Dungeons and Dragons
Europes Most Medieval Castle Experiences
Most of Europes castles have been discovered but some are forgotten, unblemished by entrance fees, postcard racks, and coffee shops, and ignored by guidebooks. Since theyre free, nobody promotes them. The aggressive traveler finds them by tapping local sources, like the town tourist office and the friendly manager of your hotel or pension. In these medieval castlessome discovered, some forgottenthe winds of the past really howl.
Rheinfels Castle, Germanys Rhineland
Sitting like a dead pit bull above the medieval town of St. Goar, this mightiest of Rhine castles rumbles with ghosts from its hard-fought past. Burg Rheinfels, built in 1245, withstood a siege of 28,000 French troops in 1692. But in 1797 the French revolutionary army destroyed it.
Today this hollow shell offers you the Rhines best hands-on ruined castle. Start in the castle museum where a reconstruction shows how Rheinfels looked before the French flattened it. Then step into the central courtyard and imagine the castle in its feisty glory. Five hundred years ago it was ready for a siege: it had a bakery, pharmacy, herb garden, brewery, well, and livestock. During peacetime 300 to 600 people lived there; during a siege as many as 4,500.
Check out the classic dungeon with its ceiling-only access. Ponder life in the Middle Ages as you enjoy a glorious Rhine view from the tallest turret.
Follow the path outside and around the walls. Look up at the smartly placed crossbow arrow slit. Thoop . . . youre dead. While youre lying there, notice the stone work. The little round holesused for scaffolds as the walls were built upindicate the stonework is original. Notice also the fine stonework on the chutes. Haaa! Boiling oil . . . now youre toast too.
Continue along. Below, just outside the wall is land where attackers would gather. To protect their castle, the Rheinfellers cleverly built tunnels topped by thin slate roofs and packed with explosives. By detonating the explosives when under attack, they could kill hundreds of approaching invaders without damaging the castle. In 1626, a handful of underground Protestant Germans blew 300 Catholic Spaniards tothey figuredhell. You can explore these underground passages from the next courtyard. Bring a flashlight.
Germanys Rhine River is filled with castle-crowned hills to be enjoyed conveniently by train, car, or boat. The best 50-mile stretch is between Koblenz and Mainz. The best 1-hour cruise is from St. Goar to Bacharach.
Burg Eltz, Germany
Germanys best medieval castle experience is Burg Eltz. Eltz lurks in a mysterious forest above the Mosel River between Cochem and Koblenz. Its been left intact for 700 years and is elegantly furnished throughout as it was in the Middle Ages. Thanks to smart diplomacy and clever marriages, the castle was never destroyed (it survived one 5-year siege). Its been in the Eltz family for 820 years. The countess still warms the castles stony halls each week with fresh flowers.
Approaching the castle is part of the thrill. Hiking an hour up from the riverside ferry dock or the Moselkern train station, youll venture through an eerie forest long enough to get you into a medieval mood, and then suddenly it appears, the past engulfed in nature.
Drivers can get within a 15-minute walk or quick shuttle bus ride of the castle. Call ahead and ask if theres a scheduled English tour that you can join (Tel. 02672/950-500). Youll learn that the lives of even the Middle Ages rich and famous were nasty, brutish, and short.
Warwick Castle, England
From Lands End to John OGroats, I searched for the best castle in Britain. I found it. With a lush, green, grassy moat and fairy-tale fortifications, Warwick Castle will entertain you from dungeon to lookout. Standing inside the castle gate you can see the mound where the original Norman castle of 1068 stood. Under this mound (or motte), the wooden stockade (bailey) defined the courtyard as the castle walls do today. The castle is a 14th and 15th century fortified shell holding an 18th and 19th century royal residence surrounded by a dandy Capability Brown landscape job.
