Are you ready to embrace your own version of escape to the Chateau?
I hope so because today we’re going on a virtual tour of the magical world of Chateaux in the Charente region of France.
These stunning castles are straight out of a fairytale. You’ll feel like you’re stepping into the pages of a ladybird book and writing your own historic tale where you’re the hero or heroine.
It wasn’t an easy choice for me though, as in the Nouvelle Aquitaine region of France, there is almost a chateau on every corner.
But I’ve curated a list of my five favourite must-see chateaux, all of which I’ve visited, so you’re in good hands.
Get ready to Escape to the Chateau
We’ll be exploring the fascinating history behind each chateau and sharing some interesting facts and legends. After all, we all love a good legend to spark the imagination and transport ourselves back in time.
I’ll also give you some top tips on how to make the most of your visit and give you a glimpse of what it’s really like to escape to the chateau.
So, grab a cup of coffee, sit back, and join me on this magical journey!
Escape to the Chateau of Verteuil
Possibly my favourite chateau of the five, Château de Verteuil is, in every sense, a fairytale chateau.
As you approach the village of Verteuil, the chateau bursts into view in all its full glory. From its elevated position, it reminds me of the type of castle you could imagine Rapunzel letting down her long golden hair.
The five conical towers are stunning, and as it sits surveying the landscape, it quite literally takes your breath away.
As you would expect, the castle is full of history. Dating back to 1080 it’s been extensively rebuilt over the years. Although I’m happy to say some of the 12th-century walls still remain.
However, the thing that really amazes me is that for 1000 years, it remained within the same family, the La Rochefoucauld family.
Now that’s not to say it wasn’t captured and occupied over the years, because it was.
The History of the Château de Verteuil
In the Hundred Years’ War, the castle was occupied multiple times by English forces and was even razed to the ground in 1442. But then was rebuilt using its original stones.
In later centuries, the château became a strategic stronghold for Huguenot fighters during the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries.
Unfortunately, in 1650, royal troops partially demolished the structure. Undeterred, the castle was reconstructed once again but suffered extensive damage in a fire during the French Revolution of 1793.
The château was restored to its former glory in the Romantic style following the Bourbon Restoration of 1815. Since then, it has undergone numerous renovations and modifications, cementing its place as a testament to France’s rich history.
A little bit of trivia for you, the word ‘Verteuill’ was often used in the Middle Ages to designate a fortified place. And that’s exactly what this castle was for, to fortify and protect.
For me though, a really fascinating piece of history occurred during the Second World War. Although it was partially occupied by the Germans, it was also the hiding place for members of the French resistance.
Known as the Marquis, the Resistance was very active in the Charente. A large part of the region was occupied during the war, and many neighbours turned on each other.
Even now, it’s very obvious that there are still grudges between the villagers in Verteuil.
On Remembrance Sunday, there is a definite divide between those that supported the Resistance and those that didn’t.
Royalty at the Château de Verteuil
The chateau also played host to its fair share of illustrious guests, including the future monarch Henry IV of France, the formidable Catherine de’ Medici, and her daughter Margaret.
And also Louis XIII, Anne of Austria, and the esteemed Queen Mother Marie de’ Medici.
Even UK royalty have been guests. The Queen Mum stayed there in 1980 and a bedroom was named after her in her honour, ‘la chambre Queen Mum’.
Inside the Château de Verteuil
Time to take a peek inside and really enjoy your escape to the Chateau.
With 14 bedrooms, countless salons and lounges, and a library with over 1000 books, it’s an exciting place to explore.
As someone who loves to read the library is easily my favourite room. The vaulted ceilings and former watchtower location give it a sense of grandeur and intrigue.
The hidden staircase adds an element of mystery and adventure, making visitors feel like they’re discovering a secret.
The upper level has tapestries featuring scenes from mythology and the Medici family’s coat of arms, adding a sense of cultural richness and historical significance.
The salons and lounges include The Louis XVI Room and Rose Salon both with painted ceilings and chandeliers.
According to the last owner of the chateau from the Rochefoucauld family, the Unicorn Tapestries once graced its halls.
