Urquhart Castle: The Other Attraction On Loch Ness

castle, Loch Ness
Today the Olympic torch is crossing Loch Ness by boat. While locals are hoping for Nessie to make an appearance, one attraction will definitely be on view: the spectacular Urquhart Castle.

This castle sits on Strone Point, a headland jutting out into the loch. It’s unclear when the castle was built. It was certainly there by the 13th century but there may have been a fort there as far back as the 6th century. It was besieged many times over the years in the countless wars with the English and between rival Scottish rulers. It survived these fights until 1692, when the walls were smashed by supporters of the English King William III so it wouldn’t fall into the hands of the rival Jacobites.

Although the castle became useless as a place for defense, much of the layout is clearly visible. You can see where the bakers made bread, where the blacksmith fixed swords and where the residents lived. You can even delve into the dungeon to see the miserable conditions of the prisoners. The most impressive and best-preserved portion is the tower, which rises five stories above the ruins.

%Gallery-157771%From the tower you get a sweeping view of the Loch. Scotland is a beautiful place for photography and its many lochs reflect the mood of its ever-changing light. On overcast days the loch looks gloomy and forbidding, and you could well imagine a monster lurking in its depths. Then the sun will break through and sparkle across the waters like a scattering of gold coins. Dawn and dusk are great times to take photos, when the sun is low and casts a rich golden hue across the water and shore. The castle is lit up at night and makes for a nice shot as well. Check out the gallery for more views of the fantastic castle.

Those wanting to see the Loch Ness Monster should be reassured that the castle is one of the main sites for spotting the mysterious beastie. Perhaps there are secret tunnels underneath the castle where the monster guards a medieval treasure, or perhaps it’s because so many people visit Urquhart castle and gaze out across the waters hoping for a glimpse of the unknown.

[Photo courtesy Baasir Gaisawat]

Athens day trip: Acrocorinth, one of Greece’s greatest castles

Acrocorinth, Greece, castle, castles
Greece is justly famous for its ancient monuments. The Acropolis, Delphi, and other Classical sites are the reason most history lovers come to this ancient land. The medieval period, however, produced many equally impressive monuments and it’s a shame they’re so often overlooked. Greece is filled with giant castles, remote monasteries, and lovely churches decorated with gold mosaics and richly colored paintings.

One of the largest castles in Greece is Acrocorinth, less than an hour away from Athens by train. It sits atop a rocky hill 1,800 feet high overlooking the famous city and harbor of Corinth. Its strategic location close to the Isthmus of Corinth, the narrow strip of land connecting the Peloponnese with the rest of Greece, makes it one of the most important castles in the country.

I arrived there one rainy morning to find the hill and its castle wreathed in mist. A taxi ride from the train station took me up a winding road past sheer drops. No approach to the summit is easy, and from some sides it would take a skilled mountain climber to get up. Only the western slope is relatively passable, and it’s protected by triple walls.

Acrocorinth is such an obvious point for defense that there’s been a castle here for more than 2,500 years. The ancient Greeks built a temple to Aphrodite at the top and built walls made of massive stones to serve as a refuge for the Corinthians against pirates and invaders.
In AD 146 the Romans destroyed Corinth and its castle and for many years they lay abandoned.

The temple was replaced by a church in the 5th or 6th century AD. By this time the Western Roman Empire had collapsed and the Eastern Roman Empire, known as Byzantium, was a powerful Christian state ruling over much of the eastern Mediterranean with its capital at Constantinople, modern Istanbul. Corinth and Acrocorinth became important again as a Byzantine regional capital.

%Gallery-146085%The Byzantines had their hands full fighting Muslim armies and were seriously weakened when they lost most of what is now Turkey. Little did they expect the next blow to come from fellow Christians. As knights from Western Europe set out on the Fourth Crusade, they originally planned on retaking Jerusalem from the Arabs. Instead they diverted to Byzantium and sacked Constantinople in 1204.

