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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Hiking in Spain: Santoña’s rugged coastline and Napoleonic forts

Santoña, hiking in SpainOne of the great things about hiking in Europe is that many trails pass places of historic interest. Whether you’re hiking along Hadrian’s Wall or to a medieval castle, you can learn about the past while living in the moment amidst beautiful scenery.

Spain offers a lot of these hikes. One is an 11km (7 mile) loop trail near Santoña in Cantabria, northern Spain.

My hiking group and I set out early on Sunday morning after Carnival. Costumed drunks were still staggering home as the sun rose. One guy dressed as prisoner lay passed out in a doorway. At a police checkpoint three men dressed as priests were being arrested for drunken driving. I would have felt morally superior for exercising while all this debauchery was going in, but a bad hangover kept me from passing judgement. Except against the drunk drivers, that just ain’t cool.

Santoña is a port in a bay of the same name. It was an important military post during Napoleon’s occupation of Spain and the seafront is dominated by a large fort. Built in a horseshoe pattern, dozens of cannons once covered the entrance to the bay. The peninsula that forms the western boundary of the bay is studded with several Napoleonic-era forts and artillery batteries and the combined firepower of all these defenses must have made the place all but impregnable to a sea attack. Some of these forts existed before Napoleon’s invasion, of course, and many were modified in later years, making a trip around them a good lesson in the history of military architecture.

Also on the seafront is a monument to a different era of naval history. A soaring monolith flanked by statues with religious themes stands as a memory to local boy Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco. He was one of General Franco’s must trusted men during the dictatorship and was slated to succeed him. Admiral Blanco was assassinated by ETA in 1973. Franco died less than two years later and with those two hardliners gone, the path to liberalization and democracy was open, although far from smooth.

Ignoring the steady drizzle and clammy temperature, we set out to hike around El Buciero, the mountain that shelters the Bay of Santoña. Much of it is reserved as a natural park. Thick woodland is broken only by outcroppings of rock and the occasional farm.

%Gallery-147993%The loop trail took us around the mountain and along some beautiful coastline. A beach to the west was mostly taken up by a large prison. Putting the prisoners within sight of a beach seems like cruel and unusual punishment to me, not to mention a waste of a good beach! Heading around the peninsula we got some fine views of the sea and passed a small lighthouse.

The most impressive sight was the sea cliffs. Along much of the northern coast of the peninsula the land dropped off sheer, plunging a hundred feet or more into emerald water that crashed and foamed against jagged rocks. Even with overcast skies it was captivating. I’m planning on returning on a sunny day to see it again.

The hike ended, as hikes in Spain generally do, at a local bar where we had a few pintxos (the northern version of tapas) and some wine. I skipped the wine even though my head was feeling better.

The hike is low intermediate level although if it’s raining there are a couple of slippery spots where you need to watch yourself. Santoña can be reached via regular bus service from Santander and Bilbao.

Belgrade fortress besieged by flowers

Belgrade fortress, castle, castles
Belgrade fortress is one of the toughest castles in Europe. In its 2,000 year history its stood against numerous invaders, been destroyed several times, and has always risen from the wreckage.

Despite such a proud history, Belgrade fortress is beginning to crumble from the effects of a combination of coal smoke and fertilizer from the flower beds of the surrounding park.

The website medievalists.net reports that a Serbian and French team have been analyzing a black crust that’s been forming on the limestone walls and found it to contain syngenite, a double sulfate of potassium and calcium that’s the result of the use of potassium fertilizer in the flowerbeds along some parts of the walls.

Pollution from cars and coal-burning factories has long been known to chip away at stone. A similar black crust can be seen on many of the historic walls in Oxford. This new study shows that caretakers of historic sites have to be careful how they beautify the grounds.

Belgrade fortress is treat for any history buff or castle fan. Located at the strategically important confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, a fort was first built here by the Romans in the first century AD. This was one of the rougher regions of the Roman Empire and the fort saw action numerous times before finally being destroyed in the early 7th century by the Avars and Slavs. Legend has it that Attila the Hun is buried somewhere in the grounds of the castle.

The Byzantine Empire, as the eastern remnant of the Roman Empire came to be called, continued to value the site and built a massive fort there in the 6th and again in the 12th century. Belgrade fortress was later the pride of the emerging Serbian nation and was improved and expanded several times. When Austria ruled the area in the 18th century it saw action against the expanding Ottoman Empire.

The extensive grounds are very popular with locals and include a park, a military museum, and a zoo.

Photo by CrniBombarder!!! (from Wikimedia Commons)