Theres something for every tastean educational armory, a torture chamber, a knight in shining armor on a horse that rotates with a merry band of musical jesters, a Madame Tussaud recreation of a royal weekend party, and a peacock-patrolled, picnic-perfect park. The great hall and staterooms are the sumptuous highlights. The King Maker exhibit (its 1471 and the townfolk are getting ready for battle) is highly promoted but not quite as good as a Disney ride. Be warned: The tower is a 1-way, no-return, 250-step climb offering a view not worth a heart attack. Even with its crowds of modern-day barbarians and its robber baron entry fee, Warwicks worthwhile.
Château Chillon, Switzerland
This wonderfully preserved 13th century castle is set romantically at the edge of Lake Geneva near Montreux. Follow the English brochure, which takes you on a self-guided tour from tingly perch-on-the-medieval-windowsill views through fascinatingly furnished rooms. The dank dungeon, mean weapons, and 700-year-old toilets will excite even the dullest travel partner. Attack or escape the castle by ferry (free if you have a train pass).
Carcassonne is the perfect medieval city. Like a fish that everyone thought was extinct, Europes greatest Romanesque fortress-city somehow survives.
Medieval Carcassonne is a 13th century world of towers, turrets, and cobblestone alleys. Its a walled city and Camelots castle rolled into one, frosted with too many daytripping tourists. At 10 a.m. the salespeople stand at the doors of their main-street shops, their gauntlet of tacky temptations poised and ready for their daily ration of customers. But an empty Carcassonne rattles in the early morning or late afternoon breeze. Enjoy the town early or late. Spend the night.
I was supposed to be gone yesterday, but its sundown and here I sitimprisoned by choicecurled in a cranny on top of the wall. The moat is one foot over and 100 feet down. Weeds and moss upholster my throne. The wind blows away much of the sounds of today, and my imagination medievals me.
Twelve hundred years ago Charlemagne stood below with his troopsbesieging the town for several years. The legend goes that just as food was running out a cunning townswoman named Madame Carcas had a great idea. She fed the towns last bits of grain to the last pig and tossed him over the wall. Splat. Charlemagnes restless forces, amazed that the town still had enough food to throw fat party pigs over the wall, decided theyd never succeed in starving the people out. They ended the siege, and the city was saved. Madame Carcas sonned (sounded) the long-awaited victory bells, and the city had a new name, Carcas-sonne. Today the walls that stopped Charlemagne open wide for visitors.
Reifenstein Castle, Italy
For an incredibly medieval kick in the pants, get off the autobahn one hour south of Innsbruck at the Italian town of Vipiteno (called Sterzing by residents who prefer German). With her time-pocked sister just opposite, Reifenstein bottled up this strategic valley leading to the easiest way to cross the Alps.
Reifenstein offers castle connoisseurs the best-preserved original medieval castle interior Ive ever seen. The lady who calls the castle home takes groups through in Italian, German, and un poco Anglaise (open Easter-October, tours daily except Friday; Tel. 0472-647-196). Youll discover the mossy past as she explains how the cistern collected water, how drunken lords managed to get their keys into the keyholes and how prisoners were left to rot in the dungeon (youll look down the typical only-way-out hole in the ceiling). In the only surviving original knights sleeping quarters (roughhewn plank boxes lined with hay), youll see how knights spent their nights. Lancelot would cry a lot.
Moorish Ruins of Sintra, Portugal
The desolate ruins of an 800-year-old Moorish castle overlook the sea and the town of Sintra, just west of Lisbon. Ignored by most of the tourists who flock to the glitzy Pena Palace (capping a neighboring hilltop), the ruins of Sintra offer a reminder of the centuries-long struggle between Muslim Moorish forces and European Christian forces for the control of Iberia.
From 711 until 1492, major parts of Iberia (Spain and Portugal) were occupied by the Moors. Contrary to the significance that Americans place on the year 1492, a European remembers the date as the year the Moors were finally booted back into Africa. For most, these ruins offer atmospheric picnic perches with vast Atlantic views. Scramble up and down the medieval ramparts. With a little imagination, its 1,000 years ago, and youre under attack.
RICK STEVES is the host of the PBS series Rick Steves' Europe and the author of over 50 European travel guidebooks, including Europe Through the Back Door.