Wanderous Affair's editor-in-chief, Emily Fata, shares her favourite European castles from five different countries. These impressive fortresses, once erected for the purpose of safety and fortification, can now be appreciated for their rich histories and lavishly impressive interiors and façades.
For centuries, castles have been constructed across the globe by nobility, royalty, or military orders for safety and fortification against both local and foreign enemies. Originally constructed from earth and timber, stronghold defences were later replaced by stone, which is common in the ostentatious structures that we are still able to wander through today.
In my travels across the globe, Europe has left me most breathless in the sheer number and grandeur of the castles and palaces that have survived into the modern day. Naturally, it’s seemingly impossible to narrow down a mere handful of my favourites, but I have selected some below based on their opulence, history, and impact on the local area as a whole. They also happen to be astonishingly beautiful.
Château de Versailles (Versailles, France)
The Palace of Versailles (Château de Versailles in French) is perhaps one of the most famous palaces in the world, and with good reason: its utter opulence, gilded splendour, and sheer size (both the main château itself, as well as the grounds and various buildings scattered throughout it) all contribute to an overall sense of being completely wonderstruck. This palace was so incredibly large and detailed that I cannot choose a single room as being more impressive than all the rest.
The main palace contains 2,300 rooms within its 63,154 metre2 (679,784 foot2) area, allowing visitors to spend a seemingly infinite amount of time admiring the luxurious details. From the King’s lavish apartments to the renowned Hall of Mirrors, everything about Château de Versailles leaves you in complete and utter awe. The sheer grandeur of everything practically carries you through each room before leading out to the expansive palace gardens.
The vibrant flora and bright foliage of the land are welcome contrasts to the glorious man-made structures found throughout the property — including the palace’s smaller estates, the Grand and Petit Trianons. The latter was built between 1762 and 1768, during the reign of King Louis XV of France, located in the park of the Grand Trianon. The Petit Trianon became the domain of Queen Marie Antoinette during her sovereignty in France, and the stunning miniature neoclassical château with perfectly manicured gardens will sweep off of your feet.
Truly, Versailles has quickly become my favourite landmark on earth. No trip to the Paris is complete without making an afternoon out of this enchanting town, just outside of its borders.
Zamek Królewski (Warsaw, Poland)
From the moment you enter the splendid inner courtyard of Warsaw’s Royal Castle (Zamek Królewski in Polish), you are brought back hundreds of years as you envision the various people that have made their way across the cobblestones throughout the royal residence’s intriguing and dark history.
Originally, the fortress was built between 1598 and 1619, but the current structure is relatively new, with the original having been burnt down and looted by Nazi Germans following the Invasion of Poland in 1939. Half a decade later, in 1944, the remains of the castle were almost destroyed after the failed Warsaw Uprising. It was not until the surviving fragments of the fortress and Royal Library were registered as historical monuments by the government in 1965, that a complete reconstruction was carried out.
Today, the Royal Castle is a historical and national monument, listed as a National Museum of Poland and (together with the Old Town) registered as a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site.
While visiting the castle, be sure to fully immerse yourself in its opulent visual luxuries: the lavishly gilded Great Assembly Hall and Ballroom, the plush crimson velvets of the Throne Room, the artistical magnificence of the Knights’ Hall, and of course, the countless portraits and marble sculptures lining the myriad of brightly lit corridors.
Pražský Hrad (Prague, Czech Republic)
Prague Castle (Pražský hrad in Czech) is an astounding architectural masterpiece built in the ninth century. Though the current President of the Czech Republic resides there, it has a much more interesting history. Personally, the most exciting political figure to have dwelt there was Empress Maria Theresa, who stayed in the castle during her time spent in Prague (most notably because she is the mother of Queen Marie Antoinette, who spent the majority of her married life to King Louis XVI living at the aforementioned Palace of Versailles in France). However, the castle itself isn’t the only treasure to be found.
