There a hundreds and hundreds of beautifully restored medieval castle dotted around Europe, one more fascinating than the other, telling tales of times gone by and invoking dreams of fairy tale princesses and princes, knights in shining armour and the horrors of nasty landowners and poor peasants. The utter fascination with these historic fortresses will forever endure and thousands upon thousands of tourists have a seemingly countless number of castles to choose from.
I am going to veer away from Versaille, Neuschwanstein and Windsor Castle, because you probably know about them already and instead introduce but a few less well-known gems.
A Bit of History First
Europe as we know and love it, with its array of nations, is a relatively new concept. During the middle ages, Europe was divided into a limitless number of small reigns, kingdoms and miniature empires whose rulers on the one hand wanted to build fortresses for protection and on the other hand give expression to their wealth and power. That is the reason why so many castles were built at that time and to me as an architect it is truly astounding to see the beauty, ingenuity and sheer architectural and engineering genius behind these constructions. Right up until the invention of the canon in and around the year 1500, these castles stood tall. Suddenly, the protection was no more, armies could conquer these castles at will and did so in large numbers. However, the castle remained as an important status symbol for many kings and landowners and many withstood the onslaught, while others were destroyed and later restored for our benefit and enjoyment.
If you are traveling to Europe, here are some stunning castles for you to visit:
- Mont St. Michel, France: This is in my opinion, one of the most stunning European castles, built on a tiny rocky island, 0.6km off the northwestern coast of France. Legend has it that Archangel Michael appeared to the then bishop in the year 708 and asked him to build the castle. After its initial use as a church structure, Mont St. Michel gained in importance as a strategic point for the Normans towards the turn of the millennium. The English tried in vain to conquer this beautiful fortress in the following centuries. Eventually, Louis XI founded the order of St. Michael and the structure became an important site for the roman catholic church. This all changed during the reformation, when the abbey was turned into a prison and then finally closed in 1863. Mont St Michel was added to the list of World Heritage Sites in 1979 and remains loved by visitors from all over the world to this very day.
- Bran Castle, Romania: While many consider Bran Castle to be the home of Dracula, there are many castles in Romania that may have inspired Bram Stoker’s world famous book. Nonetheless, Bran Castle is spooky and atmospheric and well worth a visit. Visitors can enjoy talking a walk around inside and there is an open-air museum closed by. The castle was built in the 14th century by the Hungarian empire and was used in defense against the Ottoman empire. In 1920, Hungary lost Transylvania to Romania as part of the Treaty of Trianon and it was eventually transferred to the Habsburg family who restored and opened it to the public only a few years ago.
- Castillo de Coca, Spain: Architecturally amazing, combining Gothic and Mudejar styles, Castillo de Coca in Spain is well worth a visit and open to visitors. Built in the 15th century, Castillo de Coca is one of Spain’s most important castles. After withstanding many attacks, Napoleon finally managed to successfully conquer this castle and make it part of his Empire.
- Predjama Castle, Slovenia: Predjama Castle was built into a rock face in the 13th century. Over the centuries, it has been destroyed in battles and by natural disasters and has been rebuilt and refurbished twice. Its Gothic style and stunning location make it a popular choice for tourists throughout the year. It has been used as a film set for several large budget movies and is now a museum open to the public.
- Castello del Monte, Italy: Castello del Monte, located in Apulia, Italy, is an architectural masterpiece. Built in the 14th century by Emperor Frederick, the castle is renowned for its octagon shaped elements and its known to have been designed with precise mathematical and astronomical measurements, incorporating both Gothic and Oriental styles. The castle is a UNESCO world heritage site and welcomes thousands of visitors each year.
There are hundreds and hundreds of amazing castles around Europe and each nation has its own history of emperors and landowners, battles and attacks, reconstruction and preservation. History is what makes Europe such a special place, each castle, church and site tells tales of times gone by and leaves you wonder just how people have achieved in creating so many stunning sights.