The next step down in France is a maison de campagne, a "country house" with the usual English connotations of the word. There is a distinction in French between a maison de campagne and one that is merely a maison à la campagne, a "house in the country," perhaps a weekending retreat. The urban counterpart of "château" is palais (palace).
If a château is not old, then it must be grand. A château is a "power house" as Sir John Summerson dubbed the English (and Georgian Irish) "Stately homes" that are social counterparts of châteaux. It is the personal (and hopefully hereditary) badge of a family that represents the royal authority at some rank, locally. Thus this word is often used to refer to a residence of a member of the French royalty or the nobility, but some fine châteaux, such as Vaux-le-Vicomte were built by the essentially high bourgeois, but recently ennobled , tax-farmer s and ministers of Louis XIII and his successors.
A château is supported by its lands (terres), comprising a demesne that renders the society of the château largely self-sufficient, in the manner of the historic villa system of Rome and the Early Middle Ages. (Compare manorialism and hacienda.) The open Roman villas of the time of Pliny, Maecenas or emperor Tiberius began to be walled in, then fortified in the 3rd century, and evolved into castellar "châteaux." Even in modern use a château still retains some enclosures that are the distant descendants of these outworks: its fenced-off forecourt, with gates that could be closed and perhaps with a gatehouse or keeper's lodge, and its supporting outbuildings, like stables, kitchens, brewery, bakehouse, and lodgings for menservants in the garçonnière. Aside from the entrance cour d'honneur, the château may have an inner cour ("court"). Beyond, on the private inner side, the château faces a park that is enclosed, no matter how simply or discreetly. (If you doubt whether it is a château, ask to see the chapel.)
In England, the word "château" never took root: even the utterly châteauesque Rothschild Waddesdon Manor is not a "château."
In the U.S., "château" took root selectively. In the Gilded Age resort of Newport, Rhode Island, even the châteaux were always "cottages." But north of Wilmington, Delaware, in upscale rural "Château Country" centred on the powerful DuPont family, some of the châteaux are really just McMansions.
The Loire Valley (Val de Loire) is home to more than 300 châteaux. They were built between the 10th and 20th centuries, first by the French kings and soon followed by the nobility, which have caused the valley to be called "the Garden of France".
(illustration, right), built by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, 1675 - 1683 for the Duc de Chevreuse, Colbert's brother-in-law, is a French Baroque chateau of manageable size. Protected behind fine wrought iron double gates, the main block and its outbuildings (corps de logis), linked by balustrades, are ranged symmetrically around a dry paved and gravelled cour d'honneur. Behind, the central axis is extended between the former parterres, now mown hay. The park with formally shaped water was laid out by André Le Notre. There are sumptuous interiors. The small scale (compared to Vaux-le-Vicomte for example) makes it easier to compare it to the approximately contemporary Het Loo, for William of Orange. These really are "Mansart roofs."
There are many estates with true châteaux on them in Bordeaux, but it is customary for any wine-producing estate, no matter how humble, to prefix its name with "Château". This is true whether the building itself is a magnificent palace or a shack. If there were any trace of doubt that the Roman villas of Aquitaine evolved into fortified self-contained châteaux, the wine-producing châteaux would dispel it.
- Photos of French chateau in the Dordogne, including Biron, Beynac and Castelnau