Peñíscola, Spain

View of Peniscola, Spain

Peñíscola, Spain

Spring is just around the corner -and also happens to be the perfect season in Spain! The sun isn’t too overbearing; the air isn’t too hot and sticky. The crowds are less thick than in summer. Cafe terraces are still peaceful, waitresses still patient, beaches still quiet. Peñíscola is the perfect place to spend a spring day. The narrow, winding streets of the old town are full of hole-in-the-wall cafes, restaurants and shops. The oceanside breeze is refreshing – perfect for taking a stroll. The white-washed walls of the city are delicate and calming. The locals happily chat in the street and overhead across the balconies. As you climb, terraces criss-cross, affording great views of the town and the nearby beach. Stop for an afternoon spritzer or glass of wine before continuing on to the castle, where the views across Peñíscola are the best! Orange clay roofs, white walls and blue waves pepper the quilted landscape below the castle walls. In the city below your feet, there is the hum of life but up here, there’s nothing but fresh air and the cries of seagulls. As the afternoon sun bathes you in warm life, you lean against the ancient stone wall of Peñíscola’s fortress and let your mind wander. There’s nothing like spending a spring day atop a castle in a small Spanish town!

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!

 

Château de la Batisse, Auvergne, France

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Château de la Batisse in the Vallée de l’Auzon, Auvergne, France

Once upon a time long ago in a kingdom far away, there lived a fierce lord called Gérard d’Aultier. He lived in a beautiful castle in the charming, sunlit valley known by those who lived there as the Vallée de l’Auzon, a place often passed through by pilgrims following the St James Way (part of Santiago del Compostela). Sadly, the lord had no sons to inherit his magical castle, and so it was passed on to another powerful local family, La Volpillière, who added turrets and towers and other adornments, until they, too, had no male heir. Due to legal quarrels, the chateau lay dormant, slowing becoming derelict, until being bought by a local enterprising man, repairing the castle to its former glory before reselling it. The new owner of Château de la Batisse was Jean Girard, the Secretary of the King, and his newfound seat of power allowed him the prestigious name-change, Girard de Chasteauneuf. A tangled family web handed the château from one heir to the next, finally arriving in the hands of its present owners, the respected family, Arnoux of Maison Rouge from Riom, who lovingly care for the aged yet enchanted building. Defended as much by its defensive walls, thick towers, arrow slits, and keep as by concerned parties such as Monuments Historiques, and La Demeure Historique, Château de la Batisse is also preserved via the prestige, respect and loyalty it inspires in the region’s inhabitants. Nestled into its enchanted woodland valley in the heart of Auvergne, on the cusp of the charming village Chanonat, and under the watchful eyes of the burg Saint-Amant-Tallende, it is safe to say that the fairytale Château de la Batisse is living its happily ever after.

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Chateau de Chambord, France

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Chateau de Chambord, France

The biggest chateau in the Loire Valley, and one of the most distinctive chateaus in the world (thanks to its smooth blend of Medieval and Renaissance styles), the Chateau de Chambord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is as absolutely magnificent as it is immense. The chateau (for there is no other word to use; Chambord and its fellow Loire Valley neighbours define the usage of the word ‘chateau’ in English) was built by Francis I as a hunting lodge – a break from his royal residences at Blois and Amboise (each no more than a stone’s throw away by modern distance standards). The castle rooms themselves are relatively simple – large, rectangular, few in number but large in size. The roof, on the other hand, is an intricate network of sculptures, buttresses, statues, odd angles, elevated passageways, elegant windows and pointed towers, all arranged together like a miniature city. But that’s not the most remarkable part of this structure. No, that honour goes to the intricate and astoundingly unique double helix staircase, serving as the centrepiece and central element of the building. Elegantly carrying visitors up three floors, the two entangled staircases curl around each other but never meet, making it an architectural unicorn. There are rumours that a one Leonardo da Vinci (who stayed there for a time) was the creator of the DNA staircase, and this is quite possible, as the inventor was known for his unique and often outlandish projects, though his involvement has not been proven. In any event, the massive and iconic chateau certainly merits its place on Loire Valley itineraries!

