Castillo Xàtiva, La Costera region, Spain

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Castillo Xàtiva and the La Costera region, Spain

Spicy yellows and greens flood the rugged slopes of Monte Vernissa in  warm, afternoon sunlight, just outside the town of Xàtiva (Játiva in Spanish). During the Al-Andalus, the Arab conquerers turned the city into a paper manufacturing centre. The introduction of this technology brought prosperity, leading to the creation of high-quality schools and educational institutes with the castle arriving in the 11th century. Due to a terrible siege orchestrated by Philip V of Spain (punishment for Xàtiva’s resistance to his claim to power) that led to the town’s destruction, to this day Philip’s portrait hangs upside-down in the local museum. History aside, the La Costera region envelops the scraggy, weather-beat valley steppes of Montesa and Xàtiva, bordered by the Enguera and Grossa Mountains in the south. Xàtiva and its fortified castle remain the heart of the region. La Costera is a region beautiful for both its cultural and natural riches, and well worth the trek into its dry valleys. Though perhaps past its golden age in terms of affluence, Xàtiva remains a place of intense beauty and intrigue, and gold is still the best way to describe the city’s surrounding sea of sunburnt landscapes gently reminiscent of the American Wild West.

Happy New Year, folks!

 

Gutenberg Castle, Balzers, Liechtenstein

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Gutenberg Castle, Balzers, Liechtenstein

Bigger is not always better. In fact, some of the littlest places hold the most charm. Sometimes, these ‘tiny places’ can even be countries! Many of these dwarf nations, like Luxembourg, Monaco, Andorra, San Marino, the Vatican and Liechtenstein are located in Europe, and are vestiges of a time when the continent was far more divided, each bit of earth ruled by a local lord who was in turn ruled by a king – who was often connected to local and faraway kingdoms through royal marriages and court appointments. Liechtenstein is one of these tiny nations. Nestled deep in the Alps between Switzerland and Austria, the nation’s total population is a mere 37,000 with an area of 160km² – far smaller than the surface of other well-known ‘tiny’ places such as Corsica [8,680km²], Rhode Island [3,140km²], and Ibiza [571 km²]. Yet despite its small size, Liechtenstein has some amazing characteristics, including Gutenberg Castle in Balzers. Starting its life as a 12th century medieval church, it was slowly fortified throughout the Middle Ages, with the addition of a wall, keep, towers, gate and merlons by the lords of Frauenberg, a noble house hailing from the Swiss canton, Graubünden – only to fall into the greedy hands of the house of Hapsburg in 1314. Surviving wars, sieges, fires, and the like, the castle was inhabited until 1750 before falling into disrepair, and saved in the 20th century by the Principality of Liechtenstein as a monument of local history, culture, tradition, and architecture. Sitting pretty on a backdrop of rolling green hills and overlooking a meadow filled with jolly little houses and patches of wildflowers, the dramatic and fierce Gutenberg Castle is a prominent symbol of this proud but often overlooked tiny European country.

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Copenhagen, Denmark

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Lions protecting Rosenborg Castle, Copenhagen, Denmark

No, this is not the infamous Elsinore, whose claim to fame originates from none other than Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This fortress is actually the great Rosenborg Castle, built in the early 15th century (1606 to be exact). Commissioned by Christian IV as an extravagant summer residence, it was only used as an official royal residence during a few emergency situations. Today, this wonderful example of Dutch Renaissance architecture commands its awe-some presence in central Copenhagen, and its grounds create a cheery central park perfect for sunbathing (in the summer!), strolling hand-in-hand with your lover, picnicking with a group of friends, or a weekend afternoon out with the family. It is visited by an estimated 2.5 million people every year – clearly, a well-loved part of Copenhagen! One of the greatest things about European castles and fortresses is their sheer diversity – Danish castles differ greatly from much of what one finds in Germany, France, Italy, AustriaPoland, or any other European county, and each castle, no matter where it is, how big or small it is, or how famous (or not…) it is, holds a great value contained in its thick walls. In an era before computers, modern machinery, or the advanced science of today, castles were designed, built, and maintained purely by the power and ingenuity of men, providing today’s visitor with a window into the culture, history, architecture, and stylistic tastes of bygone eras.

