Castles Around The World
Castles, more than any other historic buildings, invoke images of times long past of medieval knights, long and bloody sieges, and the life of royalty. Planning a vacation that will encompass numerous castles is surprisingly easy because rival lords often built castles within a short distance of each other. Many of the best European castles are clustered near the England-Scotland border, along the Irish coast, or in the beautiful Loire Valley of France.
A vacation to see castles around the world is sure to be richly rewarding. A visitor to a medieval castle can imagine what it was like to live within the thick stone walls, warmed by the heat of a giant fireplace, protected by tall guard towers. Romantic castles like Mont St Michel in France and Leeds Castle in England can seem like backdrops to a children’s fairy tale.
Castles in the Middle Ages served several purposes. They provided a symbol of a king’s or nobleman’s power to the surrounding region, served as home for the noble family, and gave sanctuary during an attack by a rival lord. The earliest medieval castle was a wooden fort, often on a raised mound with a moat around it. By the ninth century, these wooden structures began to be replaced by stone fortresses.
Many fine examples of defensive castles survive today in Irish castles and the fortresses along the English-Scottish border. Irish castles like Cahir Castle in County Tipperary, Carrickfergus Castle in County Antrim, and King John’s Castle County Limerick are all well-preserved examples of castles built in the Middle Ages as defensive fortresses. Edinburgh Castle in Scotland is another such medieval castle.
Edinburgh Castle is an imposing stone structure on a hill overlooking the beautiful Scottish capital. Unlike many castles in the Middle Ages, this medieval castle was never taken by direct military assault. Today, Edinburgh Castle still has a ceremonial military garrison, but its historic structure and picturesque location make it a popular tourist attraction more than a military stronghold.
As the modern nation states of Europe coalesced and war between rival lords became less common, castles in the Middle Ages ceased to be just forts to survive a siege. Instead, kings and noblemen began to build luxury palaces to display their wealth and power. Chambord Castle and other French chateaux along the Loire Valley are more pleasure palaces than forts. Irish castles like Bantry House in Cork and Tullynally Castle in Westmeath are examples of luxurious manor houses.
The most recognizable of this type of castle is Neuschwanstein Castle, the model for Cinderella’s castle in the Walt Disney movie and for the Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland. Its builder, Ludwig II of Bavaria, spent his personal fortune constructing several fairytale German castles. These southern German castles remain popular attractions to this day.
The fate of most European castles has been to end up as tourist destinations, either as ruins or in some state of restoration. Some castles, however, remain family residences. Glamis Castle in Scotland, the birthplace of the Queen Mother, has been in the same family for over 600 years. Others, especially some smaller Irish castles and German castles, have been converted into hotels or rental houses.
Castles in the Middle Ages often served as royal residences and centers of government. Today, the British royal family continues to use several castles as homes. Windsor Castle, outside London, is today the largest residential castle in the world.
Most people are not born into a royal family and cannot imagine having a palatial castle as their family home. But with a visit to a medieval castle everyone can dream of a fairytale life in one of these historic homes.