French châteaux are arguably some of the most beautiful properties to buy in France—but they are so architecturally varied that they range from forbidding fortresses to grand stately homes. Not every style suits every buyer. So what can people expect to find in the most popular château regions of France?
The first châteaux sprung up in the Middle Ages (although their roots are in the fortified Roman villas that marked the end of the empire) and one of their main functions was to help the local lord control his territory, while sheltering him from his enemies. These early, defensive châteaux (châteaux forts in French) are more common in those areas of south and western France where royal authority was feeble or lacking, and lords carved their own niche of power.
Buyers heading to Périgord, for example, can find some fortified châteaux from the 12th and 13th century, their forbidding bulk sheltered by thick walls, turrets and machicolations—although others were later remodelled to modernise their comfort and aesthetics.
‘Architecture and styles are very varied and elegant in Périgord,’ says Bruno de Saint Exupéry of Emile Garcin. ‘It may be a medieval château with a military architecture. It may be a château Renaissance inspired by the Loire Valley. It could be a 17th, 18th or 19th century château, with French or English gardens.’
This alone is a magnet for buyers but other factors also make the region popular — an international airport in Bergerac, one due to open in June 2010 in Brive / Cressensac, many golf courses, forests, rivers, and some of the best food in France.
Further west in the Gironde, the draw is both of the architectural and the imbibing sort—claret. Although the first Girondine châteaux had the same defensive function as those in Périgord—they flourished in the Hundred Years War—they have since become closely linked to wine, to the point that the word château has become a synonym for wine estate.
Not every Bordolese château (of the vinous kind) has a château (of the architectural kind) but many do. ‘Most of Bordeaux’s châteaux for sale are vineyards,’ says David Lawton of Emile Garcin. He explains that for the Britons, Russians, Germans, Dutch, Swedish and Chinese who buy here the priorities are ‘vineyards, vineyards, vineyards, location, location, location.’
Bordeaux is perfect from both viewpoints—communications with Paris and the rest of Europe (both by TGV and by plane) are excellent, and the wine is possibly the best in the world.
The Loire, says Thierry Journiac of Terra Cognita, also has good access to Paris and London via TGV and Eurostar, making London less than five hours away from Tours. But it also has ‘weather, gastronomy, culture’ and possibly the highest concentration of architecturally interesting châteaux.
The stretch between Sully-sur-Loire and Chalonnes has been inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage Site List ‘for the quality of its architectural heritage, in its historic towns such as Blois, Chinon, Orléans, Saumur, and Tours, but in particular in its world-famous castles.’ The earliest ones here date from the 10th century, but the grand era for this area was the Renaissance.
Over time, the rise of royal power, new weapons and new warfare techniques turned châteaux from fortified feudal bulwarks into stately symbols of wealth and status. With the king residing in Tours, the nobility began building luxurious homes in the neighbouring countryside, and the new mansions blended medieval architecture—particularly soaring Gothic roofs—with the Classical influences of the Italian villa.
The Renaissance châteaux of the Loire then evolved into the opulent country houses of the 17th and 18th century, of which Versailles is the most grandiose example. With their elegant proportions, unabashed luxury and exquisitely landscaped gardens, they are hugely sought-after but, says M. Journiac, ‘they are unfortunately pretty rare on the market.’
Burgundy and Normandy, he adds, are among the regions where you can find some of them. In Burgundy, most châteaux are situated in the stretch of countryside to the east of the Loire and on either side of the Saône. They are either princely examples of French Baroque—monumental but subtle and sophisticated—or Neoclassic masterpieces of perfect harmony and restrained elegance, often surrounded by the endless vistas of formal French gardens. The area also has many earlier châteaux, often dating from the Middle Ages, when it was an independent duchy of great wealth.
But perhaps of equal interest to buyers is that Burgundy manages the rare feat of being one of the world’s greatest wine regions, making an excellent mustard, and being home to some of the most mouth-watering chocolate shops. ‘Burgundy is attractive because of its fabulous wine, its gastronomy and picturesque countryside and villages,’ says M. Journiac. ‘Cities like Dijon and Beaune are superb.’
What wine and mustard are for Burgundy, seafood, cheese and cider are for Normandy. The northern region, which has both Baroque and Neoclassical châteaux, draws English buyers to the countryside and French ones to seaside resorts. ‘Normandy is very green, very famous for its stud farms, black and white cows, picturesque countryside and typical “maisons à colombages,”‘ says M. Journiac. “Situated only one hour and 45 minutes from Paris, seaside resorts like Deauville, Houlgate or Cabourg are quite upscale, while charming harbours like Honfleur offer great seafood. Up north and less crowded, the Pays de Caux and Etretat has magnificent landscapes with cliffs on the sea.’
That said, buyers who are after a particular type of chateau—especially the rare 17th and 18th century ones—may want to keep an eye on several regions to maximise their chances of finding what they are looking for. By contrast, if a specific location is the priority, it may be worth widening the search to encompass other property styles, such as chartreuses or villas.
Château du Pic, Najac in the Aveyron, Midi-Pyrenees
Perched at the top of a hill, the seven-bedroom Château de Pic is a masterpiece of 19th century French elegance. Two cypresses frame the classical, perfectly symmetrical façade. The interiors blend period charm—marble or stone fireplaces, stained glass windows, oak floorboards—with modern luxuries (including a newly created kitchen and a sophisticated central heating system). But what makes this château really special is the panorama across the Gorges de L’Aveyron and the feudal fortress of Najac, forbidding towers piercing a soft river mist. Every main room has sweeping vistas but the loftiest ones can be enjoyed from the balustraded rooftop terraces on either side of the domed roof. The Château de Pic also has two three-bedroom caretaker’s cottages—one of which is completely refurbished—a double coach house with hayloft, an old pump house and a panoramic hilltop swimming pool. The asking price is €3m through Savills (020 7106 3740, www.savills.co.uk/abroad).
Medieval château near Bordeaux, Gironde
Emile Garcin are also selling a château on the Langon hills, south of Bordeaux. Originally dating from the 12th century, it is a fortified stone castle with donjon, set around an inner courtyard and sheltered behind thick walls. A good portion of it has been renovated in 2003, and at the moment the château has six bedrooms, plus a two-bedroom caretaker house, but there also are plenty of outbuildings ripe for restoration. The land around it stretches for 32 hectares of meadows, wood, leisure and vegetable gardens, with an old one-hectare vineyard that could be expanded—the property comes with another 22 hectares of planting rights. The grounds also house a swimming pool. The asking price is €3.25m through Emile Garcin (0033 (0)1 42 61 73 38, www.emilegarcin.fr).