The ten best castles in Europe

Castles originated in Europe over a thousand years ago. These fortresses were one of the original defense systems, and erecting the structures on hills or just beyond moats was a functional choice. Castles were built to house rulers, impose power, and above all, spurn would be attackers. Conforming to these basic principles of utilitarian design, the strongholds now appear solitary, majestic, and frozen in time. The attackers are long gone, and now a steady stream of camera clutching invaders breach the castles daily, ready to inspect the epic grandeur of the past.

While Europe has hundreds of excellent castles, these ten all have design, character, and history that sets them apart. Some occupy the center of bustling cities, while others lurk in forgotten countrysides. Spanning eight countries across Europe, each of these castles has a story to tell.

Prague Castle (above)
Location: Prague, Czech Republic
Nearest airport: Prague Airport
Year originally built: 870
Inhabitants: Kings of Bohemia, Holy Roman Emperors, and presidents of the Czech Republic
Interesting fact: According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Prague castle is the largest castle complex in the world.

Bran “Dracula’s” Castle
Location: Bran, Romania
Nearest airport: Henri Coandă International Airport in Otopeni, Romania near Bucharest
Year originally built: 1212
Inhabitants: Teutonic Knights, Mircea the Elder, Vlad III, and Romanian royalty
Interesting fact: In 2007, the castle was put up for sale for $78 million. It has since been taken off the market.

Location: Schwangau, Germany
Nearest airport: Munich International Airport
Year originally built: construction began in 1869
Inhabitants: King Ludwig II
Interesting fact: This castle has been visited by over 60 million people and is the template for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle.

Leeds Castle
Location: Maidstone, Kent, England
Nearest airport: Kent International Airport
Year originally built: 1119
Inhabitants: King Edward I, Henry VIII, and other notable British royalty
Interesting fact: Leeds Castle hosts a large garden maze and a dog collar museum.

Windsor Castle
Windsor, Berkshire, England
Nearest airport: Heathrow Airport
Year originally built: 11th century
Inhabitants: William the Conqueror, Henry I, Edward III, and many other British rulers
Interesting fact: Windsor Castle is the longest-occupied palace in Europe.

Mont Saint-Michel
Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy, France
Nearest airport: Rennes Britanny Airport
Year originally built: 10th century, though the earliest abbeys in the fort date to the 6th century
Inhabitants: Currently 41 people call the Mont Saint-Michel home, and the structure has been home to monks to over a thousand years.
Interesting fact: The tides around Mont Saint-Michel vary by almost 50 feet, and many people have drowned approaching across the sands.

Château de Chambord
Chambord, Loir-et-Cher, France
Nearest airport: Paris Charles de Gaulle
Year originally built: 1526
Inhabitants: King François I, Louis XIV, and the Ducal family
Interesting fact: Though the original designer of the châteaux is widely disputed, some insist it was Leonardo Da Vinci.


South of Salzburg, Austria
Nearest airport: Salzburg Airport
Year originally built: 1078
Inhabitants: Salzburg rulers and prisoners
Interesting fact: The misty castle served as a prison for hundreds of years.

Buda Castle
Budapest, Hungary
Nearest airport: Budapest Airport
Year originally built: 1265
Inhabitants: Hungarian Kings
Interesting fact: You can visit a portion of the 6 mile subterranean labyrinth under Buda Castle.

The Alhambra
Granada, Spain
Nearest airport: Federico García Lorca Granada-Jaén Airport
Year originally built: 14th century
Inhabitants: Muslim Emirs from the Nasrid Dynasty and Charles V
Interesting fact: It was in the Alhambra’s Hall of Ambassadors that Columbus made his pitch to sail to the orient by heading west from Spain.

Photo of the Day (07.26.10)

Having a mascot for your trip or an item that always travels with you is a neat way to add a personal twist to your adventure. We’ve touched on this before with the hula girl in Calgary photo. I’ve even done it myself with a little friend who followed me around Tasmania. That’s why I was thrilled to see this image by Flickr user skinnymalinky1 in the Gadling Flickr pool.

What was Squiggly doing in Salzburg, Austria? Does he have his own passport? Did he insist on sleeping in the top bunk on the overnight train? [Sigh] We may never know. But he looks happy and that’s all that really matters.

Do you have a travel mascot who joins you wherever you go? Or maybe you just have some amazing pictures from your last trip? Submit your images to Gadling’s Flickr group right now and we might use it for a future Photo of the Day.

Mozart’s birthday and images of Salzburg

If Mozart was alive today, he’d be 253. January 27 was his birthday. I found that out this afternoon when my husband told me Mozart’s Bakery and Piano Cafe, a lovely European-style bakery/restaurant in Columbus was giving out free pastries yesterday in honor of the occasion.

Thinking about Mozart reminded me of my two visits to Salzburg and eating Mozart balls chocolate. Don’t go to Salzburg without trying one. Yesterday, however, I savored pastries in Mozart’s honor and remembered those two days of wandering around his birthplace. Now that I’ve had an elegant sugar feast, here’s a visual and musical feast for you.

The blend of Salzburg’s scenery and sites with Mozart’s music is nicely done in this video. Consider it a taste. The combination captures Salzburg, Austria–as I remember it–breathtaking. Its streets steeped in elegance. If you’re ever in Salzburg, you can take a Mozart tour to see the city similar to how Mozart might have seen it.

Sound of Music family’s Vermont lodge and ski resort still going strong

Certainly any kid who imagined him or herself a singer pictured what it would be like to be dressed in a play-suit made of curtains leaping about Salzburg, Austria with the von Trapp children as they sang “doe a deer.” I certainly did.

When the von Trapps escaped from Nazi-ruled Austria during World War II, they eventually landed in Stowe, Vermont as the Trapp Family Singers who made money by performing and opening a ski resort lodge. After the movie “The Sound of Music” came out in 1965, the real family and their ski resort and lodge gained even more notoriety.

I read in this New York Times article that Sam von Trapp, the grandson of Maria and the captain, immortalized by Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, is the newest von Trapp to take over the business. He’s happy to do it since, from what I understand, no one asks him who he was in the movie. A generation of distance from tinseltown fame helps.

Recognizing that “The Sound of Music “connection is one that brings business, Sam is running commercials advertising the Trapp Family Lodge on tonight’s showing of the movie on ABC. He also plans to bring back holiday singalongs like the good old days.

The one song I can sing reasonably on key is “Edelweiss.” If you’re ever at the singalong, see if that’s on the list of options. If you want to sing the song along with the movie von Trapp’s, click here.

Sleeping over at the von Trapp’s house

I never really fell in love with the Sound of Music. But other people did, and I am sure that those people will be excited to know that the original von Trapp family house is being turned into a hotel.

If you’re having trouble remembering the true story that the movie was based off of, there was an aspiring nun (played by Julie Andrews) who did a whole lot of singing and somewhere between “do” and “fa,” won the hearts of Baron von Trapp and his seven children.

The von Trapp family lived in the house from 1923 to 1938 when they fled Austria during the Nazi takeover; eventually they made their way to the US where the youngest of the children operates a Vermont lodge. Now Salzburg will get the von Trapp touch, and starting this sumer, visitors to Villa Trapp visitors will be able to sleep in family members’ former bedrooms or even choose to exchange vows in the chapel. Located just outside of Salzburg, Austria, the hotel will open sometime in July.

Building a hotel that capitalizes on the fame of a movie really isn’t that crazy and sometimes hotels even star in movies themselves. Salzburg tourism officials say that actually 40% of overnight stays are made by fans of the Sound of Music. So if you are one of those fans, now you too — for only 100 euros a night — can practice your singing skills right in the von Trapp household.