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.

Dover castle gets medieval makeover

For nearly two years one of England’s most famous landmarks has been undergoing a radical transformation. Blacksmiths, woodworkers, painters, embroiderers, and craftsmen have been working with historians to recreate a 12th century interior for the Great Tower at Dover Castle. It’s now open to the public and gives an idea of what it was like to live the good life in the Middle Ages.

Dover Castle was built by King Henry II, who ruled from 1154 to 1189. He was one of England’s most powerful kings, asserting control over an often unruly church and nobility and strengthening the rule of law. Dover Castle was his most important fortification and he often stayed there because it was on the coast, where he could keep an eye on his extensive lands in France.

This project is something new for English Heritage, which manages the castle. In the past it has avoided doing reconstructions when researchers weren’t sure what the original looked like. Records of day-to-day rooms and objects from the Middle Ages are scarce, and most of the things that have survived from that era are trophy pieces like armor or jewels, not mundane things like cushions. To the folks at English Heritage, the historical accuracy of cushions is a big deal. So they made a compromise. The artisans used techniques and materials common to the period, scoured medieval art books, and made things in the same general style.

The result is impressive both in its detail and its vibrant color. People in the Middle Ages loved bright colors and painted every surface they could with brilliant tones. They even added natural dyes to their food to give it a nice neon look, even though neon hadn’t been invented yet. If it had been, they would have put it everywhere. The main hall has an ornate wooden king’s chair painted deep blue and bright gold with vines spiraling up the legs, and a rich red standard hangs behind it. The smaller details are interesting too, like the simple yet durable ironwork, and the expressive carvings of animal and human heads that decorate many of the wooden objects.

These aren’t simply vacant rooms. Costumed actors and soundtracks bring the period alive and as visitors wander through the rooms they’ll realize that a lot is going on, from the deadly diplomacy of the rich and powerful to the gossiping of the servants. There’s even a court jester named Roland the Farter. The man actually existed and was granted a manor and thirty acres of land in Suffolk in return for acting as the royal flatulist.

All in all it’s a stunning wok of historical reconstruction but perhaps English Heritage could have been a bit less accurate with the royal flatulist.

Two men found guilty of harassing Dave the dolphin

There are drunks and there are drunks. Some people drink themselves into depression, others get silly. Some apparently like to harass dolphins.

Two British men, Michael Jukes, 27, and Daniel Buck, 26, were today found guilty of harassing a dolphin when they frolicked in the sea with it after leaving a party in the early hours of the morning, The Guardian reports. Specifically, they were found guilty of intentionally or recklessly disturbing a wild animal under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

Dover magistrates court heard how the pair had “touched and stroked” Dave the dolphin as they went for a late-night swim at Sandgate, near Folkestone, Kent, in June last year. The bottlenose dolphin was a popular tourist attraction for visitors to the Kent coast, but a lack of recent sightings has led to speculation that Dave has since died.

A witness to the incident on June 9 last year heard one of the men shout: “People pay hundreds of pounds to do this in Florida, and I’m doing it in Folkestone.”

People must “pay” when they do this in the UK, too, as those chaps learned the hard way. They were ordered to complete 120 hours of work in the community within the next 12 months, and pay £350 ($700) each in costs.