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.

Remnants Of World War II In The UK Countryside

World War Two, pillbox
During World War II, the British were sure they were about to be invaded. The English Channel seemed like nothing more than a narrow creek against the might of Nazi Germany. As the British army fought in North Africa and Southeast Asia, the Home Guard and teams of civilians prepared for the worst.

One elderly English woman told me that when she was a teenager she helped lay electric wire below the water line of the southern beaches. The idea was that if the Germans launched an amphibious invasion, sort of a D-Day in reverse, they could flip a switch and electrocute the Germans. While the idea disturbed her at the time, the thought of an occupied England disturbed her even more.

Another defensive measure was the construction of more than 18,000 small bunkers called “pillboxes” at strategic sites. Thousands still stand along the rivers, estuaries, ports and main roads. If you hike for any length of time in England, Scotland or Wales you’re bound to come across some. The one shown above guards the road leading into Faringdon, Oxfordshire. Jump the cut to see another view of the same installation.

%Gallery-166587%World War Two, pillbox
As you can see it’s not very big, barely room enough for a couple of men and a machine gun. Still, it would have slowed down the enemy and given the British time to organize a counterattack. Many installations were strung out in long lines called “stop-lines” across the countryside with the idea that the German invasion could be halted along those lines.

Pillboxes came in numerous types. They were built of concrete, stone or brick reinforced with concrete and had various shapes. The Pillbox Study Group is dedicated to the study and preservation of these defenses. Anyone who knows the British will not be the least bit surprised that such a group exists. They’re big on all sorts of societies and associations. These groups allow a rather introverted people an excuse to gather without (or sometimes with) the social lubricant of alcohol. Sometimes this is rewarded with a major discovery. The Richard III Society must be having their best year ever.

I’ve clambered over plenty of these little forts and each one is a little different. In Orkney, I even came across one built atop a prehistoric Pictish broch. Some have been incorporated into later buildings and one has even been used to create a habitat for bats. Most, however, are quietly decaying, visited only by local teens as a private place to drink and screw. Only a few are preserved as historic buildings. The Pillbox Study Group is trying to change that.

If you come across a pillbox while hiking, be careful. Despite once being bullet proof many are now in rather poor shape. Watch your step and admire these remnants of the nation’s Proudest Hour.

Want To Buy An Irish Castle? Now’s Your Chance!

castle
If you’re in the market for a new home, why not think big and buy a castle? There are several for sale in Ireland and now that middle income has been defined as up to $250,000, many are within the means of the middle class.

Take Cloghan castle, shown above. It’s in Banagher, County Offaly, and comes with 157 acres of woodland and riverside. The original castle was built in 1336, making it one of the oldest inhabited castles in Ireland. Although it was attacked and burned in 1595, it continued to be used as a home. Its three floors have six bedrooms, four bathrooms, an office, store room, laundry and a big dining hall.

It even counts as a tax shelter. Because it’s a historic building, if you open it to the public on occasion you get certain tax exemptions, and any maintenance and improvement costs count as a tax write-off.

So how much will this put you back? You’ll have to contact Premier Properties Ireland to find out. If the quote is too high, wait for a while. Beagh Castle was originally priced at €695,000 ($906,000) but has been reduced to €299,000 ($390,000). It only comes with 17 acres, but it’s picturesquely located on a promontory above the River Shannon in Ballysteen, County Limerick. Nobody is sure when the first castle was built on this spot, but it was rebuilt by a knight in 1260. An old tradition says a secret tunnel connects this castle to the local church half a mile away. The tunnel has never been found, but if you buy the castle you’ll have plenty of time to look.

An even cheaper option is Ballymaquiff Castle near Labane, Ardrahan, County Galway. It’s going for €145,000 ($189,000). It’s a fixer-upper but features some fine medieval architectural features such as large vaulted rooms, pointed doorways, a medieval fireplace and a spiral staircase.

