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.
Vienne is most famous for its Roman ruins – the Temple of Auguste and Livie, amphitheatre and obelisk – though there is far more to this ancient place than that. A bit eerie and yet hauntingly beautiful, Vienne’s Pipet Cemetery is a fascinating place to visit. Vast alleyways and avenues are lined with massive tombs and headstones making a sort of French city of the dead. Climb to the top of the hill for a view of the fantastic ruins of the medieval castle, Chateau de la Batie, which still cling to the rugged hilltop, crowning Vienne’s dramatic skyline. The view of Chateau de la Batie seems straight out of Victorian-era painting, of a folly perhaps—dramatic cliffs, dark forests, a ruined castle, a grey cemetery, a hanging sky—and yet, the view is entirely authentic. Perched at the top of Mont Salomon, the castle Chateau de la Batie was built on the foundations of Roman ruins in 1225 by the archbishop of Vienne in order to protect the city from would-be medieval attackers. While the castle is not open to the public, it turns a rather ordinary landscape into something dramatic, romantic and even extraordinary to behold, and both the cemetery and Vienne’s hilltop are well worth the visit.
Pro tips: In the summer months of June and July, the city comes alive with the annual festival, Jazz a Vienne. Just across the Rhone Riveris Saint-Romain-en-Gal (only a separate town because it crosses county lines), find the ruins of a Roman city and an excellent museum of Roman archeology. Sometimes the site even hosts living history festivals. Vienne is an easy day trip from Lyon.
While oftentimes some of the most splendid castles are generally found in rural areas far from city centres, this cannot be said about the massive medieval pile that is the Gravensteen Castle in Ghent. Plopped on the canal bank in the centre of lovely Ghent – one of Belgium’s most fascinating and underrated cities – the spires of the Gravensteen reach for the sky and its walls crumble into the moat. This fortress was built around 1180 by Philip of Alsace, which he modelled 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. In some ways, this caused experts to question its authenticity, but this is the nature of continually-inhabited buildings: they evolve. As the Gravensteen is located in the middle of the city, modern objects such as power lines, asphalt roads, and cars criss-cross the castle grounds with roads encircling its walls. Yet the real-fake medieval castle sits in the Place Sint-Veerleplein, unaffected, steadfast and silent, watching as the modern world whizzes by.
Pro tip: Full admission is €10, and your ticket also gets you a virtual guide at the Abbey St Peter. The castle is open daily from 10-6pm. While in Ghent, poke around the lovely second-hand and antique shops and walk along the gorgeous canals. For the other end of the history spectrum, hit up Graffiti Street – an alleyway constantly painted by local artists so that it looks different upon each visit!
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.
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.
Visit More Beautiful Places in the Rural Country of Auvergne in France
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.
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!
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!