Royal Palace, Warsaw, Poland

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Zamek Królewski, Warsaw, Poland

This beautiful pink palace in downtown Warsaw has been the seat of the Royal Court of Poland since the 16th century until what is known as the Partitions of Poland. For those of you not up to date on your Eastern European history, the Partition was a series of three divisions of the Polish-Lithuanian Empire at the end of the 1700s. Summed up, Poland-Lithuania’s neighbours basically chopped up the kingdom in sizable chunks, claiming the land for themselves. Between the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia and Habsburg Austria, Poland as a state ceased to exist for 123 years, instead becoming integrated into these various nations, including Warsaw and it’s royal castle, which became part of Prussia. Despite all, the castle has stood the test of time. It has seen the ratification of one of Europe’s oldest constitutions, Constitution of 3 May 1791; it has been used as an administrative centre by the Russian Tsar; it housed German Governor-General during WWI; it has been burned and looted by Nazis; it has been damaged during the Warsaw Uprising; it was nearly destroyed during the War, only to be rebuilt in the 1950s. Warsaw and its beautiful castle have seen a lot things over time – and yet, here they still stand proud.

 

Annecy, France

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Annecy, France

Quiet canals meander the cobbled streets of Annecy. Colors slip down the facades, floating into the canals’ ripples, drifting out into the lake. One of the cleanest in Europe, it must certainly also be one of the prettiest. The stout, stone fortress glares over the orange rooftops of its town, a citadel lost in time. Artists sell their wares – paintings, photographs, jewellery, pottery. Vendors sell ice creams and chocolates to tourists while diners chat on sunny terraces, sipping beers and lemonades. The swans swim by, searching for the forgotten crumbs that tumble in the canals. The streets ring with people taking advantage of summer in the mountains. Like a scene from a painting, Annecy’s streets merrily portray summer bliss.

 

Budapest, Hungary

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Gargoyle in Budapest, Hungary

Are lampposts tasty? This Hungarian gargoyle seems to think so! Gargoyles have always held a sort of fascination. In simple terms, they are a way of evacuating water from roofs to keep the water from running down the walls and weakening the mortar – but a gargoyle is so much more than a drain. No, gargoyles are indicative of the story, of the culture, of the hidden fears of a the people who carved them. Early gargoyles from Egyptian, Roman or Greek ruins show little variation but by the middle ages, gargoyles had become an art. Largely elongated, grotesque, mythical creatures, some take the shape of monks or existing animals, and are often comical. The most famous gargoyles are of course that of Notre Dame de Paris but most cathedrals and many churches, fortifications, castles and manors have them. Legend has it that St Romanus saved Rouen (France) from a terrible dragon-like creature he called the “gargouille” or gargoyle (etymology “gar” = “throat”). The local people burned the body but the head would not burn (since it was made to resist its own fire), so they mounted the head on the cathedral to ward off evil spirits – a practice that was repeated over and over again in stone. Whether true or not, gargoyles have been warding off gutter water for centuries, and will continue to do so as times go on, because the rain won’t stop falling!

 

 

Beaujolais, France

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Beaujolais, France

If you’re a wine-lover, you may already know about the Beaujolais – it is a well known wine-producing location in central France. Houses (or manors) like this one are a common occurrence throughout rural France. Unfortunately, due to an interesting combination of high (and complicated) inheritance and habitation taxes, overall elevated French taxes, costly repair bills, enormous amounts of energy needed to heat such buildings, and isolation from cities and towns, manors like the one above are all too often left to live out their long days alone. In the case of this manor, as you can see, there is a perfectly functioning farmhouse less than 100 meters away – and yet the manor remains so empty that even at a distance, one can see through it from one side to the other. To avoid other beautiful buildings suffering the same fate, local economies need to be further stimulated – of which one way is tourism, which brings in people, awareness and money to rural destinations. In any case, the Beaujolais has great wine, beautiful villages, and charming country roads and trails built to hike – and beautiful rural architecture !

