Kremlin & St Basil’s Cathedral from Moskva River, Russia

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Kremlin & St Basil’s Cathedral from the Moskva River at Sunset, Russia

If you had to chose one place to represent Russia, what would it be? High on most lists would probably be St Basil’s Cathedral (actually called Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed) and the Kremlin, just next door. Though both are worth exploring up close, for a unique way to visit both of these fantastic icons, consider a cruise of the Moskva River for a beautiful and unique view of Moscow – even better if its a sunset cruise! St Basil’s is as eye-popping now as it was when it was new – built in its own unique, trail-blazing style in 1561, no one quite knows where architects Barma and Postnik found their inspiration, though many say it is a combination of Greek, Byzantine, Islamic and Asian styles. Even the Italian Renaissance played a role (its surprising how influential Italian architects were in places like Russia, France and Eastern Europe). St Basil’s uniqueness is really what makes it so fascinating and its silhouette is unmistakable. The Kremlin, on the other hand, is more complex. A government building, a fort, the heart of Russia – the Kremlin is often also used metonymically to refer to Russia’s government. It is composed of five palaces and four cathedrals, enclosed by an imposing wall. Unfortunately, several heritage buildings in the Kremlin were destroyed to make space for ugly concrete Soviet-era buildings (before thankfully a law came into place preserving heritage sites). Once again, though its important to visit the site, a riverside visit to the Kremlin is a whole different – and much quieter and calmer! – experience. Get ready for some amazing waterscapes and skylines! Pro tip: best time to go is certainly sunset on a clear day – especially in the off-season if possible. 


Enjoy Other Magical European Sunsets

 

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Făgăraș Citadel, Romania

Fargaras Castle, Romania

Făgăraș Citadel, Romania

Transylvania, like Wallachia, is an ancient region of Romania – mountainous, disputed, oft-changing boundaries. Fortresses and castles had to be built for protection, defending land and people. Făgăraș Citadel is one of those places. Făgăraș was built in 1310 on the foundations of a 12th century wooden fortress that had been burned by Tartars in 1241. Then it was enlarged in the Renaissance style with the sole purpose of impressing visitors (in fact, Italian architects were brought in to add said Renaissance grandeur). Then – sadly – Făgăraș became a military garrison, meaning that the once-luxurious interior was ruined, trampled, lost. Encircled by a moat and a tree-lined garden, Făgăraș remains a beautiful and impressive place. However, do keep in mind that today’s Făgăraș Citadel is plopped in the middle of Făgăraș town, with cars and cyclists whizzing by, the din of city noise as its soundtrack. Făgăraș Citadel is now a history museum – entry 15 lei, open year round – and a fantastic example of a Transylvanian castle! Tip: Făgăraș is a great stop between Brasov and Sibiu!


More Castles in Eastern Europe


 

Tures Castle, Italy

Tures Castle Italy

Tures Castle (Taufers Castle), Sud Tyrol, Italy

Tucked into an extraordinary mountain landscape in Sud Tyrol, northeastern Italy, Castel Tures or Taufers Castle is first mentioned in documents in 1225, when the newly noble family started construction on a lavish house fit for a lord. For a hundred years the castle flourished but sadly by the mid 1300’s, it was already in decline. It wasn’t until the Dukes of Austria took an interest that Tures Castle was renovated and reconstructed. New towers,  draw bridges, walls, gardens, and castle residence return in all their glory. Today this 64 room castle is open to the public, showcasing beautifully panelled rooms, a magnificent library, and a precious chapel. But the greatest jewel of this castle in northern Italy is truly in its location – the mountains of the Dolomites, themselves part of the Alps tower over Tures Castle’s turrets and towers, with the town and fields spreading out at its feet. This forgotten corner of Ireland, Sud Tyrol contains one of the highest castle-to-land ratios in Europe, as well as countless natural beauty – parks, mountains, forests, waterfalls, preserves. Overlooked by tourists, Sud Tyrol is a magnificent and quiet region in the Italian Alps.


