Updated: Dec 10, 2018
Medieval stone fortresses and elegant Renaissance manor houses, Lower Normandy is blessed with hundreds of ancient monuments. We have selected our favourites: ten châteaux to visit, dine in or stay the night in baronial style.
#10 - Château des Ravalet
Once the property of the French King, François I, Château des Ravalet has a fascinating and chequered history. Jean de Ravalet purchased the royal castle in the 16th century and constructed a Renaissance château on its medieval foundations. The château’s secrets include an incestuous marriage, beheadings, bankruptcy and murder. By the 18th century, Ravalet had been acquired by the family of Alexis de Tocqueville who were responsible for the restoration of the house, the greenhouses, the lakes and the landscaped park. Today the grounds are in the care of Gilles Clément, the celebrated botanist, whose Mandala Garden and Island Meadow have won prestigious awards. Now owned by the town of Cherbourg, the house is only occasionally open to visitors, but the park and gardens are open all year round.
Château des Ravalet, 50110 Cherbourg-en-Cotentin
#9 - Château de Canon
With medieval origins, this 18th-century manor house was remodelled by the great Parisian lawyer and friend of Voltaire, Jean-Baptiste Elie de Beaumont. After the restauration of Canon, Elie de Beaumont and his wife, Anne-Louise, instituted the annual Fête des Bonnes Gens – the Good Folk Fayre – a two-day celebration of virtue. The festivities took place in the stables, workshops and the recently restored Salle des Rosières which form the Chateau’s impressive quadrangles. 15 hectares of ornamental gardens surround the château. The French-style garden’s geometrical flower beds, elegant statuary and ‘mirror of water’ lake reflect the perfect symmetry of the house. The remainder of the park, bisected by the River Laizon, was created in the English style at the turn of the 19th century. A guided tour of the house is available in July and August; the park is open from April to September.
Château de Canon, 14270 Mézidon-Canon
#8 - Château de Pirou
Photo: Patrick Hilyer
One of the oldest medieval fortresses in the Normandy region, Château de Pirou bears testament to the feudal warfare that once ravaged this now tranquil landscape. The castle was built in the 12th century to protect the town of Coutances from seafaring invaders. But the gradual silting up of its shallow water harbour made Pirou’s defensive role redundant, and so its grey stone walls have survived the invasions and unrest of successive centuries. In the barn is an embroidered cloth, created in the 1970s in the style of the Bayeux tapestry, depicting the history of the Normans from Viking colonisation to the conquest of Sicily. As with many ancient castles, Pirou has its legend: during a long siege, the Lord and his family escaped by transforming themselves into Geese. Unfortunately, the book of spells which allowed this transmogrification was burned by the besiegers, and the family and their descendents were cursed to remain as Geese, returning to their home each year along with the other migratory birds of the Cotentin. Open every day except Tuesdays from April to September.
Château de Pirou, 50770 Pirou
#7 - Château de Brécy
A judge from the nearby city of Caen built this stately home in the 17th century. It’s a fine three-story manor built in pale Caen limestone, but it’s the exquisite gardens, designed by the architect François Mansart, and ornamental gates that make Brécy so special. The fabulous wrought-iron gates bring you to a series of terraces, a statue-adorned Renaissance knot garden with sculpted flowers, dogs and fountains, and a medieval walled garden. The terraces rise to a small hill from where the perspective, as the French author Jean de la Varende wrote, “opens to the sky”. Didier and Barbara Wirth have worked tirelessly since 1992 to restore and maintain the magnificent gardens. They open the gates to visitors from Easter until the end of May, then form July 1st to October 31st.
Château de Brécy, 14480 Saint-Gabriel-Brécy
#6 - Château de Canisy
Towers and turrets, lakes and landscapes – Canisy has all the hallmarks of a historic French château. But what makes this place extraordinary is its human story. Canisy’s began in the 11th century when one of William the Conqueror’s knights, Hugues de Carbonnel, constructed a Norman fortress near Saint-Lo. A dynasty was born that would last a thousand years: the present chatelain, Count Denis de Kergorlay, is De Carbonnel’s direct descendent. During WW2 Canisy was sequestered by the Wehrmacht and used as an army hospital; after the liberation General Omar Bradley established his HQ at the château. Canisy and its custodians have survived wars and revolutions, and today the early 17th century buildings and interiors are immaculately conserved. The castle sits in hundreds of hectares of forest, pasture and landscaped parkland. The grounds are open all year round to visitors, the house by appointment. Eighteen guest bedrooms.
