French Châteaux Nowadays

Kerry Ulm is a student at The Ohio State University and an ISA Featured Blogger. She studied abroad with ISA in Paris, France.

Cha¦éteau de Chambord, France - Ulm - Photo 1
The exterior of Chambord is full of turrets and spiral staircases

On a drizzly morning, the roof of the Château de Chambord is peaceful and powerful. The rain hitting the spires and rushing away sounds busy and purposeful, as if the château is still hard at work. Neat grass with straight lanes separates it from the surrounding forest. It calmly, strongly stands tall out there in the rain.

Below the roof, inside the castle, things are much the same. A damp coolness settles into the large, open spaces. Paintings hang on the walls here and there. The occasional room is equipped with some furniture. Instead of the goings on within the château determining the type of day, it’s the weather that’s most important. No kings or queens or rich lords fill the rooms with controversy.

Fontainebleau, France - Ulm - Photo 2
Fontainebleau holds a special place in my heart because we discussed it a lot in my Art History class

Each château is different from the others, but also different from how it used to be. Some are empty, some have furniture, but there’s a sneaking stillness that comes from all around as you notice that the people wandering through the halls these days are mostly just there to admire the place. Certainly there was a lot of that in each of the châteaux’s heydays – a visiting nobleman, a lady-in-waiting, and other guests of the court there to size up the strength of the monarchy – but today sightseers enter more easily. And yet, they are still amazed.

There’s no more rustling of servants rushing around doing their duties. For the most part, important matters of state are no longer discussed in the grand rooms at large and imposing tables. The intrigue is gone, the politics are gone, and the purpose has shifted entirely.

Chenonceau” Chenonceau is amazingly built over water
Chenonceau” Chenonceau is amazingly built over water

When you visit a château nowadays, it’s a quiet place. Like a memorial or a museum, it lets you step through time. Big, empty halls echo from your footsteps instead of from the sounds of hundreds of drunken guests dancing to centuries-old songs. Furniture is sometimes original, sometimes not, but always unused at the present. You enter a bedroom, and the bed stares back, pristine covers unruffled for years.

But some châteaux are busier than ever. Places like the Louvre have new purposes. The art it holds often overshadows its own important past. And then there’s Versailles. So grand overlooking its gardens, it magnificently drums up its own popularity.

Having the Louvre so close by means I’ve visited it more times than any of the others combined!
Having the Louvre so close by means I’ve visited it more times than any of the others combined!

Whatever their present state, each is miraculously still appealing. Something draws people to these big, old buildings despite their utility changing, or even running out. People want them to still exist. Owners and authorities funnel mountains of money into repairs to keep these huge monsters alive. Sure, the more money they put in, the more money they’ll get out with ticket fees and souvenirs, but why? Why do people keep wanting to come back?

Maybe it’s the history. They want to be where things really happened. I know that’s the case for Versailles. People love the Hall of Mirrors; they arrive chatting about treaties. Being in a space where such powerful things have happened feels thrilling. It makes you wonder what past people were thinking about while they were signing exactly where you are standing.

Maybe it’s the architecture. People love grand spaces. When a structure towers tall, it’s inspiring, just ask the old cathedral architects. When the ceilings and walls are decorated so intricately, you barely even notice the furniture. Châteaux are often so beyond the norm of buildings, it’s impossible to not be intrigued.

Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, France - Ulm - Photo 5
The ceiling of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles

I think it has something to do with each of those. We like seeing where things have happened, and we like seeing inspiring spaces. The funny thing is, this is not new. Both of these reasons existed while the châteaux were being used for their original purposes. People wanted to be around matters of politics and the lavishly built buildings that housed them. These castles have always amazed us.

And so I like châteaux for their timelessness. Despite all of the changes in culture, politics, technology and knowledge that have occurred over the centuries of their existence, they still stand.

There’s a universal awe to a castle, and queen or no queen, king or no king, it is powerful all on its own.

The Château d’Amboise overlooking the Loire River
The Château d’Amboise overlooking the Loire River

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