Romantic redbrick turrets and towers rise from a small island on Lithuania‘s Lake Galvé, home to the 14th-15th century Trakai Island Castle. Today accessible by a small wooden bridge, Trakai Island Castle actually claims to be Eastern Europe‘s only island castle still standing. While still in its infancy, the castle was attacked and severely damaged by the Teutonic Knights in 1377, and further damaged during a power struggle for title of Grand Duke of Lithuania. Once peace again reigned, it was the very same Teutonic Order that organised the rebuilding of the castle. Over time, other ameliorations were added – a massive donjon, wooden galleries along the inner courtyard, new palatial wings containing the impressive Ducal Hall, thicker defensive walls, three new towers and 16th century galleries complete with canons, designed to defend against new advances in technology (notably, gunpowder). Despite this, since the Battle of Grunwald, Trakai left its military importance behind and was used predominantly as a residence and a way to impress visitors, but by the 1700s and 1800s, it was in ruins, serving as little more than a romantic ruin for artistic and poetic inspiration. Reconstruction started in the late 1800s and continued through the first half of the 20th century. Today, Trakai Island Castle is a quiet monument to Lithuanian history and cultural strength, and part of the Trakai Historical National Park. Visit the castle by crossing the new bridge from the town of Trakai, only about 30 minutes from the capital city, Vilnius.
Pro tip: As the Baltic states open up to increasing tourism, places like Trakai Island Castle will get busier. It’s best to visit Trakai in the off-season or earlier in the morning in order to get the castle and island largely to yourself. Better yet, stay over in Trakai town and use as a jumping-off point to explore the region. Home to a proud Karaim community, a Turkish-speaking ethnic group descended from Crimean immigrants, try the delicious local Karaim dish, kybyn, a sort of dumpling or pasty stuffed with meat and vegetables while in Trakai.
Red brick towers peek out of the forest to climb their way towards the heavens. Turaida Castle, a little-known medieval fortress erected in the early 12th century, is a Latvian national treasure, to the degree that when the castle was left to be reclaimed by Mother Nature, the Latvians pumped finances into saving it. A Teutonic castle made of red brick much like Poland’s immense Zamek Malbork, the crumbling Teutonic Turon Castle in central Poland or even Lithuania’s island fortress Trakai, Turaida Castle itself seems as if it was pulled out of a magical storybook and nestled into the forgotten woods of the Gauja River Valley deep within Latvia. Reached either by winding backroads or by a combination of foot and cable car through the quiet Latvian forest, the castle is set in one of Latvia’s most incredible backdrops. Turaida Castle was the home of the lovely Rose of Turaida, a love story with a not-so-happy ending. While the castle itself evokes thoughts of knights and princesses and dragons, a hike through the surrounding valley with the enchanted castle looming in the distance is one memory you will never forget.
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Poland’s pride and joy when it comes to castles is certainly this sprawling red-brick fortress. Built in Prussia by the Teutonic Knights in 1406, it was christened Marienburg (after Mary). Much of Poland had the misfortune of being destroyed in the world wars, so Poland doesn’t have much in the way of ancient castles, not the way that Spain or France or Italy does. But it does have Malbork–which, when measured in surface area, is the reigning king of castles–it is the largest castle in the world! Recognised by UNESCO, this brick masterpiece (brick castles being common in this part of Europe, see Trakai,Torun, and Turaida for further examples) is the largest brick structure in Europe. Now that’s certainly something to be proud of!
Berries slowly overtake the ruinous Polish castle as nature takes its course. Following the devastating effect WWII had on Poland (which had the unfortunate luck of being located directly between Russia and Germany), precious few castles remain in Poland. However, Toruń’sTeutonic castle, built by Knights of the Teutonic Order between the 13th and 14th centuries, miraculously still exists. Today, the castle is mere ruins, though the local Poles meticulously care for their fallen monument. The castle was one of the first of the Teutonic Order to be built, and its existence grew the surrounding village into a thriving town – the town that later produced Nicolas Copernicus and some of the world’s best gingerbread. Today, Toruńand its castle comprise a UNESCO site and one of Poland’s few medieval castles still proudly standing. Bristly berry bushes may cling to the castle walls today, but just ask any of the thousands of visitors to Toruń: its castle is still something wonderful – and the gingerbread that is Toruń’s gastronomic specialty is to die for!
Resting on the shores of Lake Galvė, a mere 300 km from the Baltic Sea, is Trakai Island Castle. Dating back to the 14th century, it was built to withstand attacks from the Teutonic Knights, who played a large role in the region. At the time, Trakai was one of the main centres of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania before it fell into obscurity after merging with the Kingdom of Poland. Today, the town of Trakai is a collection of colourful, wooden houses with a population of only 5,000. Until recently, the castle had been little more than ruins on an island, inspiration for writers and artists. Finally rebuilt in all its glory, Trakai Castle is an impressive monument standing in the middle of a careworn village, reminding us of bygone times when castles and knights and kings still ruled the lands.
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