Thursday, 30 June 2016

Fairytale Europe: Fascinating Atmospheric Castle and Fortress Buildings

An experience pretty much unique to historic Europe is a visit to an atmospheric, historic castle or fortress. With an uncountable number of fascinating architecture and places to visit, varying from ancient ruins and medieval fortresses, to renaissance and royal abodes, even to enormous haunted icons, it is impossible to pick 'the best'. However some fascinating castles and buildings from my favourite and most recent trips to Europe are listed below. Enjoy!

Chateaux of the Loire Valley, France

The fairytale grand Renaissance and medieval Chateaux of the Loire Valley in central France are in themselves, uncountable. The area lays claim to a great many aristocratic and royal histories, giving birth to a region rich in chateaux full of splendour and glory.

Three of the Richard's and my personal favourites of the Loire are below, heavily influenced by Richard's 'need' to see turrets: 'If it doesn't have at least one turret I'm simply not interested.' Ok, ok!

  • Chenonceau. Some say the fact that it was the brainchild of women is quite clear, the way it gracefully arches over the river Cher. The interior over the river was used as a means of escape over the border between nazi occupied France and regular France in WW2. 
  • Typically renaissance and resplendent Chambord, originally the hunting lodge of King Francis I, with its many turrets and complex double-helix staircase, it simply beguiles. There was even a painting in there that Richard and I were debating might just be bigger than the whole floorplan of our house. 
  • Saumur with its gilded Fleur de lis, and position overlooking the medival town of Saumur on the river is so full of history and well worth a visit. 

Chambord and Chenonceau date back to the mid 1500s, whilst Saumur dates back to the 9th century.

Chenonceau interior

Saumur on the Loire River


Chateau de Chillon, Lake Geneva, Switzerland

Situated right on the shore of Lake Geneva, the medieval castle was built with an escape route directly onto the lake for a sneaky and safe departure. Its underground prison vault is fascinating with its many wall etchings and scratchings from the various inhabitants, and interesting information about the prisoners and thier lives at the castle fortress.

Chateau de Chillon's sheer size is impressive alone, however its history is even more compelling as is its position on the lake. I absolutely loved the hour's walk around the shores of the lake from Montreux to the castle, in the snow, despite moaning about the idea beforehand. The walk even adds to the drama of the castle as it slowly appears through the trees.

Thun Castle, Thun, Switzerland

Being a vibrant university town, and its proximity to the jungfrau alpine region, Thun has alot to offer, however its castle perched high over the town and its beautifully turquoise river, makes it even more special. Dating back to the 12th century, this castle is extremely well-preserved. 

At New Year the castle has a strange but excellent magical atmosphere, with candles lit in the darkness and people quietly awaiting the approach of midnight. We didn't stay for midnight, and instead spilled out onto the main square along with most other people to countdown to midnight (in German of course, which felt strange!) The ancient castle overlooking us from the square somehow dwarfed the feeling of time moving forward; another year having passed, seemingly insignificsnt to this historic fortress. 

Bran Castle, Transylvania, Romania

This atmospheric castle (in equally atmospheric Transylvania), is often associated closely with Vlad the Impaler and Bram Stoker's dracula, however history and mystery intwine, leaving unclear versions of similar stories, as well as entirely different claims. The castle is indeed shrouded in mystery and its origins date back to 12th century Teutonic Knights. Vlad Tepes' (Vlad the Impaler) history at the castle in the 13th century is documented in the castle as well as some gruesome torture devices for visitors to appreciate. The rest of the castle contains artefacts and furniture of Queen Marie of Romania. 

The castle is particularly atmospheric around Halloween when adorned with many jack-o-lanterns. For this, creepy dark night-time visits are a must! We waited in the queue for quite some time and it was busy, but it was worth it. We also went back in the day to see it in the daylight, we loved it that much! 

Chateau D'Ouchy, Lausanne, Switzerland

This castle first took my attention as a 'Disney World Castle' because of its elegance, and position right in the town of Lausanne beside the shores of Lake Geneva. It hardly seems it has been there five minutes due to its great condition. It dates back to the 12th century, however it has been re-built in the 1800s in neo-gothic style and serves as a hotel.

This is a great spot to hire a pedalo and have a picnic on the water with great views of Lausanne and the castle. 

Peles Castle, Sinaia, Romania

Grand, stately and elegant, this early 1900s castle is beautifully set on the green slopes of its grounds with a backdrop of the Carpathian mountains, like something straight out of a fairytale book. It is a fine example of architecture influenced by a mix of German, Italian and Czech styles and was built for the first King of independent Romania, who chose the land for its scenery. 

We visited this castle on our way back to Bucharest airport from Brasov in Transylvania as it made a good and convenient stop. Our lovely taxi driver waited for us; taxis are so cheap that we hired him for the day.  

Rasnov Fortress, Transylvania, Romania

This ancient fortress is fascinating not only for its history but its views of the unspoiled, forested hills and mountains. The citadel/fortress was built in the 11th century as a huge method of protection and defence for local and vulnerable Transylvanian villages.

We visited late afternoon on the way back from Bran castle, and the light was beautiful. There's a funny little collection of shops and stalls within the fortress - unavoidable to visit as we were three girls, so forget the history for a moment, what pretty but pointless trinkets can we buy?! 

Castles of Aosta Valley, Italy

Aosta itself is a major attraction with its Alpine views and Roman fortification, and these wondrous castles of the valley perched knowingly on mountainsides of course add to its appeal. There are a succession of castles along the valley, which, in medieval times would communicate with each other using a series of flags, to warn of invasion or dangers etc. 

There is alot of choice, although in my memory remains a disappointed Richard complaining that he wanted to see medieval castles that were 'still really old'! Meaning the castle's numerous ownerships and re-designs of the now renaissance interior was not in keeping with its medieval origins.  However the historic artefacts, paintings and decor are still interesting, and the guided tour informative. 

Palais des Papes, Avignon, France

This magnificent structure has incredible history. It dates from the 13th century and was built as an alternative seat of the Vatican when Rome became too turbulent and violent. 

The views from the hilltop of Avignon are incredible and Avignon itself is a beautiful and bustling city. We enjoyed the ferris wheel also for views of the town, the Palais and the gently meandering river. 

A castle not mentioned here that I am yet to visit is of course the fairytale Neuschwanstein in Germany; what stunning architecture! If you have visited it I'd be grateful for any comments below with tips/advice so I can plan my next fairytale castle adventure in Europe! 

Also, if you have further info on these castles or other fascinating fortresses, go ahead and share in the comments! 

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