Kreuzenstein Castle, Austria

Goodbye awesome castle!

Kreuzenstein Castle

There are some places you keep going back to, if only in your mind’s eye, and Kreuzenstein Castle is one of them for me. If you have ever read a fairy tale or a fantasy novel, or if you’ve ever seen a fantastical film, then you know – there’s something magical about turrets and towers and crinolines, something supernatural, something that makes one think about fairies and elves and dwarves and impossible beasts, something that effects you so deeply that you can’t shake it. This castle – it seems as if it popped up from the pages of a fairy tale or a Games of Thrones-esque novel. Being there, or even just imagining being there by gazing at the photo carries one to another time, another world, another dimension. Not far from Vienna, Kreuzenstein Castle may be a hodgepodge of several European castles, manors and religious buildings (composed somewhat randomly to re-build a ruin quickly), but the very essence of it feels so real. Even years later, I cannot shake the spell cast on me by this place – the same spell that seems to exude from Tallinn, Estonia, from the Gauja Valley in Latvia, from Andalucia in Spain, from St. Petersburg, Russia, Largentiere or Auvergne in France or Slea Head in Ireland, as well as a few other select spots. Needless to say, I don’t think that Kreuzenstein is finished with me yet…

Valle d’Aosta, Italy

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Hillside castle in Valle d’Aosta, Italy

Northern Italy and Southern Italy are as different as night and day. In fact, that’s not quite  specific enough, as Northwestern Italy and Northeastern Italy are quite different from each other while still different from the South. Northwestern Italy is more French/Swiss, while Northeastern Italy is so Austrian that if you spend a few days there, they’ll fool you into thinking you’re in Austria! The Valle d’Aosta is in the northwestern sector, not far from Torino, and in the heart of the Alps, and more French or Swiss (or rather, just ‘Alpine’) than anything else. Literally the “Valley of Augustus,” it goes back to Rome’s conquering of the region to secure the strategic mountain passes. It’s one of the most castle-rich regions in Italy–it had to be, as the region comprised of a vast array of warring kingdoms each with the need to protect themselves against his neighbour. Valle d’Aosta is also the least-populated region of Italy, making it the great-outdoors lover’s place to be. If you have the time, planning a few stops would be ideal. Get out and stretch your legs, breath the fresh mountain air, hike the hills to reach a few of the many castles such as this one! But if you don’t have the time, taking the train through the region is also extremely satisfying–there are so many castles along the railroad track that you can play “I Spy the Castle” simply by looking out the window!

Gutmanis Cave, Latvia

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Gutmanis Cave, Latvia

Supposedly one of the Baltic’s early form of tourism was pilgrimages to this cave. It all started with a legend, a story, dating to the age of castles and knights and villains. Once upon a time, there was a princess who lived in a castle called Turaida. There was another castle, not so far away, where a handsome young man lived, and in the middle, there was a cave–pleasant kind of cave–where the lovers would meet to plan their marriage. But there was also a villain, and he wanted the princess for him. So, one day, he went to the cave to convince her to marry him. When she refused, he threatened to force her to marry him. She told him she would trade his hand for a magic scarf that was impossible to pierce by blade. Of course, he didn’t believe her, so she let him test it…on her. Of course, it didn’t work, and of course she knew that. But I guess suicide was considered a better option than a forced marriage… but the story doesn’t end there. Even though the princess died, our prince from the other castle tracked down the villain and avenged her death, and spent the rest of his days caring for their castles and protecting her cave. People started coming there, leaving their marks (coat of arms) in the stone. You can still make a pilgrimage there, hiking from Sigulda all the way to her castle’s ruins in Turaida. In the woods along the way, you can make a detour in order to pay homage to the Rose of Turaida and her infamous cave…

 

Salzburg, Austria

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Fortress Hohensalzburg, Salzburg, Austria

