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Europe’s Most Medieval Castle Experiences

Most of Europe’s castles have been discovered but some are forgotten, unblemished by entrance fees, postcard racks, and coffee shops, and ignored by guidebooks. Since they’re 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 castles—some discovered, some forgotten—the winds of the past really howl.

Rheinfels Castle, Germany’s 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 Rhine’s 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 . . . you’re dead. While you’re lying there, notice the stone work. The little round holes—used for scaffolds as the walls were built up—indicate the stonework is original. Notice also the fine stonework on the chutes. Haaa! Boiling oil . . . now you’re 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 to—they figured—hell. You can explore these underground passages from the next courtyard. Bring a flashlight.

Germany’s 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

Germany’s best medieval castle experience is Burg Eltz. Eltz lurks in a mysterious forest above the Mosel River between Cochem and Koblenz. It’s 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). It’s been in the Eltz family for 820 years. The countess still warms the castle’s 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, you’ll 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 there’s a scheduled English tour that you can join (Tel. 02672/950-500). You’ll learn that the lives of even the Middle Ages’ rich and famous were nasty, brutish, and short.

Warwick Castle, England

From Land’s End to John O’Groats, 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.

There’s something for every taste—an 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 (it’s 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, Warwick’s 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, France

Carcassonne is the perfect medieval city. Like a fish that everyone thought was extinct, Europe’s greatest Romanesque fortress-city somehow survives.

Medieval Carcassonne is a 13th century world of towers, turrets, and cobblestone alleys. It’s a walled city and Camelot’s 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 it’s sundown and here I sit—imprisoned by choice—curled 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 troops—besieging 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 town’s last bits of grain to the last pig and tossed him over the wall. Splat. Charlemagne’s restless forces, amazed that the town still had enough food to throw fat party pigs over the wall, decided they’d 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 I’ve 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). You’ll 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 (you’ll 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), you’ll 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, it’s 1,000 years ago, and you’re under attack.