You might also want to comparison shop on their castles page, where they have several more medieval fortresses for sale. There’s even a bargain basement castle for only €75,000 ($97,850). That’s less than six month’s wages for a middle-class household!

[All photos courtesy Premier Properties Ireland]

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Visiting a German bunker from World War Two

World War Two, AntwerpBelgium had it tough in World War Two. Unlike in the First World War, when the Belgian army stubbornly held on to part of the nation and its allies rallied to beat the Germans, in the second war the Low Countries and France were quickly overrun by a German army that now enjoyed superior military technology.

Occupied Belgium was soon covered with fortifications. The Germans feared an Allied landing and dug in. In a park on the outskirts of Antwerp you can see a network of these bunkers at the Bunker Museum.

Not many tourists make it here. In fact, my taxi driver had to call ahead to get directions. Those who do make the journey will be rewarded with a rare look at the life of the German soldier in World War Two. There are eleven bunkers, including barracks, a hospital, a communications bunker, and two large command bunkers.

One of the command bunkers has been turned into a museum. The entrance, shown here, clearly shows the two-meter-thick concrete walls. The roof is 2.5 meters thick. Inside are recreated sleeping quarters, displays about the war around Antwerp, and a large collection of parts from the V-1 and V-2 rockets.

My tour guide was Pierre Koreman, one of the museum caretakers. He was a young boy during the war and clearly remembers the day in 1943 when an American bombing run went astray and destroyed much of Mortsel, the town near Antwerp where he lived. Two schools were destroyed, but the third, which he attended, was spared. A total of 943 civilians were killed. Koreman showed me a letter of apology sent by one of the American airman.

“They had nothing to apologize for,” he said. “They just did their job.”

The intended target was the Messerschmitt airplane factory, where Koreman’s father worked as forced labor.

“He was the biggest saboteur there,” Koreman told me proudly.

He wasn’t the only one. The factory was supposed to test Messerschmitt engines. The workers discovered that the oil they were using separated at high temperatures, making the engine seize up. Of course they didn’t bother telling the Germans that.

“Instead of running the engines they played cards,” Koreman informed me with a smile.
World War Two, Antwerp

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Antwerp was liberated by British, Canadian, and Polish forces on September 4, 1944, but there was no fighting around the bunkers. This has left them in a good state. When the museum started they were completely empty, but careful research and collecting material from other bunkers has allowed the caretakers to give visitors a clear picture of how they operated.

Technologically they’re very impressive considering they were built more than 60 years ago. They have temperature control, filtered air, a system to keep the air pressure normal, generators, telephone, and radio. All this combined with the high-tech remains from the German rockets on display really brought home to me what a massive waste the Third Reich was. With all that effort and ingenuity they could have gone to the Moon. Instead they wrecked Europe. Luckily there was a generation of heroes to stop them, both on the battlefield and through quiet acts of resistance like Koreman’s father.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Fine dining in Antwerp!

This trip was partially funded by Tourism Antwerp and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

Tallinn, Estonia, to open secret tunnels crossing the medieval Old Town

Tallinn, Estonia
Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is one of Europe’s most beautiful medieval cities, and it’s getting an increasing number of visitors. Starting next year there will be more to see as the city opens up secret tunnels from the 17th century connecting the city wall, shown above, to the rest of the Old Town.

Parts of the walkway along the medieval walls will also be opened and some of the wall and towers will be restored. By 2012, city planners want to open the route from from the medieval tower Neitsitorn along the town wall to another tower called Kiek in de Kök, where you can see cannonballs stuck in the outer walls from a battle in 1577. By late 2013, the route will open from Neitsitorn to Freedom Square, partly via old tunnels.

Being a fan of all things medieval, Tallinn is on my shortlist of places to go. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a wonderfully preserved medieval port and has a long history. Thanks to the folks at the Medieval News blog for bringing this to my attention!

[Photo of city wall courtesy Christine Kühnel. Photo of Old Town courtesy Gunnar Bach Pedersen]

Tallinn, Estonia