Travel and weather have a tricky relationship. The power of weather is so strong that it often has the ability to make or break a trip, to render your day magical or miserable depending on its mood. Imagine you are walking along the same cobblestoned street that Mozart once lived on, and it started to rain. Wait, no, not it’s not raining, but hailing. One minute it’s bright and sunny, and the next minute, little droplets of frozen rain have begun falling from the sky, obscuring the view of the beautiful Hohensalzburg Castle and attacking you as you scurry for shelter. You, as the tourist, can take this in one of two ways. On one hand, you can get angry and feel cheated out of a beautiful, magical day in the famous Austrian city. But on the other hand, you can take the experience at face value and enjoy it for what it is: a memorable, crazy afternoon dodging balls of cascading ice in the shadow of Salzburg’s beautiful schloss. Sometimes the weather doesn’t match up with the image you have in your mind–but does that make it any less magical? I think not.

Chateau de Montmelas, France

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Chateau de Montmelas, France

Owning a ruin in the 19th century was a big thing. If you didn’t manage to own your own ruin, well, that’s no problem because you could always build one! History and authenticity was obviously not nearly as important then as it is today. What mattered more was its aesthetic value. More than that, the 19th century saw owning a ruin (real or not) aligned with owning a piece of history, being in control of the past. So if you couldn’t afford to build your own ruin, but still wanted to jump on the ruin-owning, history-controlling bandwagon, you could turn an existing building into a ruin. We saw it with Sham Castle in Bath (a folly; 100% modern), again with the Gravensteen in Ghent (modified ruin), then later with Kreuzenstein Castle in Austria (a new castle was constructed from old bits of other castles). There are countless other examples (one more: Hungary’s Vajahunyad Castle, based on older ruin).  Now, we see it again here, with Chateau Montmelas. Montmelas began its life as “chateau fort”; that is, a fortified manor house, in the 13-14th centuries. Then, some 500+ years later, crumbling and forlorn, the previous residence of Louis XV’s mistress, it was restored in the Neo-Gothic style. Turrets, crinolines, a keep, courtyards–all very medieval. And in fact, it still retains many qualities and original stonework from the Middle Ages, despite the modifications! Not only that, but it’s appearance is breathtaking. And its current purpose? A winery in the Beaujolais, as one can tell from the surrounding vineyards. While privately-owned, the castle can be visited at certain times of the year. I  guess owning a ruin in the modern day–a real ruin, mind you–is still a pretty big thing!

Vajahunyad Castle, Budapest, Hungary

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Vajahunyad Castle, Budapest, Hungary

You might be surprised to discover that this magnificently medieval Translyvanian building was built less than 100 years ago, and not only that, but it stands in the middle of the Hungarian capital. Built for an annual fair, the building was so well-liked that the populace requested it remain intact; and so the obliging Hungarian government rebuilt the castle using more permanent materials (i.e., not plaster!). Situated in the middle of Budapest’s central park less than 400 metres from the famous Schenyi Baths, the castle is certainly an oddity. Making a full rotation around the campus reveals Vajahunyad’s four very different faces: each section is based on a different style (Baroque, Romanesque, Renaissance, and Gothic). Therefore, the structure looks completely different depending on one’s momentary perspective. The Gothic part in particular (the main section pictured here) was modelled on a Transylvanian castle—so if you can’t make it all the way to remote Transylvania (which one day I will, and bring back countless photographs of this infamous region to you!), you can still visit a replica here. In fact, the American TV drama, Dracula–which bears the name of Translyvania’s most famous resident–uses this castle as the infamous count’s residence for the series, though how much historical truth there is between Stoker’s vampire and the real-life Vlad Dracul is somewhat suspect. Regardless, the castle seems a fitting backdrop!

Heidelberg Castle, Germany

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Heidelberger Schloss, Germany

“Did I ever tell you I was struck by lightning two times? Once when I was in the field, just tending my German castle!” Yes that’s right; this magnificently ruined castle has had the unlucky honour of being struck by lightning not once but twice – rending it reminiscent of Benjamin Button’s friend in the film of the same name (although he was struck seven times…). The first bolt struck the schloss in 1537 – and then the second bolt thundered out of the sky in 1764. In fact, the second lightning strike actually destroyed most of the sections rebuilt after the first strike burned them down. Welcome to Heidelberg Castle, one of the most important Renaissance ruins still gracing the hills of Europe. And better yet, this year marks the Castle’s 800th birthday! It seems to be aging well despite all, don’t you agree? Though watch out, they say bad luck strikes in threes…