The Crusaders surrounded Acrocorinth but saw that an assault would be foolhardy and settled down for a long siege. Acrocorinth was defended by the Greek lord Leo Sgouros. For four years he kept the Crusaders at bay, but the strain of living within the walls eventually drove him mad. One day he mounted his horse and galloped over the cliffs to his death. This didn’t deter his garrison, however, and they continued to hold on until 1210, when the situation became so hopeless that they finally surrendered. The French knight William de Villehardouin built a castle on Acrocorinth and strengthened the walls.

The Byzantines slowly pushed the crusaders out of their empire and Acrocorinth was retaken in 1395. The ravages of the Fourth Crusade permanently weakened Byzantium. The Ottoman Turks were moving in from the east and took Constantinople in 1453. The Peloponnese held out for a time and Acrocorinth didn’t fall until 1458 after a long siege during which Greek soldiers snuck through Turkish lines and climbed the cliffs to bring supplies to the beleaguered defenders. The Venetians took the castle from the Ottomans in 1687 and many of the walls visible today are their handiwork. After a long war the Ottomans retook Acrocorinth, only to lose it for good to the Greeks in 1823 during the War of Independence.

The view from the top had me entranced. To one side, ancient and modern Corinth lay at my feet, with the Aegean stretching out beyond. To the other side lay olive groves and open countryside. As I explored the rugged hilltop with its medieval walls, Crusader keep, and remnants of temples, churches, and mosques, I was entirely alone. Two American tourists left just as I arrived, and besides a guard and a workman at the gate, I saw no one. That was fine by me. Places like this are best seen in silence and solitude.

It doesn’t bode well for the local economy, though. Sure, winter is low season, but there should be more people seeing this wonderful place. Low season in Greece also means shorter hours. Acrocorinth shut at 3pm. Old Corinth, with its important museum and picturesque Temple of Apollo, shut at the same time. If I wanted to do the castle justice I didn’t have time see Old Corinth.

As the guard closed and locked the castle gate I walked down the road back to Old Corinth a few kilometers away. It had stopped raining and I didn’t mind the walk. This being Greece, however, a passing motorist stopped to pick me up. It turned out to be the workman I had spotted on Acrocorinth, an archaeologist working on the restoration of Villehardouin’s tower. His English was limited but he expressed his gratitude at my visit. He loved the castle as much as I did, and was thankful that money for its restoration was still coming through. Not from my visit, though; entrance is free. I would have happily paid five euros.

Down at Old Corinth everything was closing. I took some photos of Apollo’s temple through the fence and wandered down a street lined with tourist shops and restaurants. All were open and none had customers. I settled in for lunch at a restaurant called Marinos. The owner and his family and friends were having a big, loud meal. I was the only customer. The food was excellent, though, and they serve a wine from their own vineyard not just a hundred meters away. I hope they have better business in the high season; they deserve it.

From the restaurant I called the taxi driver who had brought me up to the castle. It was getting late, the rain had started again, and walking all the way to the train station after sampling the local wine didn’t appeal.

“You liked the castle?” he asked as we drove down the hill.

“Loved it. Too bad I couldn’t see Old Corinth.”

“Yes,” he sighed in obvious frustration. “They should stay open longer. You would have bought a ticket. Instead you end up less happy than you should be.”

“Has business been bad?” I asked.

“The tourists are still coming but they’re getting a bad experience. I do day tours and sometimes we show up at a site and it’s closed. People fly all the way here and don’t get to see what they want.”

“People being the way they are I guess they sometimes blame you.”

“Yeah,” he grunted. “Sometimes they do.”

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: The Acropolis!

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)

Madrid day trip: a classic Spanish castle at Manzanares el Real

castle, castles, Spain
If you like a good castle, Spain is one of the best countries in the world to visit. One of Spain’s finest castles is at the town of Manzanares el Real and makes a good day trip from Madrid.

El Castillo de los Mendoza was built in 1475 for Don Pedro González de Mendoza as both a palace and fortress, although he never actually lived here. It shows an Islamic flair, as you can see from the pictures. Many Spanish buildings from this period do. Despite all the bloody battles of the Reconquista, the Christians, Jews, and Arabs spent as much time trading ideas as fighting.

