Last week I had a realization about myself and about the transformation traveling and living abroad has wrought in my life:
I am a castle snob.
I have actually visited enough castles that I have started to form opinions on which ones I like better and why. This realization occurred after a visit to Gravensteen Castle, Gent, during which I huffed a bit and said I felt like I was at Disneyland.
I like castles. I like them even after I read Tom Holland’s Millenium and learned that in their early days castles (perhaps including the wooden one which stood on this spot before the stone one) were not always “home of the good guys.” Incastellamento: an Italianish term that around the year 1000 meant finding a hill or rock, throwing some wooden fortifications around it, enlisting a couple cnichts (the term denoting baseness rather than the elegance of its later form knights) from the local peasantry as bouncers, and bam—you’re a lord.
The appearance of castles across Europe coincided with that of villages. Peasants, it turns out, did not want to live in villages on top of their neighbors. They wanted to roam around and farm land and hunt and cook traditional foods from locally-sourced produce. But once castles started popping up everywhere, streams and forests suddenly “belonged” to the lord of the castle, and the commonfolk saw their rights mysteriously vanish.
Despite this sinister tint on my romantic notions of castles, these structures—or what remains of them—still cast a shadow of intrigue over my imagination.
My first real castle visit was to the Kaiserburg in Nurnberg, Germany, at Christmastime. No snow, but there is a major “winter enchantment” factor with the Christmas market.
(Side note: Though you would probably not want to have actually lived in a castle in the winter, there is something about the beauty of the season that ups the castle mystique. Maybe it’s the timelessness of snow. See Hohensalzburg Fortress, Salzburg, Austria, below.)
The Kaiserburg, home to the kings of the Holy Roman Empire between roughly 1050 and 1550, is a massive complex of forty-five buildings. Whole sections of it were damaged during World War II, but even including those bombings, portions of the original castle survive (and parts, of course, are reconstructed). The originals include the Roman chapel and the Sinwell Tower. They also include the transparently named Deep Well. We stood around the well while a guide lowered candles down the 165-foot shaft and then poured a little water over the edge. We waited… and waited… and waited to hear that water splash at the bottom. That brief experience was a standout of our entire trip, even with the commentary being exclusively in a language we didn’t understand.
Later in our Germany trip, we visited Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber, a fortified medieval castle town which is generally a fantastic place to go if you like really well-preserved medieval stuff. Rothenburg was spared bombing in WWII and is phenomenally intact from the middle ages—a fact that the town chalks up to not having had the funds to modernize, and then realizing it was a living tourist goldmine. Since the late 1800s laws have prevented major changes to the town. Most of the castle, the Staufer Castle from the 1100s (the earliest fortifications I think were from the 1000s, which totally jives with my history reading of late), was destroyed in an earthquake in, oh, the 1300s… but its chapel remains and so do much of the old fortifications, including this gate:
So let’s jump to Gent and Gravensteen. My first thoughts as we approached were: Wow, that’s in pretty good shape for being built in… 1180? Oh. It was decayed, nearly demolished, and then basically reconstructed around 1900 with other improvements since. Now I know that castles like Nurnberg have been polished up and partially reconstructed, at least, so I had to fish for what rubbed me the wrong way. Wandering around Gravensteen, I concluded, I felt like almost nothing original was left, and things had been conspicuously modernized to such an extent that I was at a museum exhibit on what a Belgian castle might be like (complete with rooms demonstrating torture and weaponry!).
We had to wander through much of the numbered tour before we found this crumbling bit of former kitchens. Then I was happier. (Tim saw the foundations of the original building on the site—a dungeon, he thinks—but by that point I was done and sitting on a bench.)
I went on Trip Advisor after the experience and saw divided opinions: some people really loved the Gravensteen experience, and some complained as I did that it felt too falsified, too perfect, too inauthentic. To be fair, neither of my two companions had a strong negative reaction like I did.
In contrast to the photo that led off this post, here’s one of a castle visit I was floored by.
Right off the bat, you can decide which appeals to you. This is Les Baux, Provence, France, and it is amazing.
The castle of Les Baux was a massive fortification on a site that, because of its ideal situation for defense, has been inhabited since at least two centuries BC. References to the castle pop up starting in the 900s AD, and the court there had a reputation for its finery and pomp. (A display on dining quoted a fragment from a travelogue where, if I recall, French travelers were being marveled at by other travelers for their use of utensils, or something like that.) As you can see, the castle doesn’t look like a lot today. Why? Because it was built a thousand years ago, and in the course of history, demolished a couple times when the occupants lost a key argument. Today it’s a major tourist draw and no one has tried to rebuild its walls. Instead they draw your attention to the parts that, eloquently, remain: a chapel, an arch, a decoration of leaves where the kitchen used to be. A thousand little square holes in a wall where pigeons used to live.
Les Baux does a great job at showing you (and letting you wander at your own risk all, all around) a structure that is, yes: hundreds and hundreds of years old, and crumbling. It’s amazing that any of it remains, built by hands I love to try and imagine. Where they can, the curators show you not a renovated structure, but an artist’s rendering of what you would have seen five, seven hundred years ago.
This I prefer. It helps my imagination, but leaves me to use it, too. Somehow I think it’s a fitting testament to the harshness and vigor of life in the middle ages to let these structures stand while they can (which is, we can see, quite a long time) and document their histories, and then admire even their decline.