 

Blenheim Palace, England

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Blenheim Palace, England

“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” (Mark Twain). Well, it takes both your eyes and imagination to process the ceiling of the enormous portico attached to the Blenheim Palace. Famous as being the birthplace of Winston Churchill, it is the only non-royal house in England to hold the title of “palace.” And palace it is! Built in 1705-22, it was intended to be a gift to the 1st Duke of Marlborough for his prowess on the battlefield at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704 (hence the name). But the eyes? They were painted there by the second wife of the 9th Duke. An American socialite who squirmed her way into the title of Duchess by becoming friends with his first wife then taking advantage of his loveless marriage to eventually become his second wife and start her own loveless marriage, Gladys was a bit eccentric. A self-proclaimed mystic, the new Duchess came from a broken home (her father was imprisoned for killing her mother’s lover when she was a child, she lived in a convent for awhile and grew up in Paris with her divorced mother). This certainly seems to have affected her; images of eyes appear all over the massive house (though none as striking as those pictured above), and she slowly went crazy over the years before dying a recluse. The house is still owned and lived in by the Duke of Marlborough (the 11th), though parts of the house are open to visitors, which has been recognised by UNESCO.

Carcassonne skyline, France

Carcassonne skyline

Carcassonne skyline, France

Europe is known for its castles. In fact, it has so many castles that countless sit neglected and forlorn, hidden in the woods, crumbling off cliffs, overlooking dusty train tracks, forever closed for non-funded restoration projects. Many are in disrepair. Some have become hotels, private residences or galleries of modern art. Carcassonne—well, it didn’t quite follow that path. One of the most famous castles in France, and certainly one of the most well-preserved medieval castles du monde, Carcassonne is a beautiful example of what happens to a walled city and chateau that is repaired, preserved, and promoted as a tourist destination. In summer, numbers of tourists soar, so perhaps try to avoid peak season. Settlement on the hill dates back to 3500 BC, though the castle itself is from the 10th-12th centuries. It is fortified by 3m of thick stone walls, and guarded with 52 impressive towers—including one called the “Inquisition Tower,” as it once housed the 13th century Catholic Inquisition. Crowds or not, Carcassonne is one of the best examples of a castle and fortified town that this magnificent continent has to offer, and merits a visit to southern France!

Belvedere Palace, Vienna, Austria

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Belvedere Palace in Vienna, Austria

Ah, Belvedere. What would a trip to Vienna be without a promenade around these beautiful gardens? Comprised of two main complexes, the Upper and the Lower, the area also includes a few very lovely gardens. The area surrounding the palace is neatly manicured (in the French style) while the other is far more wild and natural. The oldest sections of the Baroque palace, which date back to 1717 (completed 1723),  was built for Prince Eugene who, like all monarchs, wanted a nice, cozy place to relax outside of his taxing duties of being a prince. Various important people have entered these doors , including Franz Ferdinand, Marie Antoinette’s daughter Marie Thérèse Charlotte, and Maria Theresa, though she never lived here. Instead, she decided it would make a nice place to store the Imperial family’s art collection. After the first world war, the Palace officially became a museum, and was eventually opened to the public. Most people go here to visit a particular piece, Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss. Even though the piece is surely worth your attention, don’t miss the rest of the exhibits, or the architecture, and especially not the gardens–because it is the whole experience that will make your visit special!

Lac d’Annecy, France

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Lac d’Annecy, France.

What better way to experience France’s second largest lake than by boat? Possibly “Europe’s Cleanest Lake” because of all the regulations surrounding it, it seems that Lake Annecy is also one of the prettiest. Nestled on an island among casual, green mountains is the medieval fortress, the Château de Châteauvieux Duingt. One one hand romantic and picturesque, the mountains, lake and château become inspirations for writers, painters and poets abundant. One the other, the silent, ivy-clothed and remote chateau on its tiny island isloated from the rest of the French town, sends a little shiverdown your spine as you are absolutely sure you saw this castle featured in a Scooby-Doo episode where it was haunted by a ghost. Despite this passing shudder, one must admit that the melange of castle, lake and mountain create an image that is beautifully and quintessentially French.

