We love our cars, we love the grand houses and castles of France, and there are few better ways to enjoy exploring a new place than by driving there – so why not do a tour of French Chateaux by car?
There are options, of course. You could fly to France and hire a car, but then you’re dealing with airport parking, security, and the hassles that come with using someone else’s vehicle. You could use public transport too, but that is never as comfortable (or as clean) as your own car, and in rural areas public transport is especially inconvenient.
If you take your own car though, you have all of the luxury and comfort that you wanted when you invested in the vehicle, you can pack what you want and not worry about dragging it through an airport, and you can focus on the new places you’ll discover once there, knowing that you can come and go as you please, in comfort and control.
What could be better?
Driving in France
We’ve included driving time from London, to give you an idea of the distance from home, but keep in mind that visiting more than one in a single trip means you are often only an hour or so from your next destination. String a few together, and you’ll have a road trip featuring stunning French countryside scenery, studded with the best in historic châteaux.
Before you set out though, be sure you have all of the requirements to drive legally and safely in France.
What You’ll Need
You’ll need to have a valid driving license issued by an EU or EEA country, your passport, your V5C certificate and insurance documents.
Your car must have GB stickers on it.
France requires all drivers to have certain safety equipment in their cars at all times. This applies to locals and visitors alike. You need a warning triangle, reflective safety jackets, a breathalyser, and beam deflectors. Keep them in a bin or bag in the boot to avoid a hefty fine.
Etiquette and Rules
The rules are similar to the UK, but there are some minor differences – too much to mention here, but worth Googling. Outside of the major cities driving style is not usually aggressive, but keep in mind that locals know the roads and tend to drive faster.
You are not allowed to wear any kind of headset, at any time while driving a car – this includes phone calls. All passengers must always wear seatbelts.
That’s it; time to go. Here are a few great choices to get you started.
Some French Châteaux to Choose From
There are hundreds of great Château to visit in France, and how far you want to drive to see them is up to you, but here are some excellent choices from the northern regions – through the Chunnel, or a quick ferry ride over, and you’re all set.
Château de Pierrefonds
Five hours from London, a little north of Paris, this 14th-century château was in ruins by the 17th century, when Napoleon III had it rebuilt… and rebuilt it was! This is a big, stunning place to see an idealised medieval château in grand style.
In under four hours from London you can be strolling the banks of the water, looking onto one of the most well-preserved medieval châteaux in northern France. Step inside to view the public rooms, learn of the extensive history of the place, and even spot fish in the moat afterward!
Domaine de Regniere-Ecluse
The château itself is open from 10:00 to 18:00, seven days a week. It takes between 3 ½ to 4 ½ hours to reach it from London, depending on traffic of course, but once there, you’ll have everything you need to spend half a day exploring the château and its surroundings. Add a picnic lunch and a nap in the sun, and the day is spent.
The grounds include hedge-lined walks, statuary, and open lawns with excellent views of the château. The château itself combines feature elements of castle architecture with those of grand country homes. The effect is beautiful.
Château Fort de Rambures
Four hours from London, Château Fort de Rambures looks like it was plucked from a children’s story. The tight cluster of squat towers in red brick, with black, coned roofs and a band of white masonry tracing the outside of the walls makes this château a favourite with photographers, artists and those looking for something truly out of the ordinary.
Surrounding the château is a grounds area of ancient trees, rose gardens, and pleasant places to walk.
Parc et Vestiges du Château Royal
A little closer to Paris, and at five hours from London, the Parc et Vestiges du Château Royal (park and ruins of the royal château) is located in the community of Senlis. The ruins themselves are interesting for a walk-around, and there are two museums nearby for a deeper look into the area’s history.
The lawns are mostly cordoned-off from walking, but there are parks nearby that are suitable for picnics, and plenty of tea rooms and restaurants for indoor meals.
Five to six hours from London, but well-situated as a second or third stop on a château road trip, Château Gaillard takes an imposing position atop the east bank of the Seine, looking down upon the village below.
Richard the Lionheart commissioned this place in 1196 and it was completed in a remarkable (and expensive) two years!
Château Gaillard isn’t just eye-candy; it was built for the business of military security. It was so well done in fact, that in 1599, already in ruins, Henry IV of France ordered further demolition to prevent it from becoming a threat to the security of the area, should it fall into the wrong hands.
Moving further west along the French coast, we come to Caen Castle. It suits a later stop on a trip through the ‘Chunnel’ route, or a first stop once off a ferry from Southampton – a little over six hours from London, either way.
It sits in the heart of Caen, on substantial grounds that include two museums, several indoor-outdoor cafes, and a selection of ruined donjon, wall, and gate sites to explore.
Château du Champ de Bataille
Whichever châteaux you choose to visit on your trip, you won’t want to miss this one. Five and a half hours from London, this château and grounds is considered an example of the best France has to offer. A geometric masterpiece, the interior has been restored to its original lavish and opulent style, making a spectacle of wealth and indulgent décor.
The grounds are filled with lovely garden walks, sculptures and fountains, and beautiful views back toward the main buildings. Even without the neighbouring golf course, the area can keep you busy for the better part of a day of exploration.
Moving further afield, toward the western end of the north coast, Josselin Castle lies eight to nine hours from London (Chunnel or ferry) and is considered a must-see location of the Breton heartlands.
Parts of the castle are still inhabited by members of the Rohan family, but much of it is open to the public beginning in April and ending in October. You can visit the lavish dining room, library, and drawing room, tour the grounds, and take in the awesome views from a riverside walk. Add to this the activities of the surrounding town, and it is worth spending a day or two in the area.
The château sits on the characteristic peak of Vitré, east of Rennes. Its towers, curtain walls and flat, minimalist courtyards look like something cooked up by 1930s Hollywood set designers; you wouldn’t be surprised to see Errol Flynn round the corner, sword flashing in a desperate duel!
Though the history goes much further back, the oldest parts of the surviving structure were built in the 11th century by Baron Robert I of Vitré. In the 13th century it took on its recognizable current form: a triangular shape following the contours of the foundation rocks. Military and domestic improvements have been made by several residents since that time.
Just taking in the history of the site is worth a day or two. Take a room near the château and you can alternate between the castle, local museums and restaurants, and just sitting back and enjoying the relaxing ambiance that is France.
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