Live A Day In The Life Of ‘Downton Abbey’ At These English Castles

The British TV series “Downton Abbey” has taken America by storm with millions of viewers tuning in each week to watch the lives of the wealthy Crawley family unfold. The glamorous outfits, the decadent dinners, the lavish estate – it’s a splendorous life most of us can only dream of.

But take a trip to England and you’ll see that sprawling country estates like Downton Abbey are very real. In fact, some are still home to noble families. But that doesn’t mean you can only look at these castles from afar, because many of England’s grand estates have opened their doors to visitors. Not only can you tour the grounds, you can experience life as it was a hundred years ago. Step into the shoes of Mary or Matthew Crawley and be whisked back in time as you take part in Easter egg hunts, high tea, jousting tournaments, clay pigeon shooting and more.

Highclere Castle

Naturally, the first place that comes to mind if you want the true Downton experience is the very estate where the TV show is filmed – Highclere Castle (see image above). Located in Hampshire, England, Highclere is set on 1000 acres of parkland. The castle itself has around 300 rooms, some of which can be rented out for weddings or private dinners. Visitors here can take part in Highclere’s annual Easter egg hunt, stroll through fairs, listen to concerts or enjoy afternoon tea in the estate’s tea rooms or out on the perfectly manicured lawn.However, if you have a spare 8,000 GPB lying around, why settle for an Easter egg hunt when you can get the luxury package we told you about last year? Enjoy tea with the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, a private tour of the estate led by the Lord or Lady of the house, a grand luncheon and more.

Castle Howard

Castle Howard is an 18th century residence situated 15 miles north of York. It’s currently home to the Howard family, whose ancestors have lived in the sprawling estate for more than three centuries. Like Highclere, Castle Howard has also been immortalized on film – the movie and TV show based on the novel “Brideshead Revisited” was filmed on the grounds.

Visitors to Castle Howard are able to tour the residence, and explore the gardens, lakes, statues, and mausoleum on the grounds. The estate also hosts a range of events throughout the year, including an Easter fair, dog shows, craft fairs, Christmas celebrations, talks discussing the portraits and artwork in the home, and a range of outdoor theater performances (a rendition of “Pride and Prejudice” is among the shows scheduled this year).

Blenheim Palace

This 18th century palace located 8 miles from Oxford is the birthplace of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The estate, which is now home to the 11th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, has been designated a World Heritage Site.

Blenheim Palace runs dozens of events throughout the year ranging from sports to the arts. Among the more colorful events is a jousting tournament where visitors can watch knights dressed in medieval garb competing on horseback. Reenactments of historic battles also draw huge crowds to the estate. If you prefer something a little more sedate, there’s a flower show, literary festival, and an art and antique fair. You can also enjoy a picnic as you watch summer theater performances or take part in Blenheim’s annual Easter egg hunt.

Chatsworth House

Located in Derbyshire, Chatsworth House has been passed down through the same family for 16 generations. The Duke and Duchess of Devonshire now call the mansion home, but about 30 of the estate’s rooms remain open to the public.

Visitors can walk through the grand sculpture galleries and state rooms, meet an actor dressed as a Lady’s Maid, or dress in period costume. You can also tour the glasshouses and learn how the orchids and vines are looked after, or take a floral arrangement workshop. If you’re still thirsty for more, Chatsworth offers tours teaching visitors how beer was brewed at the estate during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Chatsworth House also hosts a traditional country fair featuring hot air balloons, military bands and vintage cars. Here, guests can try their hand at clay pigeon shooting or take part in an old-fashioned archery competition.

Lyme Park

Lyme Park, found in Cheshire, England, was once a great sporting estate, and today, visitors can stroll the vast grounds, which include several lakes, rose gardens and lots of deer. If the mansion looks vaguely familiar, it’s probably because you recognize it from the BBC production of “Pride and Prejudice,” which filmed several scenes here.

Visitors to Lyme Park are allowed to truly explore and enjoy the estate – this includes playing the piano or lounging with a book from the library. You can also dress up in old-timey costume and take photos to remember the experience.

Lyme Park also hosts several activities, including a Sunday luncheon for mothers, an Easter “eggstravaganza,” and the opportunity to make an Edwardian scrapbook. There is also a range of family activities to help visitors learn what life was like during the Edwardian period.

Note: Not all events at these estates are held on a regular basis. If you want to take part in a particular activity, check the estate’s website or call ahead to find out when events will be taking place. Some activities may also need to be pre-booked.