Sagunto, Spain

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Sagunto Castle, Spain.

This cactus-embraced castle presides over the small and very ancient town of Sagunto, Spain. Founded by the Romans in 219 BC, over time this town has been home to the Romans, the Arian Visigoths, the Muslims from Northern Africa, the Castilians, James I of Aragon, the French (oh Napoleon) and is now a Spanish town in the province of Valencia. The castle itself, while somewhat ruinous, is an interesting mix of Roman and Moorish design and is in a decent state for its age. And of course it’s always a great photo-op! As this was very close to my former home in Spain, I was a repeat visitor to this place.  I used it as a place to relax, siesta, read books, paint, draw, picnic, or simply enjoy the view.

Lublin, Poland

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Holy Trinity Chapel in Lublin, Poland.

This is Lublin Castle’s chapel, one of the few buildings to survive the destruction of Lublin’s castle. The church was built in the 14th century; however, in the 15th century, King Władysław II (pronounced “vwah-dhee-swav”) ordered the entire chapel to be covered in wall paintings. This style is very much influenced by the Byzantines, therefore, exudes an Eastern influence.  It is an extremely unique melange of Eastern and Western styles, and highly reminiscent of Orthodox churches, which cover every interior surface of their immense buildings with paintings, gilded decorations, and icons. Every painting here pertains to a biblical story and is carefully documented for visitors. It is breathtaking; one can very easily spend the allotted 30 minutes  (and more if they would allow!) staring at the paintings in this wondrous place. It’s a good thing that of all the buildings to be spared from destruction, it was this one that fate chose.

Peñíscola, Spain

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Peñíscola, Spain

Honestly, name aside, this is one of my favourite places that I’ve ever been. Locally known as “The City in the Sea,” this fortified sea port has changed hands too many times to recount. The castle itself (the vantage point for this photograph) was built by the Knights Templar 1294-1307. In the early 1400s, the castle also was home to Papa Luna, (or Benedict XIII), the Avignon pope that resulted from the famous schism that rocked the Catholic world in the Middle Ages. Even outside the history, this town is simply drop-dead gorgeous with the brilliantly contrasting orange-on-white-on-turquoise cityscapes. So perfectly Mediterranean! Don’t forget to have some paella or maybe pizza, and of course the Spain’s favourite drink, sangria!

Xàtiva Castle, Spain

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Xàtiva Castle, Spain

An impressive, kilometre-long castle presides over this hill along the ancient roadway, Via Augusta (leading from Rome to Cádiz) as it has for over a 1,000 years. Over the centuries, the castle has passed through the hands of the Iberians who constructed it, the Romans who expanded it, both the Almoravid and Almohad Dynasties of Morocco who gave it a pronounced Mudajar atmosphere, and King James of Aragon, who eventually turned it into a prison. Damages from the War of Succession (1701-14) left the castle to fall into ruin, giving it the rugged, rough appearance we love about it today!

Cardiff, Wales

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Cardiff Castle, Wales

Welcome to the beautiful, rustic ruins of Cardiff castle (or in Welsh Gaelic, Caerdydd Castell). An 11th century fortification most likely commissioned by William the Conqueror, it was built on top of a 3rd century Roman fort, as the site provides a good vantage point to defend the city. It was repeatedly involved in conflicts between the Normans and the Welsh before finally becoming little more than a decoration after a rich Marquess built a Victorian mansion and demolished all other medieval buildings minus this keep. Still, it makes a pretty awesome ruin!

Carcassonne, France

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Chateau de Carcassonne, France.

Carcassonne is a medieval fortification founded in the 5th century by the Visigoths (though the Romans had a fortification in the same spot dating back to 100 BC). Legend has it that it received its name from the castle châtelaine named Carcas who rang the bells at the end of a siege, thus “Carcas sona.” It is now a UNESCO site, but not only that, it is one of the most impressive and iconic castles on the continent…you can’t get much more fairytale than the Chateau de Carcassonne!