Chateau de Murol, France

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Falconer at the Chateau de Murol, France

One of Auvergne’s most popular chateaus, Murol is a round hunk of stone dominating its mountaintop. While in and of itself it’s a very neat castle to visit, another thing that makes it special is the workshops that Murol puts on during holidays and  warmer months. These short demonstrations, activities and workshops show various aspects of what life was like in the Middle Ages for the people of the castle, from nobles to servants. Falconry (or hawking) is one such example. Falconry was quite popular during Medieval times, though only accessible to the wealthy, such as kings, royals, nobles and rich landowners or merchants, as they were the only ones with enough time and resources required to train the birds. Though it began as a means to hunt small game, hawking soon became more for sport than for necessity, as the falconers prided over his own birds and their accomplishments. Birds were trained to return to their trainers’ arms for bits of food and to bring prey back untouched, and hooded when not training. During certain periods at Chateau de Murol, visitors can still experience this ancient sport, watching hawks, falcons, owls and other birds of prey zoom around the castle, only to return each time to the falconers’ gloved arm.

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!

Hohenschwangau Castle, Germany

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Hohenschwangau Castle, Germany

Don’t be put off by the long name! Hohenschwangau (meaning ‘High Swan Palace’) is an impressive castle in southern Germany, near the Austrian border. Though you may not recognise its name, you will most certainly have heard of (or seen a photo of) its magnificent next-door-neighbour, Neuschwanstein Castle (famous for inspiring Disney’s creation of Sleeping Beauty’s castle in Disney World, FL). In many ways, Hohenschwangau, while less jaw-dropping than its excessive neighbour, is much more authentic. Built in the 19th century by the Bavarian kings, it served as the childhood residence of the famous Ludwig II (the very same king who built the fairy-tale Neuschwanstein), and it is much more reserved in decor, riches, and style. There has been a fortress on the spot since the 12th century, which underwent many changes during its several hundred years of existence. Because of invasions from Austria, it was plundered in 1743, and due to hard times, the land was eventually sold in 1820, only to be bought back by the the next generation of Bavarian kings, Prince Maximilian II, who discovered some ruins while on a tour of his land. So inspired was he by the beauty and family history of the crumbling ruins that he spent the next 20 years bringing splendour and life back to Hohenschwangau. Of course, it was only inhabited for about a generation, as Ludwig built his own castle nearby, the celebrated Neuschwanstein, though that castle was never finished. Today, the two castles preside together over the valley and land that was so important to the old Bavarian kings.

Kreuzenstien Castle, Austria

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Burg Kreuzenstein, Austria

The film set for Ken Follet’s World Without End is probably one of the most interesting castles in Europe.Why, you ask? Well, in some ways it’s not a castle at all. Some consider it authentic, but for others, it’s nearly akin to a hoax. You see, Kreuzenstien Castle is a bought castle, a ‘Frankenstein’ castle. It has been created from a hodgepodge of other castles from Austria, France, Romania, Germany…you get the picture. A ‘Frankenstein castle.’ The owner, Count Johann Wilczek, made rich from coal mining, decided that the ruinous medieval castle that predated the current structure was not a fitting for the Counts of Wilczek, so he built his own, using the original foundations as well as bits of any other medieval structures that his coal-mine money could buy. In this way, it is considered both a ‘neo’ and ‘original’ medieval building! Regardless whether you view it as ‘authentic’ or not, the castle remains a beautiful building with an interesting history, and well worth the  day trip from Vienna. Add bonus? If you’re into history, try to spot the different styles, eras, and buildings!

 

Albigny-sur-Saône, France

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Turreted house in Albigny-sur-Saône, France

Turning a corner and spotting a pair of turrets, even in a small village, is a pretty normal thing in Europe. There was a moment in history where everyone in Europe with a lofty bank account wanted a castle (during the 18-19th century), and there just weren’t enough to go around. So, they started building – and they got creative. Sometimes these ‘new’ castles were habitable, like this one here in Albigny. Sometimes, they were ‘follies’ (more common in England), where people constructed facades of (usually ruined) castles on their property for aesthetic purposes, like Sham Castle near Bath, UK. Their constructors always pretended they were old and ruined but in fact they were carefully constructed to look that way. Or sometimes they renovated their old mansions to look medieval or Gothic, adding turrets, gargoyles, crinolines, moats, towers, or other objects of the same effect (like the gargoyles at the House of Chimeras in Kiev). Sometimes they modelled their new castles on other famous castles, like Vajahunyad Castle‘s Transylvanian inspiration. Other times, in order to maintain some ‘authenticity,’ they bought up bits of old castles and put them together in a Frankenstein-type creation, like at Kreuzenstein Castle. In any case, with all these creations, it begs the question…what is a ‘real’ castle? Is there such a thing? Or are they all ‘real’ castles…?