Just outside of its walls lies St. Vitus Cathedral (Katedrála Sv. Víta), so grandiose in its Gothic splendour that it nearly overshadows, quite literally, St. George’s Basilica (Bazilika Sv. Jiří) across the square. Though the former is the final resting place and contains shrines dedicated to Saints Vitus, Wenceslas, and Adalbert, as well as the state treasury, St. George was built in the tenth century and had its façade redone in 1142 to reflect Baroque and Bohemian art. Both are truly unique architectural pieces best admired in-person.
Moving eastward, you can also find the torture chamber, a frightening but explorable space filled with various equipment used to brutalize prisoners.
Nearby, one can also stroll along Golden Lane (Zlatá Ulička), a street constructed in the late fifteenth century, with houses added about a hundred years later. It was originally built to house the castle guards, but takes its name from the goldsmiths that lived there about two hundred years later. According to the tour guide I had while visiting Prague, these ‘goldsmiths’ were actually alchemists that inhabited the area during the reign of Rudolf II; these men dedicated their lives to turning lead into gold. The most convincing were those who could thoroughly fool nobility into believing they had succeeded in their endeavours.
Castell Conwy (Conwy, Wales)
Expounded upon briefly in the Winter 2019 issue of Wanderous Affair Magazine, in an article titled “Conwy, Wales: A Fairytale Come True,” Conwy Castle (Castell Conwy in Welsh) is reminiscent of stories of Arthurian legend. Dominating the city’s entrance is the stronghold designed by Edward I’s master castle builder, featuring eight massive towers and an impressive high curtain wall (more on that in a bit). The construction of Conwy began in 1283, with the castle naturally playing an important role in the king’s plan to surround Wales with an iron ring of castles to subdue an unruly populace. This was intended to protect the English colony located within Conwy from the Welsh citizens outside of it; indeed, Welsh natives were fiercely opposed to an English occupation within their motherland. The defensive structures erected by King Edward I were built so remarkably well, that they are still preserved and standing to this day.
Along one side of the fortress, the Conwy Castle suspension bridge connects to the citadel. The bridge opened in 1826 and is one of the first road suspension bridges in the world, an incredible feat of humankind to see in-person. This is only accessible for those who have paid admittance into the castle itself. However, views of the fortress’ exterior, as well as admiring the suspension bridge from behind a fence, can be enjoyed free of charge.
Surrounding the town are some of the best-preserved medieval walls in Europe. Without needing to pay an entry fee, visitors can climb up any one of its six entrances to walk along the lengthy expanse of them, viewing the town from above while also taking in the details of the beautiful historical architecture.
Oravský Hrad (Oravský Podzámok, Slovakia)
Though I never had the opportunity to wander through Orava Castle (Oravský Hrad in Slovak) myself, I passed by this mythical-looking stronghold on my way through the Carpathian Mountains one spring. All sorts of historical gems dot the magical rolling hills and seeing castles along the side of the road is nothing out of the ordinary. However, upon catching a glimpse of Orava Castle, I found myself peering through the window of my tour bus in complete awe, my eyes locked on the not-quite-prodigal citadel until it disappeared from my sight.
Built in the thirteenth century, the castle is located in what was once the Kingdon of Hungary. It is placed on a high rock, 112 metres (367 feet) above the Orava River, and found in the village of Oravský Podzámok in modern-day Slovakia. Understandably, this medieval castle is considered to be one of the most beautiful in the country and is now home to one of the oldest museums in Slovakia. Though a massive fire destroyed all the wooden sections of the castle in the 1800s, it still contains exhibitions of the Castle Chapel, the Knights’ Room, and several upkept rooms featuring period-style fittings. Tourists can also see the painting gallery, weapon room, and the scientific, ethnographic, and archaeological collections kept within the castle walls.
Though only a glimpse into the hundreds of castles to grace Europe, these castles and palaces are an ideal starting point for anyone seeking out the sheer grandeur of what such historical strongholds have to offer Europe. At one time erected for safety and fortification against both local and foreign enemies, as well as a sign of the power touted by the nobility, we can now appreciate these fortresses for the lavishly impressive creations that they still are.
To feel like a true royal, one need only step into a castle from long ago and let its opulent history engulf you.
* This article was featured in Wanderous Affair: Volume 2, Issue 2