Woven with silk and fine wool, these stunning tapestries depict the image of a majestic unicorn, captured and tied to a tree within a wooden fence.
Considered among the finest works of art from the late Middle Ages, they are now proudly on display at the Met Cloisters museum in Manhattan, offering visitors a glimpse into the castle’s rich history and artistic heritage.
Unfortunately, in the summer of 2021, the Chateau closed its doors to the public. It was purchased by an Austrian millionaire and became a private residence.
However, word on the grapevine is that it’s been sold and may well be opening its doors to the public once again.
Despite this, Verteuil is a wonderful place to visit and truly is one of the most beautiful villages in the Charente.
Escape to the Chateau of Rochefoucauld
As the name suggests, Château de la Rochefoucauld is also owned by the Rochefoucauld family. It sits on a hill overlooking La Rochefoucauld, a pretty market town in the Charente.
Not unlike Verteuil, La Rochefoucauld is also dominated by views of the chateau. Driving through the village, you can see it looming ahead as it draws you in, calling you closer.
We’ve visited the chateau several times and, on one occasion, were lucky enough to meet the Duchess herself. She was very gracious and spent ten minutes or so chatting with us about her home and her ancestors.
Looking up at the chateau from the car park below, it’s quite an imposing sight, and you can see why it’s called the pearl of Angoumois. Crossing the bridge to reach it, you climb up a steep hill and walk up to the entrance.
The grounds and gardens are lovely and worth taking a stroll in to really appreciate the magnificence of the castle.
This history of Château de la Rochefoucauld
The La Rochefoucauld family has a rich history dating back to 1019 when Foucauld, Lord of La Roche, first appeared in records.
Foucauld built himself a wooden camp on top of a rocky spur. The French word for ‘rock’ is ‘Roche’, which explains the castle and family name.
In the 11th century, Foucauld’s son built a square keep at the same site.
Now, Foucauld was actually a close relative of the Viscount of Limoges, descended from the court of King Charlemagne.
And with only four other families in all of France able to claim such a noble ancestry, it’s pretty impressive.
In 1453, to mark the end of the Hundred Years’ War and assert his political authority as the Lord of the region, Jean de La Rochefoucauld added three more towers to the castle, raising the height of the main tower to oversee his domain from a greater vantage point.
In 1519, François de La Rochefoucauld and his wife, Anne de Polignac, began to transform the South Wing of the castle to incorporate the Renaissance style of that period.
With the help of Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings, they constructed a stunning circular staircase connecting the various towers.
The West Wing was the last significant alteration to the castle’s structure, completed in 1760.
The illustrious La Rochefoucauld family
The La Rochefoucauld family rose to great prominence within the French nobility over the centuries.
They started as lords, then became barons, counts, and ultimately dukes and peers of France. Throughout history, the family produced many remarkable individuals:
- Cardinal François de La Rochefoucauld, who served as the Grand Chaplain of France, and presided over the King’s Council under Louis XIII.
- François VI, who opposed Richelieu, led the Fronde des Princes rebellion and later became one of the greatest writers of his time, known for his famous Maximes published in 1664.
- La Rochefoucauld d’Anville, a member of the Academy of Sciences, was a leading figure in the liberal current of the nobility at the Estates General of 1789.
- The bishops La Rochefoucauld-Bayers, who were deputies of the clergy to the Estates General and were executed in the Carmes prison, but later beatified.
- François-Alexandre de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, also a deputy of the nobility to the Estates General, founded the Arts and Crafts school and co-founded the Caisse d’Epargne.
But for me, the most fascinating tale is of a more modern member of the family, Robert de La Rochefoucauld.
As a wartime hero, he risked his life several times as a spy as part of Churchill’s Special Operations Executive (SOE).
Captured several times by the Nazis, he was sentenced to death twice, escaping both times. The first time, he jumped from the truck carrying him to his death, hijacking a nearby limousine and making his getaway.
The second time he hit a guard over the head with a table leg, stole his uniform and then shot two other guards to escape. Dressing as a nun, he was able to get to a safe house undetected and was quickly spirited away by the Resistance.
