…don’t worry, now build foundations under them” said Thoreau and the ones we’re about to show you most certainly are well established and have stood the test of time. Something we find very appealing about castles, the sense of endurance and perseverance through time. I’m told that there is a common misconception amongst the not so seasoned traveler, that Europe may very well be awash with castles. Well we do have a few nice ones, especially if you cheat like we have and include the occasional palace or chateaux. But we will leave you to view the short Eddie Izzard clip at the end of this blog for his take on that subject. Meanwhile, we hope you enjoy our selection.
We want to start with Sintra, a town a short train journey from Lisbon, itself one of our favourite cities. Sintra is greedy, it has two castles, one old and one very old. The one above is the very old one, at least the original version was. Castel dos Mouros was originally built in around the 9th or 10th Century. It was attacked and patched up many times with the existing structure, the result of rebuilding in the 19th Century. So possibly only a couple of hundred years old. And just the other side of the village is another castle.
More of a palace than a castle. Palacio Nacional da Pena was also built in the 19th Century, this time on the site of a chapel which dates back to the middle ages. Distinctly romantic in style this is more like a fairy tale castle. One of my fellow sightseers was overheard describing it as Disney style. Yup, except, as Eddie would point out, its not plastic.
A little detail from Pena Palace, as it is also known. Apparently it is a reference to creation. We just think it is splendid.
The French have Chateaux, which, for the purposes of this blog, we are going to think of as castles . There are so many in the Loire Valley that you can tour them by hot air balloon and ‘Chateaux Fatigue’ is a recognised syndrome. We’ve chosen one the the grandest, Chambord. Built in the 16th Century, it has 440 rooms, 84 staircases including a double helix staircase, probably designed by Leonardo DaVinci, around 800 sculptured columns and an incredible roof which features 365 chimneys. Built by King François 1, or at least for him, we assume he didn’t do it himself, either to be close to his then girlfriend or as a hunting lodge, maybe both. It is so big that you don’t even feel swamped by the hordes of visitors. The Loire Valley is my own favourite region of France with possibilities of kayaking down the river, excellent wines, cheese and, I can’t think of a way to make this sound better, pork products. The only downside is getting stuck behind the inevitable convoy of Euro Motor-homes which it seems to be compulsory and that drive at 25 miles an hour at all times. Sorry, I was wandering off the point. Chambord is wonderful, worth a visit to the Loire on its own.
Leeds is an ex-industrial Northern city. I’ve been there on numerous occasions and have never been sorry to leave. Leeds Castle, however, is in the Southern English County of Kent. It is important to get that distinction right as there are a couple of hundred miles between the two. Leeds Castle looks like something out of a picture book. Built in the 12th Century it is now a popular destination for Visitors from across the world. It is a triumph of careful management and development with attractions including a maze, an aviary and several lakes spread out amongst well maintained and attractive grounds. The inside of the castle never lives up to the splendor of the grounds for me, I’m always surprised by how small the rooms are. But I’m sure King Edward I, who used it as a royal residence would be surprised by how small my rooms are. And the grounds really are lovely.
And speaking of Royalty, this is the Queen’s weekend gaff, when she’s not in Scotland or somewhere. Windsor Castle is open to the public, for a charge, of course. You’re unlikely to bump into Phil, Liz or the Corgis but you will be rubbing shoulders with the days portion of the million plus visitors who call in each year. It is worth being one of them but don’t expect much in the way of quiet contemplation.
Neu Schwanstein Castle in Bavaria. Now there’s a setting for a castle! Built for Luwig II, also known as Mad King Ludwig, in the 19th Century it has wonderful views, equally wonderful interiors and even more tourists than Windsor. There’s a half hour hike to the front door, or donkey carriages for those with sore feet. When you get there you used to be restricted to a quick half hour guided tour, it is worth checking if this is still the case. And its also worth checking if you still need to buy an advance ticket, the queues of people without tickets has been rumored to be a multi-hour test of endurance.
Back to France for one last castle that really isn’t. Selected again more for its setting than anything else. Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy is a tidal Island that functioned as outlook and fortification for centuries before being turned into a monastery. The Island can be visited via a land bridge during low tide and the construction of a full bridge is under way. The monastery towers above a narrow village that is carved into the side of this granite mount with ample options for shopping and dining and even a tiny hotel. I was lucky enough to garner a room there for a night. The entrance to the bedroom quarters was in the back of a gift shop, through a hidden door and up an ancient spiral staircase.
Plan to spend a few days to take in all of Normandy to experience the many historical sites and for an opportunity to imbibe in very good Calvados, Cidre, seafood and cheese if you can tolerate the gorgeous but pungent Pont Levêque. I’ve heard it being described, approvingly, as being like Cornwall without the Cornish. But then I’ve also heard Cornwall being described as being like Normandy without the French, with similar enthusiasm. It is not an argument I wish to participate in.
There are, of course, wonderful castles elsewhere - India, China, Latin America maybe? And I’m sure I’ve missed out many in Europe. We await your suggestions. Florida and Paris? Just kidding. But the final word on castles goes to British Comedian Eddie Izzard, on this occasion addressing an American audience. (Warning – he uses the ‘f word’).