Just out: A free guide to French castles

Story by Bob Schulman

Medieval fortress at Sarzay has 38 towers.Images courtesy of France-Voyage.com

Climb the ramparts to the top of a towering castle, and chances are you'll feel like you stepped through a time warp. Maybe because it's so easy to imagine what went on there centuries ago in the heat of battle. From your bird's-eye view you can see your guys firing cannons, unleashing volleys of arrows and pouring barrels of boiling oil on an army of would-be invaders scrambling around like ants down below.

Even for visitors just up there for the spectacular view, castles are huge tourism magnets.

They come in all shapes and forms, from royal palaces to mountaintop fortresses standing guard over medieval cities, trade routes and river crossings. France, for example, has over 10,000 of them, many dating back as far as the 10th century. The French call them – regardless of their make or model – “chateaus.”

Chateau de Chambord in the Loire Valley.The rub for tourists is, with so many chateaus out there, which ones should be on your must-see list? One resource to consider is a free online guide to French castles, France-Voyage.com, used by over 18 million vacation planners a year. Leaf through the guide, and you'll find just about anything you'd like to know about castles all over the country (plus tips on where to stay and play when you're not scampering around the castles' walls, turrets, towers and moats).

For instance, you'll read all about the extravagant residence of the Sun King in Versailles in suburban Paris, visited by 6 million tourists a year. Further south, you'll learn why every trip around the Loire Valley should include a visit to Chambord, with 440 rooms the biggest of the valley's chateaus. History fans will particularly appreciate the castle forts of Auvergne and Perigord as well as the impressive hillside fortresses of the Cathars in Languedoc.

Millions of tourists visit the Palace of Versailles outside Paris.France-Voyage also features less famous but equally charming chateaus, among them Bazoches, a beautiful house at the heart of Morvan where Vauban designed over 300 fortified structures; Joinville, which forms an elegant Renaissance ensemble with a magnificent garden; and Virieu, a remarkable medieval fortress overlooking the Bourbre Valley.

Can't afford a trip to France this year? Well, maybe next year – but while you're saving up you can take a free virtual tour of the castles and scads of other French historic sites by clicking a section of France-Voyage called “Panorama.”

When you do get there, don't chuck the guide when you've come down from your last rampart. Another section of the site called “Travel Guide” covers everything to see and do in all 27 regions of the country, and even in 95 sub-regions of the regions. It's got great driving maps, too.

Rochefoucauld ranks among France's most beautiful castles.Getting there: Nonstop flights to Paris' Charles de Gaulle (CDG) International Airport are scheduled from most U.S. gateway terminals including San Francisco, JFK, Atlanta, Dallas/Ft. Worth and Newark.