French Castle

French Castles Call to the Backpacker

The Attraction of France

French Castle

In 2007, I lived in France for one year. I lived in a small town called Poitiers, about 2 hours by train south of Paris. France has always had a certain attraction for me. The medieval times, with the knights in shining armour, and the veritable fortresses and war machines that would lay siege to cities, truly inspired me to use my imagination. French castles, in particular, allow for the visitor to really delve into the past just by taking a short tour of the grounds. There are a few sites in particular that the backpacker will most definitely want to check out.

Getting Around France

First of all, the French train system is awesome. The train cars are comfortable and well-equipped (that’s right – there are some places in the world where trains don’t have bathrooms!). French trains have bathrooms and dining cars. If it’s a long haul, you’ll get to use the sleeping cars, where bunks are of three or four beds stacked on top of each other. I took one train from Perpignan to Tours, and slept the whole way through.

Otherwise, you can hitchhike really easily, depending on how much time you have. Hitching in France is simple, and wait times are usually short. I hitched from Poitiers to La Rochelle, a beautiful French town on the Atlantic coast that boasts an ancient harbour made of giant white blocks of limestone. The old tower at the entrance to the harbour is impressive.

Castles in Provence

French Castle

Let yourself be surprised once you get to France; European towns are so old that it’s not uncommon for there to be some kind of medieval fortification in each one! In Poitiers, the city defensive wall still stands in many places.

Some of the best-preserved castles I got to see in France were in the south. The first construction that will blow your mind is the Chateau d’If in Marseille. If you’ve ever seen the remake of The Count of Monte Cristo, the scene outside of the prison was filmed at this castle. It is an island fortress 20 minutes by ferry from the main docks of Marseille, France’s second largest city. The Mediterranean waters are turquoise, and the castle walls reach low over the rock outcroppings. It’s surely worth the trip.

The French Fortress Carcassonne

Probably one of the best-preserved medieval fortresses in France is at Carcassonne, not thirty minutes by train from Toulouse. It had been left to ruins, but in the 20th century, one architect took it upon himself to restore the glory and awe the site once inspired.

I arrived on the train from Toulouse – the French 'Rose City' and premier student town – to the new town of Carcassonne. It’s easy to find your way to the 'old town,' because it sits on a hill overlooking the new. You’ll have to walk through two sets of ring walls to enter the old town Carcassonne. That’s right – the old town is inside the fortress city. The streets are impossibly narrow, and the keep stands watch over the river below. I went off into the surrounding vineyards to get a good night photo of the fortress, which is lit up brightly once the sun falls under the horizon. A farmer chased me off, which made for an even better story.

The Loire Valley Castles

French Castle

One of the most famous regions to see castles in France is in the Loire Valley, or French: 'Valle de la Loire'. This region, just an hour by train south of Paris, is where the extravagant renaissance castles are waiting for you. There are plenty of hostels in Tours, which is also a cool base city for walking around, and it has an energetic nightlife.

The largest and most renowned Loire castle is at Chambord. It’s a massive intricately ornamented beast of a beauty. Then there’s my favourite, Chenonceau. That castle is built over a river and has a huge gallery in the hall. Chaumont is another castle on the route of the Loire, and has a great view over the valley. These castles, although built with defences and heavy materials, were mainly meant to show off wealth.

I worked at two castles; one called Veuil, and one called Nitray. As a backpacker with open plans, I was able to negotiate work for room and board. Nitray is a beautiful renaissance castle that sells wine, and Veuil is an old ruin that gets your imagination rolling.

Paris Castles

Your trip is going to either begin or end in the capital city of France. Paris is the most visited city in the world, and the options for a backpacker are incredibly diverse. I stayed in the neighbourhood La Bastille, because it’s the centre of nightlife in Paris.

The Paris metro system is large, but easy to navigate. I took a metro to the RER train station to go out to see the mega-palace of Versailles. However, a lesser-known site is the castle of Vincennes. There, there are fewer tourists (albeit there still are tourists), which makes the experience a little more yours. This castle is where King Louis was held before he was beheaded during the French Revolution. It is tall and brilliantly white, and the chapel on site is incredible. This is a great castle to visit if you won’t have time to leave Paris to see other military architectural achievements.

You could easily spend months trying to see all the French castles in existence, but I recommend this list as a good starting point.