In central France’s Indre Department, Châteauroux is a town that was founded in the 10th century around a castle that is still there today.
You might know a few of the famous people born in Châteauroux, like the actor Gérard Depardieu and one of Napoleon’s most trusted generals, Henri Gatien Bertrand.
The latter spent a career amassing priceless treasures that are stored in his plush 18th-century mansion.
The remainder of Châteauroux is discreet and unassuming; that is until August when Festival DARC brings a dancing extravaganza to the town.
You can pass the rest of your time pottering around historic churches, resplendent châteaux and the ruins of one of the largest medieval abbeys in France.
Lets explore the best things to do in Châteauroux:
1. Musée-Hôtel Bertrand
This refined 18th century mansion used to belong to General Bertrand, one of Napoleon’s most trusted military commanders.
A lot of the objects in these 26 rooms were the general’s personal possessions, and it’s fascinating to see his cabinet of curiosities and some of the artefacts brought back from the Egypt campaign.
There’s also an aviary that was on the island of St Helena where Napoleon died in exile.
The art gallery is enriched with Flemish and Italian painting, but the main event has to be the original plaster cast of Camille Claudel’s seminal Shakuntala.
2. Couvent des Cordeliers
This Franciscan convent dating to the 1200s is now a moody setting for contemporary art exhibitions.
There are hints of the building’s past, in the traceried windows, stained glass and a fresco that dates to the century the convent was founded.
Every two years the convent is the venue for Biennale de Céramique Contemporaine (the 19th edition took place in 2017). The grounds have been preserved and you can still see the old washhouses where the nuns would do their laundry.
3. Base Nautique de Belle-Isle
Downstream on the Indre there’s a little world of outdoor activities at the Base Nautique de Belle-Isle.
This is on hand for when things heat up in summer, and offers canoeing, kayaking, pedal-boating and windsurfing, or the timeless fun of a beach.
The beach has been expanded over the last few years and is patrolled by lifeguards from the start of June to the end of August.
The lake meanwhile is eight hectares, and wrapped in 12 hectares of parkland, with natural reserves for walkers.
There’s a restaurant “La Guiguette”, welcoming swimmers, walkers and fishers in summer, as also a campsite right on the banks of the Indre.
4. Château Raoul
Although this castle in the medieval quarter is only open for heritage days in June and September, it’s still a sight to admire from a distance because of what it means to the town.
Châteauroux is named after this building, which took shape around the 900s.
The château was reworked in the 12th century and there are towers still standing from this period.
The remainder is from the early Renaissance in the last decades of the 15th century.
In the 18th century it came to prominence when it was bought by Louis XV and gifted to his favourite mistress Marie-Anne de Mailly.
5. Église Saint-Martial
One of the prettiest monuments in the town is this church, founded in the 1100s and fronted by a dinky cobblestone square.
Something interesting about the Église Saint-Martial is that it started out as a chapel well outside Châteauroux’s walls, in the middle of open fields.
It would be centuries before the town absorbed it.
The church still has lots of Romanesque details in its nave, but the facade and main entrance was given a Neo-Gothic makeover in the 1800s.
6. Maison des Arts et Traditions Populaires
Shining a light on the Berry province is this free museum at the entrance to Parc Balsan.
There’s a small assemblage of traditional headdresses, engravings, tools and photographs conveying old, rural modes of life.
But best of all are the paintings by the Crozant School, which is a name given to 19th and 20th-century landscape painters inspired by the countryside beside the Creuse River.
Visits are by appointment only, so you’ll need to book a slot with the tourist office first.
7. Parc de Balsan
For a relaxing wander you can head into this park next to the Indre River.
The Parc de Balsan has recently been renovated, with new plantations of hardwoods and conifers and a restored avenue with twin rows of chestnut and oak trees.
This is all on the site of the Balsan drapery factory, which was established in the 1700s and now consigned to history.
One of the vestiges is the Château du Parc, a Renaissance-revival wing of the old factory that has “monument historique” status so can’t be demolished.
8. Scène Nationale Équinoxe
On a walk around Châteauroux your eyes will be drawn to this avant-garde building on Avenue Charles de Gaulle.
This is a new “Scène Nationale “, a cultural hub fostering regional talent in music, comedy and drama, but also booking well-known touring acts.