[Photo credits: Flickr users Richard Munckton; Paul Stevenson; Josh Friedman; Phillip Capper; and A Pillow of Winds]

Goetz Of The Iron Hand: On The Trail Of Renaissance Germany’s Biggest Badass

medieval, Goetz of the Iron HandRenaissance Germany was a violent place. A patchwork of different kingdoms, principalities, and baronies with constantly changing allegiances, the land was wracked with near-constant warfare.

The people in charge were some pretty rough characters. By far the roughest was Götz von Berlichingen, also known as Götz of the Iron Hand. You can also spell it “Goetz” if your browser hiccups at the sight of an umlaut.

His last name, Berlichingen, was for many years used as a popular euphemism for the phrase er kann mich am Arsche lecken, which translates as “he can lick my ass.” This gives some insight into his character.

Götz was born around 1480 in Württemberg. As a nobleman, he was part of the vicious power play that was part of daily life for the rich and influential in Germany. He set off to war while still in his teens and fought in various conflicts, eventually forming his own band of mercenaries.

In 1504, while besieging the city of Landshut, a cannonball hit his sword, swung it around, and caused poor Götz to cut off his own forearm. Not one to be deterred by minor setbacks, Götz had a prosthetic arm made so that he could continue campaigning.

The arm was a masterpiece of Renaissance design, as you can see from this old manuscript drawing reproduced on Wikimedia Commons. It was strong enough to hold a weapon and precise enough to hold a quill pen. Various buttons and levers worked springs so that it had much of the range of motion of a real hand. You can see some images of it at work here, and a detailed look at the mechanics in the gallery. It was so advanced that it served as the inspiration for prosthetic arms for German physicians after World War I, more than 400 years after it was made.

%Gallery-177598%We know a lot about Götz’s exploits thanks to an autobiography he wrote. In it he estimates that he took part in 15 feuds on the behalf of himself and his family, and numerous others for allies. Goethe was so inspired by Götz’s violent story that he wrote a play about him. The one-armed warrior remained an icon of German manliness and during World War II the SS named a division after him.

You can still see some of the places Götz lived and fought. Hornberg Castle, in Baden-Württemberg, was his home from the time he bought it in 1517 until his death in 1562. The castle, shown below, has a museum containing his armor. The castle itself is now a hotel and restaurant that offers a “knight’s feast” with the hint that Götz himself may make an appearance and have a drink with you.

To see his famous hand, you need to go to Burg Jagsthausen, another castle-turned hotel and restaurant.
Renaissance

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

The Northernmost Castle In The World

the northernmost castle in the world
I’m in a northern state of mind. Perhaps it’s the hail tickity-tacking off my window, or maybe it’s because Gadling is sending me to Estonia this February. That’s right, I’ll be freezing my butt off for your edification and entertainment.

Reading about the great Estonian castles such as Narva and Paide, I wondered which is the northernmost castle in the world. That great provider of facile and not always accurate information, the Internet, came up with several answers.

It all depends on how you define “castle,” you see.

If you’re going for traditional medieval castles, there’s general agreement that St. Olaf’s Castle in Savonlinna, Finland, is the northernmost at 61° 51′ 50″N. You can see it here in this photo by Mikko Paananen.

Called Olavinlinna in Finnish, construction started in 1475. At the time, the sparsely populated Savo region was in the hands of the Swedish crown but the Russians also wanted it. In fact, the Russians wanted it so badly that they attacked it several times, even before the castle was finished. The Russians finally took it in 1714 and kept it until the region became part of Finland when that nation became independent in 1917.

A castle this old always has its share of legends. The most persistent is the tale that a beautiful maiden was walled up in the castle as a punishment for treason. She must have been innocent because a rowan tree grew near the spot, with flowers as white as her virtue and berries as red as her blood. A nearby spring has a water sprite, and the castle was once saved by a giant black ram that made so much noise the invaders fled.

There’s a museum of Orthodox religious items on site and you can even hire out the castle in case you want to get married in the far north. The town of Savonlinna is a four-hour train ride from Helsinki and hosts an annual opera festival.

%Gallery-176848%If you aren’t a traditionalist and any old fort will do, the prize for northernmost castle goes to Vardøhus Fortress at 70° 22′ 20″N on a Norwegian island in the Barents Sea. There was a castle there as early as 1306 to control the fur and fish trade but nothing remains above ground today, so while it once may have been the northernmost castle in the world, it’s no longer standing and doesn’t count in my book.

Instead there’s a well-preserved star fort from 1738 that offers tours. Star forts came into prominence in the late 15th century as an adaptation to early cannons, which could knock down a castle wall before you could say, “We’re facing superior technology, run!” These forts had earthen embankments faced with stone and were laid out in the shape of a star to deflect cannonballs and provide crossfire.

