courtesy of Centres des Monuments Nationaux/ P. Berthé

Imagine a Renaissance castle, surrounded by fields carpeted with purple cyclamen, completely empty and yours for exploring. This is what you’ll find at the Château d’Oiron, 16th century castle straight out of a French fairytale. In fact, it’s said that this chateau is linked to Charles Perrault’s classic story, Puss in Boots. (Nobleman Jules Gouffier, whose dynasty was seated at the estate, was the model for the “Marquis de Carabas” in the tale.)

On a weekend trip to the unsung Poitou-Charentes region, in the untouristed Deux-Sèvres department, we visited this magnificent landmark, which is managed by the Centre des Monuments Nationaux. The Château d’Oiron is one of my favourite discoveries of the year. Seemingly worlds away from the splendid Loire Valley châteaux, Oiron is only 43 kilometers south of Saumur.

Originally built by a powerful family of patrons of the arts (la famille Gouffier), the Château d’Oiron is today a showcase for thought-provoking and whimsical contemporary art exhibitions. Called “Curios & Mirabilia,” the collection is based on the theme of the Renaissance cabinet of curiosities, fusing together art and natural history.

We had free run of the place- virtually empty of visitors. The kids ran around in amazement, opening heavy wood doors to reveal a weeping tree, could that be a stuffed unicorn in a glass display case?, or a secret staircase winding upwards to a turreted tower. In fact, it was with a sense of childlike wonder that *all* of us wandered the halls of this majestic space, hooting and hollering over new finds. In the King’s Chamber, we marvelled at the intricate sculpted woodwork and exceptional painted murals. You can let your imagination run wild- conjuring the lives of the past residents (like Madame de Montespan, King Louis XIV’s mistress).

And then there were still-life portraits—actually framed video screens—with insects devouring the plates of food. And dinosaur-like skeletons on a moving carousel. And music echoing down the halls from a mysterious source. And the “monsters’ room” with imaginary hybrid animals. And a school of fish swimming in front of a grand fireplace.

The Château d’Oiron is the setting for many concerts and events throughout the year, like the Fête de la Musique. It’s also possible to rent out certain rooms for cocktail parties, seminars, and weddings. A memorable setting indeed.

Château d’Oiron, 10 Rue du Château, 79100 Oiron. Opening hours: from October 1- May 31: 10:30 AM- 5 PM. From June 1- September 30: 10:30 AM- 6 PM. Closed January 1, May 1, November 1 and 11, and December 25. Tel: +33 (0)5-49-96-51-25. Ticket price: 7.5 euros. Free for guests under the age of 25.