Fenis Castle, Italy

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Fenis Castle, Italy

In northwestern Italy, there is a quiet, beautiful place called the Aosta Valley. Known for its castles, the valley is snuggled into the Italian Alps. Taking its name from the charming alpine town at the far end, the journey to the once-Roman town of Aosta takes the traveller past castle after castle. While Fenis Castle is certainly magnificent, it’s hardly the only option. With at least 10 castles hugging the valley’s slopes alone, the smallest region in Italy has no shortage of ancient strongholds. Fenis Castle dates back to the fourteenth century and exemplifies both military might on the outside and cultural riches on the inside. Less than 15km from the regional capital of Aosta and roughly 100km from the city of Torino, Fenis Castle is located in between the villages of Fenis and Nus on the dramatic backdrop of Dora Baltea River and the Italian Alps. Getting there with public transport can be tricky; check in with the tourism office in Aosta to plan your trip accordingly, and do not (under any circumstances!) attempt to visit on a Sunday afternoon – northernmost region or not, Aosta is still in Italy, and in Italy, Sundays are still the day of rest!

Isla, Spain

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Isla, Spain

Spain is old. You won’t get far in Spain without stumbling upon a castle, a manor house, an old church, a crumbling ruin, a stonewall. Villages like Isla are not uncommon, but this makes them no less beautiful. Leaving behind any major Spanish city and setting out into the countryside is always an adventure, and it nearly always yields beautiful results. This manor house, private and closed to the public, is a good representation of the type of houses that once housed the ruling classes in the countryside. The neighbouring village, Isla, is a quaint place comprised of little shops and restaurants, pretty houses, an attractive stone church and a picturesque castle tower overlooking all at the top of the hill. The orange roofs and crumbling stone buildings swim in a sea of golden countryside and blue skies. Just down the hill, one leaves the Middle Ages behind for the modern era and the beach. While not as famous as its neighbour, Playa Noja, a beach known for its surfing (as well as its proximity to a maximum security prison, a fact that is oddly fascinating), Playa del Sable is still a great place to kick back and relax with sun, sand and a glass of Spanish sangria!

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Kenilworth Castle, England

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Kenilworth Castle, England

Ah, Kenilworth. This is one of England’s most dramatic ruins. In fact, historian Anthony Emery describes it as “the finest surviving example of a semi-royal palace of the later middle ages.” which one must admit is pretty impressive. It is also impressive for its resistance and survival during what is possibly the longest siege in English history : a six month siege during the English Civil War in 1266. Oh, and don’t forget the Earl of Leicester, who was so in love with Elizabeth I that he organised a massive, lavish and bank-busting hosting of the queen in order to impress her, going so far as spend thousands of pounds and renovating the castle and grounds, nearly bankrupting himself in the process. Good ol’ Queen Lizzie brought with her no less than thirty-one barons and four hundred staff for her royal visit to Kenilworth, lasting a grand total of nineteen days, one of the longest visits she ever made. The sad thing is…she was just using him for his castle and his parties. She never did marry the poor guy. Today, the ruins are open to the public, just try not to climb on the walls however tempting that may be! (There are signs everywhere, though to be fair, no one really enforcing them…!)