The castle dates from near the end of the great castle-building age. Artillery was already becoming common in most armies and castles like this couldn’t stand a long bombardment. Luckily it never had to and it’s one of the best-preserved castles in Spain. One hint that it was at the cusp of the modern era are the arrow slits in the outer wall. They all have loopholes at the bottom to fire guns or small cannons out of. While the guns of the 15th century were less accurate and much slower than bows, they could punch through armor much more effectively.

You’d certainly want some artillery to blow a hole in one of the walls, because going in through the gate would be a very bad idea. The defenders could shoot at you from three sides and drop things from above through those charming favorites of castle architecture–the murder holes. While it’s commonly believed that boiling oil was poured through these, one medievalist and author I know says the story of using boiling oil in sieges is a myth. Apparently boiling water was just as good and much cheaper.

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Inside is a beautiful courtyard surrounded by a two-story arcade. The rooms inside have been restored with period artifacts to show what the bedrooms, women’s quarters, and dining halls looked like. elegant tapestries adorn the walls, and there are interactive computer displays to tell you more.

Climb the towers for a splendid view of the strangely shaped rocks of La Pedriza looming to the north and the glittering modern reservoir to the south.

Just east of the castle is a 16th century fountain that refreshed hermits in days gone by. They were headed for two Renaissance churches in town, La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de las Nieves (The Church of our Lady of the Snows) and La Ermita de Nuestra Señora de la Peña Sacra (The Hermitage of Our Lady of the Sacred Stone). Both are worth a visit. There are also the remains of the Castillo Viejo (Old Castle) on the other side of town. Built in the mid-14th century, it’s little more than a crumbled ruin these days.

The town of Manzanares el Real is very compact and all sites are within easy walking distance of each other. If walking around the medieval sights puts you in the mood for something more strenuous, the rocky hills of La Pedriza, with their rock formations, is just next to town. If walking makes you hungry, there are several good restaurants and cafes and the butchers sell excellent locally sourced venison.

To get to Manzanares el Real, take bus 724 from Madrid’s Plaza de Castilla bus station. The ride costs €3.50 euros one-way and takes about 45 minutes. Entrance to the castle is €3.

There’s another castle and Spanish Civil War bunker close to the center of Madrid and hundreds more scattered across the country. For more tips on what to see and do in Madrid, check out AOL Travel’s travel guide to Madrid.

Skeletons at royal castle in Scotland killed in battle, experts say

Scotland, castle, castles, Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle in Scotland was the scene of several brutal sieges and battles in its violent history. Now a new exhibition looks at the castle’s past and the grim discovery of several skeletons in the Royal Chapel showing signs of violent death.

One man had 44 skull fractures from repeated blows with a blunt object, and up to 60 more over the rest of his body. The Middle Ages were a pitiless time, and despite what modern romance novels say there wasn’t much chivalry. The skeleton of a woman had 10 fractures to her skull, resulting from two heavy blows. Neat, square holes through the top of her skull suggest she may then have fallen and been killed with a weapon such as a war hammer. At least five skeletons in the chapel showed signs of violent death. Carbon dating shows they died in several incidents between the 13th century and c.1450.

ScotlandOne of the skulls can be seen in this photo courtesy of Historic Scotland. Holding it is Dr. Jo Buckberry of Bradford University, who carried out the research on the skeletons.

The chapel was excavated as part of Historic Scotland’s restoration of the castle’s 16th century palace. The fact that the people were buried here indicates they were important.

One has been tentatively identified as Sir John de Stricheley, who died in 1341. Sir De Stricheley and the lady’s skeleton were featured last year on BBC2’s History Cold Case series.

Stirling Castle was an important castle on the boundary between Scotland and England and was besieged numerous times during the Wars of Scottish Independence (1296-1328 and 1332-1357). Several battles occurred nearby.

The exhibition, including facial reconstructions of Sir De Stricheley and the lady, will open June 4.

[Castle photo courtesy Finlay McWalter]