Vardøhus Fortress proved vital to Norway’s interests yet never saw action until World War II. It’s still operating today and the five-man garrison has the duty of firing a cannon on national holidays and also when the full disk of the sun first appears over the horizon on January 21. This event is a holiday in northern Norway. You can find out more about Vardøhus along with plenty of photos over on The Lost Fort blog.

While no stretch of the imagination could make Thule Air Base in Greenland a castle, you have to tip your hats to the men and women of the United States Air Force and their NATO allies for living at 76° 31′ 52″ N. That’s 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It’s said to be the northernmost military base in the world. I suspect the Russians would disagree if they were willing to divulge that sort of information.

Like castles? Don’t miss our posts on the World’s Ten Scariest Haunted Castles and the Ten Toughest Castles in the World. Want to learn about life in a town that has lots of records for northernmost things (including the northernmost ATM?) check out our posts on Svalbard.

Disney World Immersive Expansion Opens This Week

Disney WorldFlorida’s Walt Disney World is about to open a new, re-imagined Fantasyland. The iconic park had been in operation for years to the thrill of vacationers of all ages and needed a facelift. More than a fresh coat of paint and upgraded technology, Disney is adding a popular immersive element to the experience.

“The Magic Kingdom is the iconic place at Walt Disney World and Fantasyland is the favorite land,” said Meg Crofton, president of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts in the U.S. and France in a Fox News report. “It’s the heart of the Magic Kingdom and we’re absolutely doubling the size of it, so I think that’s major in our guests’ minds.”


New Fantasyland has had some attractions up and running for weeks during a soft opening where cast members test their operation. Along the way, those experiencing new features and attractions have been engaged and drawn into each correlating story, every step of the way.

Enchanted Tales With Belle
A new attraction, Enchanted Tales with Belle, is an interactive experience (as opposed to a “ride”) that begins with an enchanted mirror transporting guests from Belle’s house to Beast’s library where Belle and Lumière invite guests to become part of a lively retelling of the “tale as old as time.”

Unique here is that groups are small and many are invited to participate in the experience that brings guests up close and personal with live action characters from “Beauty and the Beast.” This is not a passive, sit-around-and-watch attraction.Disney WorldUnder the Sea~Journey of the Little Mermaid
Also new is the musical attraction Under the Sea~Journey of the Little Mermaid where guests enter Prince Eric’s castle, board a giant clamshell and enjoy high-energy songs and effects that take them inside scenes from the animated Disney film “The Little Mermaid.”

Similar to Haunted Mansion in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, the ride transports guests on clamshell-style vehicles using the Omnimover ride system introduced by Disney Imagineers in the 1960s. The ride takes guests through a series of scenes, first taking them to the bottom of the ocean, bringing us up to speed on Ariel’s journey from her father’s undersea kingdom then on to meeting Prince Eric.

Disney WorldBe Our Guest Restaurant
Cinderella’s Castle has some competition now with the opening of Beast’s Castle. In the middle of Beast’s Castle are three dining rooms that make up the new Be Our Guest Restaurant.

A West Wing features an enchanted rose, the Rose Gallery has twirling, larger-than-life figures of Belle and Beast and the Ballroom features an elegant domed ceiling, twinkling chandeliers and views of softly falling snow.

Inspired by Disney’s animated feature “Dumbo,” the Storybook Circus park within a park features a country fair feel with colorful big-top tents and attractions.

The Barnstormer takes the Great Goofini on a stunt plane ride high above Storybook Circus. As the story goes, Goofy has goofed his way into the role of a circus stunt pilot, The Great Goofini. In the tradition of classic air shows, The Great Goofini takes you away on a spiraling stunt plane adventure. Your twisting, turning, daredevil, roller coaster “flight” takes you high above the grounds of Storybook Circus in New Fantasyland.

A new Dumbo The Flying Elephant ride is twice the size of the old one and features a circus-themed play area offering recreation and relaxation for guests as they wait for their turn – with two rotating squadrons of airborne pachyderms! Inspired by the title character from the 1941 Disney animated motion picture, this popular attraction lets you fly with Dumbo.

Casey Jr. Splash ‘N’ Soak Station is a circus-themed water play area where guests can enjoy cooling refreshment and squirt each other. Interactive water features include Casey Jr., who lets off billows of cooling “steam” along with monkeys, elephants and camels that spray water.

disney worldPete’s Silly Sideshow is the place for guests to meet Disney circus stars who are excited to show off their special talents. Located inside one of the big-top tents, guests can meet Minnie Magnifique (Minnie Mouse as a circus performer), Madame Daisy Fortuna (Daisy Duck as a fortuneteller), The Great Goofini (Goofy as a daredevil stunt pilot) and The Astounding Donaldo (Donald Duck as a snake charmer).

