May 9th is officially Europe Day, and the world’s third-biggest continent has a lot to celebrate. With its diversity of cultures, languages, historical landmarks and natural wonders, it can be hard to focus on a single attraction or feature. For many visitors, however, the array of medieval fortresses and fairy-tale castles are the highlight of their European tour and we thought this would be a good time to take a look at some of the best.
If you’re going to withstand the force of an invading army, you’re going to need a castle. And probably a big one. Europe’s had centuries of dealing with unruly hordes, and all those skirmishes have left behind a veritable treasure trove of castles, fortresses and ancient battlements. Most are open to the public and for a fee you can return to the days of knights in shining armor, captive princesses, mighty kings and lowly serfs.
Here are a few of our favorite castles in Europe, just waiting for your own legendary adventure.
Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria, Germany
King Ludwig II was known as the fairy-tale king. In 1869 he began construction of this massive castle, heavily influenced by the characters in the work of composer Richard Strauss. King Ludwig was a big fan and took star-worship to a whole new level in the heart of the Bavarian Alps. This is the one that inspired Walt Disney to create his iconic centerpiece in the Magic Kingdom. The castle was built solely as a tribute and never defended anything except the king’s own fascination with musical drama.
Conwy Castle, Conwy, Wales
The fortification that was built in the 1280s by King Edward I is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and a great example of a true medieval castle. It has eight towers and thick limestone walls that contain 142 slits from which the defending crossbowmen could launch their arrows. The outer ward, where the garrison and servants lived, also housed the great hall, kitchen, stables, chapel and prison. The royal chambers lay in the heavily guarded inner ward. The floors of the castle are long gone but looking down from the ramparts you can still get an excellent feel for what the castle must have been like in medieval times.
Bran Castle, Bran, Romania
This 14th Century castle lies on the Transylvanian border and is mistakenly thought by many to be the fictional home of Count Dracula. Author Bram Stoker actually never went near the place and luckily, it’s in much better shape than the famous vampire’s crumbling pile. The castle changed hands many times over the centuries and is now owned by the descendants of Romania’s last royal couple, Queen Marie and King Ferdinand I. It’s still a wonderful example of an ancient stronghold, even if you won’t see any caped figures lurking in the halls.
Chateau de Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France
The entire Loire Valley is a buffet of gorgeous castles stretching along a tranquil river that’s bordered with orchards and vineyards. In this idyllic setting, it’s hard not to be awed by the sheer extravagance of the country’s historic royals and nobility. Chambord Castle is perhaps the most grandiose, but the Chateau de Chenonceau is the only one that stretches across a river. It’s a late Gothic/early Renaissance masterpiece with a unique arched bridge topped by a magnificent gallery. Given by King Henry II to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers in 1547, the castle is now owned by the Menier family, one of France’s foremost manufacturers of fine chocolate.
Predjama Castle, Predjama, Slovenia
This 800-year-old castle may not be the biggest or most beautiful, but it’s definitely among the most distinctive. The castle is built into the side of a cliff, with half of its battlements tucked into a huge natural cave. That made it easy to defend when legendary robber baron Erazem Lueger was its lord and master in the 15th Century. The castle was held under siege by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III after Lueger murdered one of his kinsmen. You might want to think twice about using the washrooms as the knight was finally killed by a cannon ball while he was sitting on the toilet. There’s also a secret passage that leads from the castle to the cliff top, and a whole network of caves and underground tunnels below the castle. Very cool.
We hope you’ll discover your own favorite castle on your next European adventure, whether it’s a medieval fortress or palace fit for a fairy-tale princess. And if your voyage coincides with Europe Day, you’ll have all the more reason to celebrate both the natural and man-made attractions of this ever-intriguing part of the world.