Inside Château de la Rochefoucauld
To really get an insight into the lives of the French aristocracy, you’ll find the tour of the chateau a fascinating one. From the boudoir of Marguerite de Valois to the prison tower and a Gothic chapel, there is something to interest everyone.
My favourite part was the 200 or so costumes available to dress up in. You’ll also find all the staff dressed up too so it’s cameras at the ready for those Instagrammable moments.
The tour takes you around twenty or so rooms, most of which are still furnished.
There are some beautiful tapestries, paintings, and furniture, as well as ornate decorations that were typical of the various eras.
The castle’s grand salon is a particularly impressive room, with its high ceilings, large windows, and exquisite decorations.
I loved visiting the kitchen which gives you a fascinating glimpse into life below stairs in medieval times. It’s been restored to its original state, complete with an enormous fireplace, copper pots and pans, and a range of other cooking utensils.
I can only begin to imagine how hard life would have been as a scullery maid or kitchen hand all those years ago.
The library was stunning and contains over 20,000 volumes, including rare manuscripts and books from the Middle Ages. It’s one of the largest private libraries in France.
The castle’s treasure room is another highlight of the tour. Containing over 240 boxes of family archives, including letters, documents, and other artefacts from the castle’s long and storied history, it’s a fascinating glimpse into the La Rochefoucauld family history.
Escape to the Chateau of Bayers
Literally, a 5-minute drive up the road from where I live in Saint Front is the Chateau de Bayers.
It’s a tiny village to the south of Ruffec and about 30 km north of Angouleme. And the bustling Roman town of Mansle is just 8 km down the road.
The first time I went to look at the chateau, I went on my bike, which probably wasn’t the smartest move. Bayers is up on a steep hill, and I’ll admit to getting off my bike halfway up to push it the rest of the way.
I’m probably a little bit biased, but this part of the Charente is a little slice of French countryside heaven.
It’s quiet, peaceful and pretty. Often you’ll see deer standing in the fields, and in July and August, those same fields are a blaze of yellow as the sunflowers take over the Charente.
You’ll want to drive carefully around here though, especially at night, as several times I’ve been faced with wild boar. Trust me these animals are not something your car wants to argue with, as you will lose.
The history of Chateau of Bayers
It will be no surprise to hear that, at one time, this chateau also belonged to the Rochefoucauld family.
Built in the 12th century, its main role was that of a fortress, and you can still see some of the remains, such as the dry moat and walls of the keep.
Like many castles of its era, it suffered during the Hundred Years’ War with much of it being destroyed.
But in 1454, Guillaume de La Rochefoucauld came to the rescue renovating it and turning it into a place to live, as well as a castle built to protect.
Unfortunately, during the wars of religion, the castle was attacked, once again. You can still see the dents of the muskets used in the attack above the doors.
The dilapidated castle, which had been in a state of disrepair for years, was sold in 1788 by its last owner, Marie Louise Françoise de La Rochefoucauld-Bayers, to Jean-Michel Delage, the governor of Angoumois.
Unfortunately, Delage passed away in 1793 before he could start any restoration work.
After Delage’s death, his widow sold the property to various owners in 1803. However, no upkeep or repairs were done, causing the castle to fall into complete ruin during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
In 1976 it was sold again and this time lovingly restored to what it is today.
Inside Chateau de Bayers
Although not as big or impressive as the Verteuil and Rochefoucauld Chateaux, Bayers has its own charm.
As with most castles of this type it had at least one well that supplied the drinking water for those living within its walls. The well in the courtyard of the castle is about 46 metres deep, and although it doesn’t supply the water anymore, it’s still in working order.
You can also see the remains of the Romanesque keep and the prison with its tower where the prisoners were kept.
The main living room is quite austere with a flagstone floor, and a massive fireplace, which would have been lit from morning to night to try and keep its inhabitants warm.
As you go upstairs, the bedrooms are quite basic with stone floors and very little furniture.
