The child in all of us that listens with eager excitement to fantastic tales of heroic knights and fair maidens never really leaves us. These fairy tales often take place in castles and fortresses, where the king and queen reside, and where knightly battles are waged. Even as adults, we can take pleasure in the exciting true histories behind the imposing structures that feature so prominently in these stories: today, we’ll introduce you to five unforgettable castles and palaces, in places where the tragic and romantic, past and present, collide.
Lichtenstein Castle – Baden-Württemberg, Germany
Lichtenstein Castle, in the German state of Baden-Württemberg, is everything you’d imagine a medieval castle to be. In the Middle Ages, Lichtenstein was regarded as an invincible fortress, but later lost its importance and was eventually even demolished. But the cousin of King Frederick I had a taste for knightly lore, and in the nineteenth century had the castle rebuilt in the Romantic style. Lichtenstein Castle as it stands today presents a dramatic image: enthroned upon rocky cliffs, the castle tower extending resolutely into the sky, a single bridge the only connection to the outside world. The “fairy tale castle of Württemberg” was erected as a patriotic monument to the House of Wurttemberg, which is apparent from the magnificent interior design, featuring a plethora of portraits and family crests. The interior can only be viewed on a guided tour, but it’s possible to wander on your own through the castle garden and the romantic courtyard with its mighty artillery guns.
Cité de Carcassonne – France
The abundance of Châteaus in France is hardly a secret – there are more than 400 castles just on the Loire River and its tributaries alone. Given the plethora of options, a single castle just doesn’t seem to satisfy, and thus we present to you the Cité de Carcassone, the imposing, inhabited fortress town in the Carcassonne in the south of France. Wandering through the narrow alleyways of the old citadel is like taking a trip back in time: the entire city is one big open-air museum. The fortified town is protected by a double wall with a total of 52 towers which protect the city’s strategically important location. The city’s roots trace back to the first century BC, and it can be visited year round, for free. Not to be missed are the castle and the Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus within the citadel (unfortunately, entry is only possible at the castle and city fortifications).
Fort São Jorge da Mina (Elmina Castle) – Ghana, Africa
Fort São Jorge da Mina, known today as Elmina Castle, may not be romantic in the classical sense, but it nevertheless boasts a lively history diverse influences, and an equally lively present. The castle was erected in by the Portuguese in 1482 on the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana), as the first European fortress in Africa south of the Sahara. Over the course of centuries, the keys passed from the Portuguese to the Dutch and finally to the British, leaving behind a fortress that tells the tragic tale of slavery and the gold trade. Although the dark tragedy of the past is palpable in the fortress dungeons, the lively present surrounding the fortification is a welcome contrast. The fish market bustles with fishermen, who sail their distinctive fishing boats in every color of the rainbow (known as pirogues) out to sea, and in front of the castle you’ll often find drummers and groups of dancers, who show up in force. The tragedy of yesterday forms a particularly stark contrast here against the vibrant colors and lively atmosphere of today!
Himeji – Japan
It may not exactly be an insider secret, but it’s nevertheless an absolute must: Himeji Castle is a rarity in Japan, as one of the few remaining original castles that has never been destroyed by people, war or earthquakes. Himeji was continually expanded from the 14th to the 17th century, and served as both a stately royal palace and military stronghold. Particularly imposing is the five-story main building in the center of the structure. From the outside it shines a beaming white, while the interior is clad in dark wood, lending a mysterious aura. The impressively reconstructed samurai homes and gardens surrounding the fortification bring the storied history of Japan to life. Himeji can be easily reached by day trip from Nara, Kyoto, Osaka or Kobe. The landscape is particularly beautiful at the beginning of April when the cherry blossoms are in bloom, but it’s also the most crowded time to visit.
Palacio de Generalife – Granada, Spain
If you ever visit the famous fortress complex of Alhambra, reigning majestically high above the Andalusian university town of Granada, be sure to plan a stop at the Palacio de Generalife into your visit. During the reign of the Moors in southern Spain, which resulted in a peculiar mixture of Spanish and Arab influences in art and architecture, this palace served as a summer accommodation for the Nasrid sultans. From here, you’ll enjoy an unforgettable view of the city, the surrounding landscape and the Sierra Nevada. In the palace itself, you can wander through secluded courtyards and lush gardens, which are watered with a sophisticated watering system. The canals and fountains are marvels in and of themselves, a wonderful way to spend a few relaxed hours in the palace. But if you plan to stick around, make sure you bring enough water with you! The best times of year for a day at the palace are spring or fall, and it’s best to plan around 2-3 hours for your visit. It’s also important to book your tickets in advance, as they’re often sold out on site!
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