‘Tis the season for chateaux hunting! When the summer crowds have not yet arrived and the weekends are ripe for exploring French history. Of course, you won’t find us fighting our way through the selfie sticks at Versailles, and I thought we should round up a few of our go-to castles for fall day tripping around Paris…
1. The Three Musketeers Hideaway
A forty minute drive west of the Notre Dame cathedral lies the country retreat of the prolific French writer, Alexandre Dumas. One of the most widely read French authors, Dumas was enshrined alongside fellow great authors Victor Hugo and Émile Zola. He was the son of a slave of African descent. His Château Monte Christo was built in 1846 and named after his first successful novel, The Count of Monte Cristo. He also built a writing studio on the grounds, which Dumas named the Château d’If after another setting from the same novel. It is believed that he wrote The Three Musketeers is that little writer’s studio.
His writing earned him great financial success and his country hideaway was often filled with strangers who took advantage of his generosity. He spent lavishly on women and sumptuous living (researchers found that he had a total of 40 mistresses). In 1848, short of money, Dumas had to sell the property and the château eventually fell into disrepair by the 1960s. It was restored with the patronage of King Hassan II of Morocco, who financed the restoration of its Moorish room. Today it is open as a writer’s museum.
Researchers have also continued to find Dumas works in archives, including the five-act play, The Gold Thieves, found by a scholar in 2002 in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. The chateau grounds are filled with nooks and crannies to explore– perhaps you’ll find a lost work of Père Dumas!
Chemin du Haut des Ormes, 78560 Le Port-Marly, open Tues-Sat during high season and Sundays only in the off-season. Visit the website for further information.
2. A Rococo Wonderland
Chateau de Courances is an under-the-radar treasure that’s still privately owned by a family, open to in-the-know chateau hunters at the weekend. Named after its abundance of flowing water (courances: running water currents), run your hands through its crystal clear fountains, enjoy the stunning gardens that could take you all day to explore, sample the cakes from the tea salon by the Japanese garden and indulge your inner child on the Rococo Fragonard swing.
The neighbouring village is lovely too– also home to the former home of French singing icon Cloclo.
Hurry, the open season ends on November 1st and doesn’t reopen until Spring! Visit the website here. But if you miss the open season, fear not, you can actually book cottages and stay on the chateau grounds for a very reasonably price!
3. The Forgotten Rothschild Party Palace
Welcome to the old Rothschild country castle…
Not more than 30km east of Paris this is where they hosted that legendary surrealist ball in the 1970s….
Today after decades of neglect, it’s a cooking school. But it also has two restaurants– which means you can book a table and discover the chateau after dessert!
it was here that the infamous party took place, three years before the family gave up the chateau.
How about Sunday brunch in the Rothschild’s old dining room? More information here.
4. The Chateau of Follies
The garden is filled with 18th century follies that would have made Marie Antoinette green with envy, the library inspired Cecil Beaton for his My Fair Lady film set and the private”mini” theatre is modelled off a Baroque opera house in Germany. Set in a chic little town that could be mistaken for a medieval Provençale outpost, the Chateau de Groussay ticks all the boxes for a perfect Parisian day trip.
5. The Mythical Chateau that lets you Picnic
Okay so this one isn’t exactly little-known, and I’m not usually into the big national landmark chateaux but this one lets you: A. picnic. B. rent golf carts and C. drive your own boat around its moats.
Welcome to Chateau Chambord the largest château in the Loire Valley, was built to serve as a hunting lodge for King Francis I. After the French Revolution, this mammoth of a building was left abandoned for a time if you can believe it. During the Second World War, art works from the collections of the Louvre were hidden here…
If you luck upon a sunny day, Chambord is one of the few chateaux that let you picnic anywhere on the grounds, but also roam freely on rented golf carts and boats.
Inside, the scale and grandeur of Chambord is a jaw-dropper, but it can be crowded during high season. Pro-tip: whizz up that beautiful double staircase, take a peek at the Princess & the Pea beds on the upper floors and head straight up to the roof terrace for a close-up view of those stunning towers.
Chambord is a little further out, located in the Loire about a 2h30 minute drive. We recommend making an overnight trip out of it and staying in the nearby town of Beaugency at this very charming and affordable hotel. Details of the Chateau Chambord opening hours are here.
For more travel ideas around and outside Paris, I’ve got an entire chapter on that in our book, Don’t be a Tourist in Paris. Happy travels!