But as you throw open the shutters and look out over the beautiful Charente countryside, the view completely takes your breath away.
Escape to the Chateau of Cognac
What better combination could there be than the history of a French chateau and the evolution of a cognac cellar? Well, that’s exactly what you get when you visit the Château de Cognac.
What better combination could there be than the history of a French chateau and the evolution of a cognac cellar? Well, that’s exactly what you get when you visit the Château de Cognac.
Only 90 minutes from the wine region of Bordeaux, Cognac is undoubtedly the city that has put the Charente on the map.
And as it’s situated right in the town of Cognac, there are so many things to see and do once you’ve toured the Chateau.
Cognac has had quite a checkered history exchanging hands many times, and in some cases causing wars over who owned this town.
What we do know though, is that the chateau was built around 1200 on the banks of the Charente River. It was around this time that the lordship of Cognac was sold to John, King of England.
The History of the Chateau of Cognac
In 1202, King John entrusted the castle and its dependencies to Renaud II de Pons, and Robert de Torneham, who were serving as the seneschals of Poitou at that time.
In 1216 on the death of King John, war raged over Cognac. Despite facing threats, including ex-communication by Pope Honorius III, it was Hugh X of Lusignan who successfully seized the castle. And in the 13th century, the Lusignan family made several extensions to the castle.
Between 1366 and 1370, the castle was the primary residence of Edward, Prince of Aquitaine and Wales, who was the son of King Edward III of England.
Despite King Philip IV of France linking the lordship of Cognac to the French crown, the castle changed hands multiple times during sieges and treaties throughout the Hundred Years’ War.
It seems strange to think of people owning a town rather than a country, but that’s the way it was all those centuries ago.
After being held captive in England for 33 years, John, Count of Angoulême, returned to find the castle abandoned and in a state of ruin. Reconstruction on the castle began in 1450.
Charles, Count of Angoulême and his wife transformed Cognac into a hub of intellectual and artistic activity. Their son, King Francis I of France, built the long facade facing the banks of the castle in 1517.
Unfortunately, a lack of maintenance led to the castle falling into disrepair during the late 17th and 18th centuries.
Then in 1795, the castle was purchased by traders Messrs Otard and Dupuy who turned it into cellars.
The Cognac House of Baron Otard
Baron Otard de la Grange was a Scottish nobleman and thanks to him the chateau was able to escape the ravages of the Rench revolution and did not get destroyed.
But it wasn’t just the history of the place that won him over. Apparently, the ageing conditions in the castle with its thick walls were perfect for eaux-de-vie. The cellars, which are in the lower vaults of the castle, are at the same level as the Charente River.
The humidity combined with the thickness of the walls means that the temperature is around 15°C throughout the year.
When you tour around the cellars, you’ll see the oak barrels used for the ageing process crafted using wood from the Limousin forests.
You’ll also get to see some of the rooms used by King François Ist including the Salle des Etats, used for entertaining guests.
It’s a unique opportunity to see some French royal history combined with what this region is famous for, Cognac.
And of course, no tour like this would be complete without a tasting. As is tradition, you’ll be blindfolded to ensure a maximum, sensory experience allowing you to enjoy the different aromas of the Cognacs.
Escape to the Chateau Villebois-Lavalette
Standing high above the village of Villebois-Lavalette are the remains of an old castle, which you can see long before you arrive.
The village, which is on the edge of the Périgord, is listed as a “Petite Cité de Caractère” and is home to the famous Cornuelles.
These pastries are made with shortbread pastry and are triangular in shape. Originally they had anise seeds sprinkled over them and the recipe usually includes a healthy spoonful of Pastis.
To get to the castle we parked in the car park near the Marie and walked through the village. It was quite a steep climb but so worth it as it gave you the chance to see the village from different angles.
And when you reach the top that view is breathtaking. A full panorama of rolling hills and beautiful Charente countryside is simply beautiful.
Taking a tour of Chateau Villebois-Lavalette
As you walk through the original imposing entrance you get a feel for the size of what’s inside.
The courtyard is huge and if you close your eyes and let your imagination wander, you can almost see the bustling courtyard as it would have been in Medieval times.
