If I had to give a single piece of advice to travelers, it might be “Make friends with people who own cars.” Obviously, when meeting new people, it’s probably not the best idea to lead with “Hi, I’m Margaret, do you have a car?,” but it’s true that cars open up whole worlds of otherwise unreachable opportunities. In college, car-owning friends meant free airport pick-up and trips to Target, but when you’re traveling, they can mean the difference between buying a postcard of a famous nearby-but-inaccessible village, manor or mountain, and actually seeing it in person. Especially in the country, many places aren’t easily accessible via public transit (at least not without a detailed local bus schedule and an eternity’s worth of patience), and for back-packers or students living abroad, owning or renting a car in foreign countries is usually neither practical nor feasible, and this is where the friends come in: glorious, generous, car-owning friends.
These past few weeks I’ve been lucky enough to get a lot of free car rides, and they’ve helped me engage in one of my favorite touristic activities, fondly referred (by me, at least) as “Castling,” or the enthusiastic exploration of castles (not the play in Chess where you move the King two hops over to protect it with your Rook). I love castles, but the tough thing about visiting them is that they’re often aren’t within the city limits. This is where the car-owning friends come in handy: I saw the incredible Kraks de Chevaliers, a French crusader castle in Syria, by hitchhiking with my brother in a cab of a pristine, Mercedes-Benz 18-wheeler. I drove in a van with some lovely English folks to Warwick Castle in the UK, was driven out to Schloss Neuschwanstein, near Munich, by some friendly Bavarians, and I was given a fantastic tour of the Rhine Gorge and its incredible castles by a family friend from Mainz, Germany. And I never would have seen any of these places if I hadn’t made friends (though the truck driver might be better termed a “casual acquaintance”) with people who owned cars.
In France, ‘Château,’—which you probably already know to be the translation of ‘Castle’— can denote very different things depending on the age and history of the structure in question. When I think of a castle, I think of a fortress, of warriors, lords, ladies and vassals, of towers, portcullises, moats, and overturned barrels of boiling oil. But the word “Château” also refers to palaces, manors and even vineyards, “castles” designed for elegance, grandeur, and comfortable living, rather than as military strongholds. Thanks to car-owning friends, I recently made daytrips to the famous Château de Versailles (also easily reached by RER), constructed in the 17th century by Louis XIV, and Château de Vaux le Vicomte, both large palaces that share some interesting common history. Vaux le Vicomte was purchased in the mid-1600s by Nicolas Fouquet, Minister of Finance during the early reign of Louis XIV. Fouquet was good at his job, filling the government coffers and simultaneously becoming a very, very rich man. In 1661, Fouquet threw an extravagant fête for Louis XIV at his newly renovated Château.
The King, angered by Fouquet’s incredible wealth and his poorly disguised political ambitions, soon had him arrested, and ultimately sentenced him to be imprisoned for life. Once Fouquet was dealt with, Louis XIV hired away all the architects and artisans who had been employed at Vaux le Vicomte, and set them to work building an even more magnificent palace at Versailles.
You can feel the similarity between these two châteaux when you visit them, even though Versailles is packed with tourists, and Vaux le Vicomte largely without them. At both places, one can sense the incredible extravagance these chateaux represent: the lavish lifestyles of the people who lived in them, and the incredible wealth they must have had. Even at Versailles, a veritable tourist magnet, a few rough edges give away the difficulty of maintaining a place whose very essence is exorbitance. Today, the spare presentation of privately-owned Vaux le Vicomte feels a bit rundown, but in way that was almost a relief to me after the incredible extravagance and ornamentation of Versailles.
For me, though, when it comes to castles, it’s the older the better, and so I also visited Château de Blandy-les-Tours, only 5k from Vicomte, and Château de Vincennes, on the outskirts of Paris. Both are medieval castles, dating back to the 13th and 12th centuries respectively, complete with moats, towers, and arrow-slits. Today, Château de Blandy sits in the middle of a tiny village,
across the street from small houses and one or two local brasseries.
Château de Vincennes, at the far edge of Bois de Vincennes, includes not only the donjon (or keep) of a truly castle-like castle, but also the beautiful Saint-Chapelle and the King’s and Queen’s pavilions.
These castles demonstrate a different type of power, built as defenses against the constant threat of violence, and admired for the security offered by thick walls of stone, rather than for the elegance and ornamentation of their design. Their architecture is simpler, but not without beauty, especially the vaulted ceilings and sculptures of Château des Vincennes, temporary home to several kings of France, as well as a dungeon for some well-known prisoners, like Fouquet—the unfortunate owner of Vaux de Vicomte—and the infamous Marquis de Sade.
If you like castles even half as much as I do, all these places are worth a visit, and moreover, France might be the perfect country for you. I’ve been told there are literally thousands of châteaux here, and although many are inaccessible, and others little more than ruins, there are still hundreds you can visit. I hear there are even few castles on the market, so there’s even a chance you could own your own castle in France. Though if you’re in the league of potential castle-purchasers, I imagine you didn’t need that advice about finding friends with cars now, did you? I just hope the whole castle thing works out better for you than it did for Fouquet.