 

Hohenzollern Castle, Germany

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Hohenzollern Castle, Germany

The sky is dark and cloudy, but what else would you expect it to be on a chilly winter’s day at a rural German castle? Could you honestly picture it any other way? German castles are known for their fairy-tale turrets paired with dark forests and remote hilltops, and it’s not hard to imagine yourself as a would-be prince or princess in a Grimm’s brothers tale. Hohenzollern Castle is no different. Silhouetted against a cloud-streaked sky not far from Stuttgart, the castle rises above the trees, beckoning travelers to climb its hillside and enter its thick walls. First constructed in the 11th century, Hohenzollern Castle barely survived a 10-month siege in the 1400’s, later serving as a refuge during the Thirty Year’s War. In the 18th century, like so many other castles of this era, Hohenzollern fell into ruins, becoming little more than vague inspiration for little-known artists and poets. In the mid-1800s, William IV of Prussia reconstructed the castle in the Gothic Revival style, basing his designs on the magnificent chateaus of the Loire Valley in France; today, only the chapel is originally medieval. And yet, as you climb the mountain, modern society slips through your fingers. By the time you arrive at the top of the castle towers to enjoy the view of the countryside, you realise that you’ve gone back in time by a few hundred years to a time when castles were a defense system, kings and queens wrote the law of the land, and armies still invaded on horseback.

 

Château de Vimy, Neuville-sur-Saône, France

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The château de Vimy in Neuville-Sur-Saône, France

Of course, the list of reasons why you should fall in love with France is longer than China’s Great Wall, but one of things from the list that particularly stands out is the sheer number and beauty of French villages. While places like Poland, Croatia or Latvia have their own form of beauty (Polish old towns are especially beautiful, Croatia has an magnificent coastline and Latvia has some magnificent “unexplored” wilds), 9 times out of 1o, the villages you encounter in their countryside are just okay. Of course, Spanish and British and German villages are cute too…but nothing beats France. One of the best ways to see France is to get a bike, head out to the countryside – biking along the Saône River, the Rhône River, the Loire River or the Gard River are just a few examples of river-based itineraries – and visit the villages. This particular village, renamed Neuville in 1665 by the archbishop of Lyon, Camille de Neufville, features this castle or une maison forte, as the French say (literally, a “strong house” i.e. a fortified dwelling), that rises up from the town’s centre. Sadly, the castle is in disrepair and closed to the public, but this has little affect on the loveliness of the surrounding village. The Monts d’Or region north of Lyon (literally, “Mountains of Gold”) along the Saône River, is full of adorable, take-your-breath-away villages (and not just because you’re huffing and puffing after putting a few kilometers on that French bicycle!) – so don’t forget your camera. Or a bit of cash – Les Monts d’Or borders the Beaujolais wine region, so be sure to taste local wines, perhaps buy fresh, local produce, or even stop for a quick beer by the river!

 

Gravensteen Castle in Ghent, Belgium

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Gravensteen Castle in, Ghent, Belgium

Often, the most splendid castles are usually found in rural areas far from city centres. Nestled amongst the centre of the lovely town of Ghent, the spires of the Gravensteen reach for the sky and its walls crumble into the moat—all perfectly medieval. This fortress was built around 1180 by Philip of Alsace, which he modeled after castles he encountered while fighting in the 2nd crusade. Threatened with destruction in the 19th century, the owner of the Gravensteen decided to make the originally medieval castle “even more medieval,” thereby commencing a lengthy restoration project—which caused people to question its authenticity. As it is located in the middle of the city, power lines, asphalt roads, and cars criss-cross the castle grounds. Yet the real-fake medieval castle sits in the Place Sint-Veerleplein, unaffected, steadfast and silent, watching as the modern world whizzes by.

Oh, and happy 200 posts, i.e. 200 beautiful places for you to visit!

Val d’Aosta, Italy

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Val d’Aosta // Vallée d’Aoste, Italy

Castles abound in this Italian region bordering both France and Switzerland. The borders and rulers of this region have changed too many times to recount, giving the region a severe case of identity crisis. Even today, though a part of Italy for a long time, the region still seems relatively bilingual in both Italian and French. The city of Aosta is often the destination—but the train ride to the Roman city is one of those times when Emerson’s expression “life is a journey, not a destination” comes to light. Keep your eyes glued to the train windows because all those times the valley changed hands have created a need for limitless castles and fortresses—therefore, it is rather like playing “Where’s Waldo?” (if Waldo was a castle!) every five minutes! Mostly built in the typical Italian style (see Milan), the castles not only add a romantic flair to the valley, but also serve to remind us of our brutal feudal history—and the reason why we built castles in the first place.