Château de Canisy, 50750 Canisy
#5 - Château de Balleroy
Designed and built by the architect François Mansart between 1626 and 1636, this fine château was the family seat of the Marquises of Balleroy for three centuries. In 1970, the property was purchased by Malcolm Forbes, and remains in the ownership of the Forbes family. A tree-lined avenue nearly two miles in length offers the first breath-taking view of the property. Arriving at the elegant gates, the imposing facade presents itself: a four-storeyed, cupola-topped edifice in grey granite and red pudding stone, flanked by two wings and a pair of pavillon lodges. Surrounding the house are 135 hectares of landscaped parkland in the romantic style, and French knot gardens. Inside the house the portraiture, animal and hunting scenes, decorative panelling and the Escheresque staircase are something to behold. Created by Malcolm Forbes, the Hot Air Ballon museum is well worth a visit, as is the parish church, also attributed to Mansart. Balleroy is open to visits from April to September.
Château de Balleroy, 14490 Balleroy
#4 - Château de Carrouges
An elegant twin-turreted gatehouse and decorative wrought-iron gates welcome visitors to Château de Carrouges, a sombre moated castle. The rectangular courtyard is delimited by two symmetrical wings, designed by the architect Francois Gabriel at the end of the 16th century, and other buildings from the 14th and 15th centuries. The earlier parts of the castle are attributed to Jean Blosset, the Grand Seneschal of Normandy. From the 16th century until its sale to the French state in 1936, the chateau belonged to the family Le Veneur de Tillières. Inside you will find an interesting collection of furniture from the Renaissance to the Restoration, the kitchens with their copper pots, the bedchamber of Louis XI, fine fireplaces, ancient panelling and portraits and a fabulous brick staircase. The castle and the ten-hectare park and gardens are open to visitors from April to September.
Château de Carrouges, 61320 Carrouges
#3 - Château de Falaise
Named after the bluff or cliff that rises above the little town, Falaise was an important military site well before William, Duke of Normandy was born here in 1027. William spent his childhood at Falaise before acceding to the dukedom in 1035, and went on to earn his moniker – William the Conqueror – following the battle of Hastings and the conquest of England in 1066. Although the remains of the current castle (much restored between 1986 and 1996) date from a little after William’s time, the chateau’s military importance and historic significance are unsurpassed in the region. Whereas Mont Saint Michel is without doubt an architectural ‘marvel’, Falaise is the birthplace of the first Norman King of England. Below the castle, in a town devastated during the Battle of Normandy in 1944, you will find historic churches and a couple of museums. The castle is closed in January, but otherwise open every day.
Château de Falaise, 14700 Falaise
#2 - Château de Fontaine-Henry
This dynastic castle, built on medieval foundations, was reconstructed in the 15th and 16th centuries in the decorative style. The facade, in pale Caen limestone, is topped by steep, tiled roofs. Described by the French novelist Jacques de Lacretelle as “a Loire château in Normandy”, Fontaine-Henry is one of the finest examples of Norman Renaissance architecture. The village takes its name from Henry de Tilly who acquired the chateau in 1172. His descendents retained the castle for eight centuries, and today the Marquis Pierre-Apollinaire d'Oilliamson welcomes visitors to his family seat. In the landscaped parc à l’anglaise is the 12th-century chapel, numerous outdoor games and, in summer, a sculpture exhibition. Open daily (except Tuesdays) from mid June to mid September, and on weekends and holidays in the shoulder periods.
Château de Fontaine-Henry, 14610 Fontaine-Henry
#1 - Mont Saint Michel
Photo: Patrick Hilyer
Although not strictly a castle, this iconic marvel of medieval architecture has defended itself against invaders and tides since its foundation in the year 708. In fact, the ramparts were constructed to fend off the English during the Hundred Years' War. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mont Saint Michel attracts over 2 million visitors and pilgrims every year. Since the construction of a new bridge which replaced the causeway linking the citadel to the mainland, Mont Saint Michel is once again a magical island. Surrounded at high tides by the shimmering waters of the bay, when the tide is out this is a place of pilgrimage for visitors arriving on foot across miles of sand. The climb to the mystical Benedictine abbey at the top of the edifice is well worth the walk, and the view from the bridge of one of the world’s most unforgettable sights is breathtaking. Mont Saint Michel is a must-see destination and deserves to be nominated the best castle in Normandy. Open every day throughout the year, and in the evenings from 7pm until midnight during July and August.
Mont Saint-Michel, 50170
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