange of castle, lake and mountain create an image that is beautifully and quintessentially French.

Carcassonne, France

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Chateau de Carcassonne, France.

Carcassonne is a medieval fortification founded in the 5th century by the Visigoths (though the Romans had a fortification in the same spot dating back to 100 BC). Legend has it that it received its name from the castle châtelaine named Carcas who rang the bells at the end of a siege, thus “Carcas sona.” It is now a UNESCO site, but not only that, it is one of the most impressive and iconic castles on the continent…you can’t get much more fairytale than the Chateau de Carcassonne!