Opening this week, that’s not the end of Fantasyland expansion. Doubling the size of the park, two other major attractions are underway, due to open in 2013 and 2014.

In the center of Fantasyland, Princess Fairytale Hall, opening in 2013, will feature walls of stone and stained glass windows opening into a large gallery where portraits of the Disney princesses cover the walls. Guests will move to elegantly finished rooms, meeting Disney princesses Aurora, Cinderella, Tiana and Rapunzel.

The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, opening in 2014, will take guests on a musical coaster ride into a mine via a first-of-its-kind ride system with a train of vehicles that swing back and forth, based on the classic Disney film and animated figures of “Snow White and the Dwarfs.”

See more in this preview video:




[Photo Credit- Disney Parks and Resorts]


Roadside America: Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire

Over a hundred years ago, my great-great Uncle Bob built a small cabin to relax overlooking New Hampshire‘s Lake Winnipesaukee, about two hours from Boston. Little did he know that the Lakes Region would later become a point of pilgrimage for thousands of bikers and gamers each year, as it hosts the annual Laconia Motorcycle week in June and arcade enthusiasts year round to the American Classic Arcade Museum. Like many other generations before me, I spent many summers playing skee-ball, building sandcastles, and angling for more money to spend on penny candy. Now that I’m old enough to have honeymooned at Uncle Bob’s old cabin and taken my own daughter there, I still love the old-school feel of the place and hope nothing changes by the time my grandchildren run out of batteries on their iPhone 25s and want some old-fashioned fun. Here are some favorite destinations that have been around for generations past and hopefully, more to come.

Old Country Store
(Moultonborough) – This store was ancient even when Uncle Bob was a tyke (possibly the oldest in the country), and still offers a range of penny candy, pickles from a barrel, and loads of maple and pine treats. You’ll also find kitchen utensils you didn’t even know existed, a map room (mostly New Hampshire/New England) and more moose-themed items than is probably necessary. Be sure to sit on the porch with the cigar store Indian, check out the museum upstairs, and spend a dime or two on the old player piano.

Funspot (Laconia) – Open 60 years this year, Funspot is the largest arcade in the world. It gained real fame when it was featured in the documentary “The King of Kong” for the annual video game tournament at the aforementioned arcade museum. In addition to video games, there’s bowling, bingo, and mini-golf. If you are not a parent or a kid at heart, you can chill out at the tavern with free Wi-Fi too.

Weirs Beach – The Weirs Beach website says they’ve been a place for family fun since the 1950s, but the history goes back much earlier. Weirs is at its peak in summer, where you can ride the waterslides, drive bumper cars, or just hang out on the beach. There’s even a variety of nightlife in season, with fireworks, live bands, and a host of bars.

Corner House Inn (Sandwich) – One of the few independent restaurants open year round, the Corner House dates back over 150 years. You can’t rent a room anymore (they need all the room for hungry diners), but you can enjoy the fire and food for dinner daily. Check out the site for special events, such as storytelling dinners in fall and Friday night music in the pub.

Ames Farm Inn (Gilford) – Open since 1890, the Ames Farm Inn is currently operated by the fourth and fifth generation of family. Choose from cozy rooms or lakeside cabins to stay, or stop for a country breakfast or early lunch in summer.

Castle in the Clouds (Moultonborough) – As a kid, I was a wee bit disappointed that there was no princess at the Castle in the Clouds, but I still enjoyed the nature walks, the views of the lake, and exploring the old mansion dating back to 1914. You can also go horseback riding and meet Zeus, the largest horse in the world. It’s open May to October, with some additional special events in fall for the holidays.

Half Moon Motel and Cottages (Weirs Beach) – Though my ancestor was once an owner of the grand old New Weirs Hotel, I don’t get any discount to stay at the Half Moon Motel and Cottages, built up from the 1930s tea room built on the former hotel grounds and family-owned since the 1950s. With probably the best location in the Lakes Region, every cottage and motel room has views of Lake Winnipesaukee and the mountains, and free Wi-Fi too.

E.M. Health (Center Harbor)- While you may not usually see a supermarket in a travel story, it’s even more rare to see a family-owned store not only survive six decades but thrive. As a kid, my family’s first stop would be at E.M. Heath for groceries, and it’s since expanded to include a hardware store, photo desk and other services, and it’s still true to its slogan: “Dealer in most everything.”

[Photo credit: timsackton via Flickr]