We had some family visiting recently from the US, and one of their express goals was to see a Real European Castle. I didn’t think the Netherlands was known for its castles, for a variety of historical reasons, but homework revealed that we had a few options after all, with a cluster around the Dutch stretch of the Rijn in the general vicinity of Utrecht.
We began the day at Kasteel de Haar (above). Actually, we began the day by renting a car, something we have never done inside the Netherlands—so that was semi-exciting. If only someone would teach me to drive manual, maybe I could drive here…. but I digress. Kasteel de Haar can be reached by a string of public transportation, but it sounded like a true haul, especially since we started about an hour from Utrecht. Arriving by car was simple (huge parking lot, cheap daily rate, get a token inside) and as we’d approached through farm country we could see some imposing towers.
But we couldn’t see the castle itself until we’d cleared the admissions building/gift shop. Entry to the grounds was €3,50 for adults, and a one-hour tour of the building itself (only accessible inside by the tour) was €12,50. So for us choosing the grounds-only seemed the clear winner–we had 4 adults and 2 small kids who do not know the words “one-hour guided tour.” Afterward I felt strongly that they should hype the guided tour more before you choose, show a few photos. I would have been a lot more likely to choose it if I’d really known what the castle was going to look like past that entry zone.
Kasteel de Haar dates originally to the late 1300s, though what you see today is largely the work of restoration on the 15th century building, done extensively in the 1800s, when the owners added some modern comforts like electricity and running water. The present exterior resembles as closely as possible the exterior of the castle 500 years ago.
The old details are stunning and there are all sorts of inviting bridges and stairs, most of which you are signed not to enter. You can, however, walk up the main entry stairs (under the portcullis) without the paid tour and stand in the entryway trying to peer into the room beyond. (Note: there’s also a bathroom in there.)
Once we got over the sight of the castle itself, the joy of this visit was the grounds. The gardens go on and on and on and you can just roam at will. There are well-traveled paths, and there are less traveled paths; there are statues and water gardens and little bridges and a hundred perfect spots for a picnic. We’d been doing a lot of activities that week where small kids spent all day in strollers—this was a great place to unleash them and just let them run it out.
Following our picnic, we let our GPS with some difficulty steer us to the charming town of Wijk bij Duurstede. We have a friend who grew up in this town and on his unbiased recommendation, we decided to spend the afternoon there. A walk through the old town took us to what remains of Kasteel Duurstede. Like many of Europe’s castles, the property has seen various phases of inhabitance, upkeep, war damage, and neglect since the structure was first recorded in 1270.
I enjoy a good ruin, so the crumbling-tower aspect of this castle really appealed to my imagination. Though it is inspiring to see a castle reconstructed “as it would have looked,” there is also something gritty and authentic about seeing what time and history really do.
Kasteel Duurstede seems to have one ruined tower and one preserved, and in between the two we could see a niced-up space rentable for wedding receptions, etc. We didn’t spend as much time here as at de Haar because there aren’t really grounds; a short walk around the building shows you as much as you can see.
We walked back into the town along the Rijn (Rhine) to see the town’s unusual windmill—a road runs under it. We hit it on a lucky day when it was open (free) for visitors, and were able to climb a steep ladder or two for the view, and to see the fresh flour that had just been ground—and of course buy a few bags to take home.