The main auditorium can seat more than 1,100 and there’s a smaller stage for 324, as well as a media library and exhibition space.
During the season you can see if there’s something to your taste on the calendar, or you can come in October for the annual Lisztomanias, a series of concerts devoted to Franz Liszt.
For a change of pace there’s also “La Barrière de Dégel”, a clown festival in January!
9. Domaine Apicole de Chezelles
Honey is such a delicacy in Indre that visiting an apiary is a lot like touring a winery.
The owner of this domain will give you the same sort of insights, sharing decades of savoir-faire.
If you’re a French speaker you’ll learn about pollen, royal jelly, honey and propolis (a glue made by bees with a mixture of wax and saliva!). And this is all the perfect prologue for the farm’s shop, which has natural thyme, rosemary and eucalyptus honey, as well as flavoured honey, candles and beauty products for hair, face, hands and feet, all made with honey.
10. Château de Bouges
You could have a cultured day out at this graceful 18th-century château a little way to the north.
The designer was most likely Ange-Jacques Gabriel, which explains why it looks a lot like Versailles’ Petit Trianon, which he also built.
Unlike many of the region’s châteaux this one is completely furnished, and for that we can thank the Viguiers, a wealthy Parisian couple who restored and updated the property in the 20th century.
The interiors are suitably lavish, but you can also tour the stables and 80 hectares of wonderful grounds with a parterre, arboretum, landscape garden and flower garden.
11. Festival DARC
Starting around the second weekend of August, the Festival DARC (dance, art, rhythm, culture) is a two-week celebration of the all things dance.
The event began in 1975 and attracts about 65,000 spectators every year.
If dance is your thing you can catch world-class performances in almost any discipline you can think of, whether it’s tap, classical, modern jazz, hip, hop, salsa, flamenco, the range is huge.
And running at the same time as the recitals are workshops giving you expert tips or helping you take your first steps in all kinds of dance styles.
12. Abbaye de Déols
In the middle ages one of France’s largest and most powerful abbeys was set a few minutes down the road in Déols.
Today the site is a spectacular ruin, with a Romanesque bell-tower and large chunks of the crypt, chapter house, refectory and church nave surviving.
Before you explore the ruins you can pop into Déols’ tourist office next door, which has a model of the abbey at its peak in the 14th century.
This was before the 100 Years’ War and the French Wars of Religion, which both took their toll on the building.
13. Maison de George Sand
The 19th-century novelist and cultural icon had a long relationship with this exquisite house, which she inherited from her grandmother.
George Sand lived here on and off in her youth, and visited every summer between 1837 and 1876 when she died.
Nearly all of her most famous works were composed at the house, including La Mare au Diable, Consuelo and Le Meunier d’Angibault.
She also entertained some of the era’s other luminaries like Liszt, Delacroix, Balzac and Flaubert, and of course her lover Frédéric Chopin.
The wooden panels Sand installed to muffle Chopin’s piano are still plain to see.
This riverside town demands a day trip.
Take as long as possible to see its warren of picturesque alleys, and the adorable waterfront with old mills and houses built with galleries and balustrades.
At the Bonne Dame esplanade there’s also a dreamy view of the steep, wooded hills of the Creuse Valley.
A lot of that waterfront industry was once dedicated to the shirt-making trade, and this legacy is beautifully presented by the Musée de la Chemiserie.
This museum takes you on a quick trip through the history of men’s clothing, showing the small changes made to shirt sleeves, cuffs and collars, and also giving you an inside look at the old ateliers and their tools.
15. Food and Drink
There are also many culinary discoveries to be made around Châteauroux: Wine connoisseurs can acquaint themselves with the AOC vineyards in Reuilly, Valençay and Chateaumeillant.
At the market you’ve got to try the region’s Martin du Berry, petit noire and Muant cherries in summer, while in autumn and winter the pears are superb.
A classic wintry dessert in the Indre department is pears poached in red wine.
There’s also an enticing lineup of cheeses like Pouligny-Saint-Pierre and Saint-Maure de Touraine, both made with goats’ milk.
And at restaurants try pâté berrichon, which is made with pork and comes in a pastry crust, and galette aux pommes de terre, a satisfying potato pancake.