There are an estimated 16,000 of them, either still in use or serving purposes other than the storage and supply of water. Some have been converted into homes or holiday accommodation, exhibition spaces and tourist information offices.
Wherever you are, there always seems to be one not far away, on a ridge, mound or hilltop.
They are distinctive landmarks and some have even been adopted as icons of a particular town or city.
They come in a bewildering number of shapes: cylinder, Martini glass, champagne cork, globe on a stalk, parabolic curves, hourglass, chanterelle mushroom and many others.
Most are, by their nature, conspicuous but some are hidden from view on a wooded hillside and are noticed only when you hear the sound of flowing water.
Many of them are starkly, unpretentiously modern but more than a dozen have been classified as ancient monuments. All form part of France’s industrial heritage.
Even the oldest are relatively recent constructions, dating back to the 19th century, but all are testament to an ancient heritage.
The Romans are credited with building the first domestic water systems, including reservoirs close to or just above ground level, as can be seen in many excavated villas and towns.
In the middle ages, the skills of water management were preserved by the Islamic civilisation, still visible in southern Spain. It was only much later that Western Europe returned to the idea of creating collective systems to supply running water to homes.
The expression chateau d’eau, a translation of the Latin castellum aquae, was first used in 1704 to describe a reservoir raised above the ground. However, it wasn’t until the building of the railways that water tanks spread through France. Steam locomotives had an unquenchable thirst and many of the oldest chateaux d’eau stand along railway lines.
Into the 20th century, most people in France were still fetching their water from the local river or spring, or pumping it out of wells.
In 1930, 23% of communes had running water. In 1945, 70% of rural communes still lacked mains supply.
From the 1950s onwards, there was a massive programme of building water towers.
Today, many communes are proud of their chateaux d’eau. They are celebrated as distinguishing features, as well as being reminders of the benefits of modernity.
Every chateau d’eau functions in the same way. When the consumer opens a tap down below, the pressure drop causes the water to flow. The tank is topped up by pump at the water collection or filtration station. Normally, a chateau d’eau will contain enough water to keep the supply constant for 12 or 24 hours, or to ensure there is a reserve in case of fire.
Chateaux d’eau are not often found in the cities because the higher demand from a higher density of population is better served by pumping than by gravity.
A relatively recent idea is to decorate what would otherwise be something dull or jarring with an original mural. Many chateaux d’eau, therefore, are painted with designs that refer to the local identity, act as welcome signs for the tourist office, or reflect some mainstay of the region’s economy.
No wonder that the country’s chateaux d’eau have drawn bands of enthusiasts to catalogue and study them. Website chateau.deau.free.fr, created by Roger Iribarren, is a compendium of reports, pictures and research that answers almost every question on the subject.
One good thing about chateaux d’eau is they are always conspicuous and accessible.
And even if you can’t get to the top – most are closed to the public but a few have panoramic viewing platforms – you are guaranteed a good view from the bottom.
Claude Miqueu, chairman of the board of regulation for the Comité National de l’Eau (National Water Commission) said: “France’s chateaux d’eau have evolved, along with the communes, and adapted to the contours of the territory.
“Today, this inheritance has become a rich part of our heritage, still technologically relevant while new techniques of water distribution are developed.
“They acquired new value as they are adapted for other uses, such as accommodation and tourism.”
France’s most interesting water towers
Fontaine du Chateau d’Eau, Montmartre, Paris
Elegant octagonal structure built in 1835, now headquarters of a wine society.
A medieval castle keep transformed into a water cistern in 1880.
Brightly coloured rectangular water tower painted by an artist to look like a giant children’s toy.
A small water tower, brightly painted with murals and converted into a self-catering gite sleeping seven.
Highly unusual late Art Nouveau water tower and electricity power station dating from 1912-13.
Round tower rising from the castle mound in the centre of the “post romantic” garden, the Jardin De La Motte. It now serves as a viewpoint.
Phare de la Méditerranée, Palavas-les-Flots (Hérault)
Massive structure rising to 43m high which was turned into a business centre in the early years of the new millennium.
Peyrou, Montpellier (Hérault)
Perhaps France’s most famous chateau d’eau which stands on the promenade of the same name. Built in 1768 and adorned with Corinthian columns. It is, or at least was, fed by an aqueduct.
Now a self-catering gite sleeping two or three people 10m above ground, and reached by 53 steps.
Philolaos, Valence (Drôme)
A giant example of modern art named after the Greek sculptor who designed it. It consists of two white towers 52m and 57m high.
The cutest, if not the most frivolous, chateau d’eau in France, this faux Chinese pagoda is in a park.
Attractive tower, 50m high, topped by a tank containing 500 cubic metres of water. It was built in the middle of town in 1906 in a vaguely neo-Romanesque style using yellow and red bricks.