Fairytale-like European castles
Schloss Neuschwanstein in Bavaria was the inspiration for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. (Lee Foster/LPI)
Europe has thousands of years of history, full of myths and legends. Centuries may have passed, but the legacies of past rulers live on, represented by castles that were built during times of war and invasion. These grand fortresses, some in ruins , others restored to their former glory, provide a silent testament to a time long past.
Prague Castle, Czech Republic
Calling Pražský hrad a castle is a masterful understatement – it is really a compact walled city, with cathedral, palaces, streets and houses. A succession of ambitious rulers enhanced the original 9th-century fortifications, somehow blending complementary Romanesque, Gothic, baroque and Renaissance delights. But in truth there is one better place to be than in the castle – and that is outside it, looking up. As the sun's glow fades on a summer evening, or the snowflakes drift in and out of the street lights on a chill winter's night, few sights are more stirring than the view from among the statues on Charles Bridge across to the hilltop redoubt.
Explore the thousand-year history in the Story of Prague Castle exhibition, in the Old Royal Palace's Gothic vaults.
Eilean Donan, Scotland
Brooding, solitary, rugged… and that is just the gatekeeper. Eilean Donan, perched atop an island on Loch Duich, is the castle that launched a thousand Scottish tourist brochures. And why not? Just the approach will have your mental bagpipes wheezing, clopping across the arched stone bridge towards the grey battlements, mist drifting across the rippling water… at least, that is how it was in the many movies filmed here, and to be fair, it is often like that in reality. Inside, it is a fair re-creation of former glories – the medieval castle was pulverised in 1719 by English troops, then rebuilt in the early 20th Century.
Buses from Inverness and Fort William stop in the village of Dornie, near the castle, which opens March to October only.
Schloss Neuschwanstein, Germany
Bavaria's “mad” King Ludwig II, the Wagner-loving royal, obsessed with romantic epics of knightly lore, created castles of stereotypical fairytale grandeur. His apotheosis came with Neuschwanstein, started in 1869 atop a wooded outcrop. Witch-hatted turrets, Minstrels' Hall, grand throne room – all that is missing is a wicked sorcerer and perhaps a distressed damsel incarcerated in a tower. You do not need to join the hordes inside to appreciate Ludwig's vision; stop at the Marienbrücke (Mary's Bridge), itself picturesquely spanning a waterfall in the Pöllat Gorge, for unforgettable views of the castle.
To arrive at the castle like a pampered prince or princess, take a horse-drawn carriage up from nearby Hohenschwangau village.
Castell de Púbol, Spain
If you believe fairytales are real, perhaps you are ready for the surreal. This medieval monument at La Pera in Catalonia, a compact Gothic-Renaissance affair, was fascinating enough before it was bought by Salvador Dalí in 1968. But after he installed his wife Gala here, and refurbished it to his own unique tastes, it became something else. His trademark leftfield flourishes lurk to wrong-foot unwary visitors. For example, Gala's tomb in the subterranean crypt is guarded by a stuffed giraffe. Of course. Even ignoring the oddities, it is a charming place perched above a very strollable, traditional village.
Regular buses between Palafrugell and Girona stop at La Pera, about 2km from the Castell.
Let me tell you a story about a boy who pulled a sword from a stone to become king, aided by a wizard called Merlin… The legend of King Arthur has been so long entwined with Tintagel Island that it was probably already in the mind of the Earl of Cornwall when he ordered his castle built here in 1233. Today, his stronghold is all the better for lying in ruins; crossing the fragile-looking bridge from the mainland builds the atmosphere for wanders among the clifftop site, where waves crash against the rocks below. Even the screeching seagulls sound mystical here.
Stop in at Tintagel Old Post Office, an absurdly lovable jumble of a 14th-century house, on your way to the castle.