More Places Located in Sud Tyrol & Northeast Italy


 

Tower of London, England

Tower of London, England

The Tower of London as seen across the Thames River, England

The infamous Tower of London. It has a reputation for horror – death – torture. While not 100% wrong, this was the view propagated in the 16th century (did you know that only seven people were executed at the Tower of London up until the 20th century?) In fact, most executions instead took place on Tower Hill, and even then, just 112 people were executed over 400 years, a number far lower than we’d expect considering the harsh laws during the time. The dark threat of being ‘sent to the tower’ doesn’t come from Medieval times at all, but rather the 16th/17th centuries where darkness had to be hidden under the surface of polite society – so the Tower became a popular place to send unwanted royals or nobles. At one time a royal residence, a palace, a prison, a menagerie, a royal mint, a treasury and a fortified vault for the Crown Jewels, today’s Tower of London is one of London‘s top tourism destinations, and the most visited castle  (not including palaces, which are quite different) in Europe – nearly 3 million visitors cross its threshold every year. The Tower’s oldest section, the White Tower, dates back 1078; other expansions date largely to the early Middle Ages, including exertions by Richard the Lionheart, Henry III, and Edward I. All of this combined makes the Tower of London one of the UK‘s most impressive cultural heritage sites, and for this, it has been recognised by UNESCO. Due to the vast amount of visitors, it is hard to properly visit the Tower of London – best advice is to avoid school holidays and visit in the low season (late September just after school starts but before holidays begin or in the dark days of winter in January or February). Though it can never entirely escape its dark past, it may not be as dark as you thought.


Other Cool Places to Visit in London
  1. Dragon Statues
  2. Tower Bridge
  3. Highgate Cemetery
  4. Big Ben
  5. The London Eye
  6. Millennium Bridge

 

Chateau des Adhémar, France

Chateau des Adhémar, Montélimar, France

Chateau des Adhémar, Montélimar, France

The 12th century Chateau des Adhémar remains one of the last true examples of Romanesque architecture, a style defined by rounded arches, thick walls, squat towers and sturdy pillars. This study, box-like castle was built atop a sunburnt hill which overlooks the orange-tiled, sunny town of Montélimar (located in the Drôme department in the south of France). Appropriated by the papacy in the 14th century until 1447 when it re-entered the Kingdom of France, the castle has been used as papal residence, an armament for several conflicts and wars, a citadel, a prison, a country residence, and now a contemporary art museum. In fact, Chateau des Adhémar was largely saved in the last few centuries as it was put to use as a prison. The famed loggia, or loge, with the striped design and rounded windows attached to the main keep was added during the Renaissance to ‘beautify’ what was considered a ‘plain’ Romanesque design. The beautiful Renaissance loggia was also built to add light to formerly gloomy rooms as well as show off the expansive countryside on Chateau des Adhémar’s toes. Located in the inner courtyard is the ancient 11th century St Pierre Chapel. Once a part of the wide-reaching monastic network centred at the Monastery of Ile Barbe in Lyon, the simple Romanesque chapel was later incorporated into the castle complex by the powerful Adhémar family. Today, the castle is a fine example of Romanesque and Renaissance architecture, as well as the modern art movement. It offers splendid aerial views of Montélimar and is a perfect stop on a road trip heading from Lyon to Nimes, Avignon, Montpellier or any other destinations in Southern France!


See Other Fascinating Places in the South of France
  1. The medieval village St Guilhem le Desert
  2. The famous Roman Aqueduct, the Pont du Gard
  3. The Nimes Arena
  4. Balazuc village in Ardeche
  5. Largentiere village in Ardeche
  6. The ancient citadel of Carcassonne

 

Kremlin Bell Tower, Moscow, Russia

Kremlin cathedral in Moscow, Russia

 Ivan the Great Bell Tower in the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia

The Kremlin: probably one of the most infamous places across the Globe, it seems that few people choose to venture inside this massive and widely important complex. In essence, the Moscow Kremlin is a fortified complex snuggled between Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral, and encompasses five palaces, four cathedrals, and the Kremlin Wall interspersed with the famed red towers of the Kremlin. It is the Russian version of the White House, serving as personal residence of Russia’s president (today meaning the controversial Vladimir Putin). In the past, versions of the site have served as the seat of the Grand Dukes of Russia, the famous Russian Tsars, Catherine the Great and her extravagant Neoclassical palace and Soviet rulers. The above building is the Ivan the Great Bell Tower, which contains 22 bells and is now the tallest Kremlin structure. It is not the first bell tower to appear here; indeed, Moscow’s first bell tower was erected here in 1329, called St Ivan of the Ladder Under the Bell. One of Russia’s Grand Dukes, Ivan Kalita, built this massive whitewashed brick version in 1508 – the name is supposedly a nod towards the original tower, but one can imagine that Grand Duke Ivan wasn’t too opposed to name his construction the ‘Ivan the Great Bell Tower’ either! To visit this tower and the rest of the ever-impressive and awe-inspiring complex, one must buy tickets at the entrance, taking care stay with the carefully-allotted paths and buildings unless you’d like to see what the inside of a Russian prison looks like! Visit the exterior of the complex by exploring Red Square and alternatively, take a boat tour of the Moskva River at sunset to see Moscow in a new light!