Remember these castles were like little villages within a village.
They didn’t just house the family who owned the castle, they housed the knights, servants, and tradespeople as well.
There would have been wells, bread ovens, stables, blacksmiths and everything that goes along with it.
In fact, you can still see some of the old latrines used by the inhabitants of the castle. Three toilets sat together with no privacy whatsoever. Although, there was a good view from the little portholes.
I visited the castle with a friend of mine, Alan, who is ex-military and was able to tell me about how well the castle was fortified and protected.
Each turret you went into has arrow slits for the archers on both sides, which apparently allowed them to ensure they could protect the castle from all angles.
Each tower was connected by a platform allowing the soldiers to run from tower to tower quickly and easily. However, there were no stairs to reach them, otherwise, that would have given the enemy easy access should they have managed to break through the castle’s defences.
And then there were the cannons filled with gunpowder and stone balls used to attack the oncoming enemy.
One inside area we were able to see was a vaulted room created by Abbé Michon to house the refectory for his school. As you stepped inside you immediately felt the cold and damp.
The big fireplace would have been the form of heat but even that would have done little to keep you warm.
The biggest discovery though was an underground area which very little is known about. It was discovered in the 2000s when the current owner had a team of archaeologists working on the site.
There is no record of when it was built, who built it or what it was for.
The ceiling has been reinforced with concrete to stop it from collapsing, but the guess is that it was part of the original 11th-century fort.
The History of Chateau Villebois-Lavalette
A total of four castles have been built up on the Sanseau Hill, the first in 959, which was a motte and bailey castle. You can still see parts of the motte as you walk around the outside of the castle.
Then in the latter part of the 12th century, it started to turn into what we see today. Passing from family to family, the castle was then constructed of stone instead of wood, and a total of seven watch towers surrounded by ramparts were built.
There was also a church within the castle which has now almost completely sunk underground. Although archaeologists have started to unearth some of the original church, which you can see when you visit.
In the Middle Ages more was added, this time a drawbridge and yet more fortifications to protect it.
In 1597 after fighting for the castle in the religious wars, Jean-Louis Nogaret de La Valette buys it. And in 1622, the Villebois region is created and takes the name of La Valette, giving us Villebois-Lavalette.
In 1615 the castle had a royal visit. Louis XIII stayed a night at the castle with his bride, Ann of Austria, as he made the trip back to Paris after his wedding in Bordeaux.
He would later stay at both Chateau de la Rochefoucauld and Chateau de Verteuil.
Arriving on the evening of December 28th there were huge celebrations with the Duke of Épernon waiting for Louis with 4,000 men and 500 horses to protect him.
It’s rumoured that Louis was so enamoured with his visit that he planted an acacia tree in the courtyard. The tree was apparently burnt in the fire and a fir tree was planted to replace it.
Under new owners yet again in 1667, the castle becomes more of a residence than a fortress. And further renovations take place to turn it into a place to live in.
Miraculously the castle didn’t suffer during the French Revolution but it did serve a few purposes. For a while, it was a school, prison and police station.
Then in 1822 the residential part of the castle was more or less destroyed by a fire. You can’t actually see any of the residential parts now as it’s cordoned off.
The castle was then bought in 1914 by Doctor Maurice de Fleury, grandfather of actor Bernard Lavalette whose family owned the castle until 1998. It was the two brothers, Philippe and Bernard de Fleury, who took on much of the renovation work on the west wing to make it habitable in the 80s.
Finally, in 2000 the castle was purchased by the current owner, Norbert Fradin.
In Conclusion: Escape to the Chateau in the Charente
The Charente is a department in France that is full of surprises, the gift that keeps on giving. Relatively unknown compared to the Dordogne it is just as beautiful with an abundance of stunning chateaux to visit and enjoy.
What I’ve shown you here are five of over one hundred, each with their own story to tell.
It’s never hard to Escape to the Chateau in the Charente as you are quite literally spoilt for choice.
MORE RESOURCES – The Quaint Villages of the French Countryside