Visit More Orthodox Cathedrals in Europe
  1. St Basils Cathedral – Moscow, Russia
  2. Trinity Cathedral – St Petersburg, Russia
  3. Saviour on Spilled Blood – St Petersburg, Russia
  4. St Panteleimon Cathedral – Kiev, Ukraine
  5. St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery – Kiev, Ukraine,
  6. Nevsky Cathedral – Tallinn, Estonia
  7. Saint Clement of Ohrid – Skopje, Macedonia
  8. Nativity of Christ Cathedral – Riga, Latvia

 

Dunnattor Castle, Scotland

Dunnattor Castle - Stonehaven - Aberdeen Scotland

Dunnattor Castle, Scotland

Rough and rugged, clinging to a pointed cliff, perchaed atop a low peninsula jutting out into the ocean, Dunnattor Castle is certainly one of the most eye-catching castles of northern Europe. Located on the Scottish Coast near Stonehaven village and south of the sprawling silver metropolis that is Aberdeen, Dunnattor Castle is best approached on foot. Hiking from Stonehaven, take the back alleyways and countryside path that rises behind the village, eventually depositing you in the emerald grass of Scotland’s countryside. Walk between the rolling country hills and sheer coastal drops with fluffy sheep for company, past the Somme War Memorial before turning a bend after about 3 km to see the distant peninsula crowned with its castellated turrets. Dunnattor Castle dates back to the 15th century, and once even hid the Scottish crown jewels from the invading Cromwell army during the 17th century. Take your time exploring the castle as well as its hidden coves and beaches as you listen to the crash of the waves on the foot of the cliff. Whether gazing at this medieval fortress from above or below, it’s clear that it is an extraordinary feat of architectural imagination and engineering!


Other Amazing Castles in Europe To Explore
  1. Kreuzenstein Castle, Austria
  2. Bratislava Castle, Slovakia
  3. Castillo Xativa, Spain 
  4. Malbork Castle, Poland
  5. Vajahunyad Castle in Budapest, Hungary
  6. Turaida Castle, Latvia
  7. Hohenschwangau Castle, Germany
  8. Chateau de la Batisse, France

 

Bratislava Castle, Slovakia

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Bratislava Castle, Slovakia

This glittering white walls and towers of this massive fortress are both ancient and modern at the same time. Built and rebuilt and rebuilt, this castle has seen more re-constructions than any castle should. Figuring into the 10th century Annals of Salzburgthe first reference of both castle and city, Bratislava Castle stands on an ancient site once home to a small fort built by the Celts. Later the Romans occupied the site, and then the Moravian Slavs who built a new fortress. When it became part of the Hungarian Empire, the Hungarians built a stone palace to replace the old Moravian fortress. That stone castle and chapel was later replaced by a 15th century Gothic-style fortress. One century later, it was rebuilt again, this time in Renaissance design. In the 17th century, it was – wait for it – rebuilt (again!), this time in Baroque style. Elaborate artistic redecorations were redone during the rule of Maria Theresa, including new castle gates and rococo interior decor. A terrible fire in 1811 and subsequent ruinous state of the struture meant that the castle, today considered a national treasure, had to be renovated and rebuilt by the Hungarian government (though it almost was decided to destroy it completely). Today, Bratislava Castle is both national museum and testament to the changing forces, rulers and styles that overshadowed this little capital city of the central European country of Slovakia.


More European Castles Near Budapest Worth Exploring
  1. Kreuzenstein Castle near Vienna, Austria
  2. Hohensalzburg Castle, Austria
  3. Malbork Castle, Poland
  4. Vajahunyad Castle in Budapest, Hungary
  5. Turaida Castle, Latvia
  6. Hohenzollern Castle, Germany
  7. Hohenschwangau Castle, Germany

 

Svenska Gustafskyrkan Church, Copenhagen, Denmark

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Svenska Gustafskyrkan Church, Copenhagen, Denmark

In English: the Swedish Church. In Denmark. Located on the moat banks of the Kastellet, a 17th century star fortress adjoined to the city walls tasked with the protection of Copenhagen. What’s a Swedish church doing there? To understand, we must first look to the church’s history. Denmark and Sweden share many things, including a similarly harsh climate, the Øresund and the Baltic Sea, and even almost a common language (they are close enough for speakers of each language to understand the other). They also seem to share a similar attitude on life: live and let live. Despite a troubled past, the two nations, along with the rest of their Scandinavian sisters, all seem to get along and just live – a marvellous notion that we could all take a page from. Well enough preaching – and back to Svenska Gustaf. The story starts with a Swedish pastor called Nils Widner who went to Copenhagen to educate Swedish sailors living there, but was soon swept into the world of Swedish expats. As his circle grew, Nils realised they would need a church to provide for the growing congregation. In an action of solidarity, his loyal followers agreed to donate 10 øre a week (mere pennies, but dedication counts!) until the church was completed, which ended up being in 1911. The Danish, bless them, provided Pastor Nils with a lovely site along the northern side of the Kastellet, a beautiful island fortress (a stone’s throw away from the St Alban’s, a 19th-century English church, erected for similar reasons 25 years before). A Swedish architect designed Svenska Gustaf, and a Danish architect supervised the construction. Danish and Swedish royalty alike attended the opening ceremony. Everyone got along, everyone worked together, everyone was happy. But then again, what more do you expect from Danes and Swedes, eh?

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…

Harbour of Dubrovnik, Croatia

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Dubrovnik Harbour, Croatia

During summer, Croatian beaches become a hot-spot for beach tourists – meaning that it’s best to avoid the country from June-August. However in spring or fall, Croatia is absolutely wonderful. Soft waves lap against Dubrovnik’s rocky shores, ancient forts and lighthouses peer over rocky outcrops, restaurants and cafes line the city walls, smooth stone avenues skirt through the town centre while tiny alleys whip and wind their way around the main plaza. Here, orange clay roofs contrast with the turquoise blue of the famous Mediterranean. Founded in the 7th century on a rocky island named Laus to have provided shelter for refugees from the nearby Roman city of Epidaurum, Dubrovnik still has one of the rockiest shorelines on the Med. Most of what you see in this magnificent city today is due to its maritime power gained under the Republic of Ragusa in the 15th-16th centuries. Not only has Dubrovnik been recognised by UNESCO, but CNNgo attributed it to being among the top 10 best preserved walled medieval cities in the world!

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.

Beseno Castle, Dolomite Moutains, Italy

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Beseno Castle in the Dolomite Mountains, Italy

If you want a unique, cross-cultural experience, try driving from Verona, Italy to Innsbruck in Austria. It’s only at the very end–when crossing into Innsbruck–that you arrive in Austria. Yet, arriving in in South Tyol (also known as Alto Adige or Sudtirol) in northern Italy, it already feels Germanic – and Italian at the same time (and everyone is bilingual)! These mountains hold some of Europe’s most precious, unexplored gems: a trip through the Dolomites, especially outside of ski season, feels like a trip back in time to the age of exploration. And even better, the Dolomite region of Italy has the highest concentration of medieval castles in Italy, with 400 fortresses, castles and medieval structures rising up from its hills, such as the spectacular and enormous Beseno Castle. As the largest fortified structure in the Trentino region, Beseno Castle’s roots stretch back to the 1200s and has witnessed the tunes of history play out in the ancient mountain pass below. Whether you play “I spy a castle” from your window while traversing the region, or you find a snug mountain village like Besebello to use as a home base to discover the region on foot, the Dolomite mountains, especially Trentino and South Tyrol, is not a region to miss! Practical info: Beseno Castle may be approached via the Besenello village, or via Italian highway Strada Statale 350 – the route from Verona to Innsbruck through the Dolomites.


Other Amazing Places in Northern Italy


 

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!

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.

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.