Fairytale-like European castles
Palácio Nacional de Pena, Portugal
Palaces, you say? How many? In Sintra, you cannot move for tripping over them. There is the ruined Castelo dos Mouros overlooking the town, where another white palace dominates the main plaza. The fantastical Quinta da Regaleira sits amid its lush gardens; then there is Monserrate, an exotically faux-Moorish affair. But the crown goes to pastel-turreted Palácio Nacional da Pena. Somewhere, buried under the castellated walls of the current 19th-century edifice, lurk the relics of a medieval convent. But you would never know it: instead this kitsch confection of Gothic, Manueline and Islamic styles dominates, housing an Aladdin's cave of treasures.
Suburban line trains depart Lisbon every 15 minutes for the 45-minute run to Sintra, making it an easy day trip from the capital.
Château de Peyrepertuse, France
As you meander along mountain roads in Languedoc-Roussillon in France's far southwest, hilltop fortresses loom above, some standing proud, others snaggle-tooth ruins. Did noble knights set forth from these castles on fine steeds to battle evil? Actually -- and there is no way to break this gently -- the knights were the bad guys here. The 13th-century Albigensian Crusade saw tens of thousands of Cathar “heretics” slaughtered – and these bastions saw the Cathars' last stands. The castle at Peyrepertuse, the largest and most vertiginously sited, now hosts displays of falconry and medieval combat, but wander to the battlements, gaze over the rugged landscape, and imagine the lives (and deaths) of its erstwhile inhabitants.
A 195km, full-day backroads drive between Carcassonne and Perpignan visits the four most impressive Cathar castles.
Corvin Castle, Romania
Because sometimes fairytales are actually nightmares, Europe's spookiest castle is, appropriately, located on Dracula's rumoured patch in Transylvania; some say Vlad was imprisoned here. If you do not feel a shiver down your spine when approaching over the bridge, with the river cascading far below, you do not have a fear gland. It seems like the only reason there are not vampires here today is because the werewolves ate them all. It was the stronghold of the powerful Hungarian Corvin family in the 15th Century; more recently, Ceauşescu spitefully built hideous steelworks alongside the castle. Even so, the ugly neighbourhood cannot diminish the grim gravitas of the massive stone walls, turrets and Gothic bulk.
The nearest transport hub is Deva, 18km north, from where buses make the run of 30 to 40 minutes to Corvin Castle.
Titania's Castle, Denmark
In a land where beloved queens and princesses still live in enchanting – if not enchanted – castles, it is apt that such palaces are everywhere. And Egeskov Slot is a paragon of castledom: set in beautifully landscaped, peacock-prowled gardens, the 16th-century towered bastion sits inside its moat, accessed via a drawbridge. Within its walls nestles the real treasure: head to the first floor to see possibly the planet's most magical doll's house, Titania's Castle. Elaborately furnished and decorated with tiny treasures, it was built at the request of an English army officer's daughter to house the fairies that lived in the garden.
Egeskov has several museums and no fewer than four mazes – spend half a day exploring the grounds and castle.
Malbork Castle, Poland
Bigger is not always better – but try telling that to boys. The Teutonic Knights were clearly out to impress when they built this vast edifice, reputedly Europe's largest Gothic castle. Declaring Malbork (then called Marienburg) their capital in 1309, the knights kicked off a rush of property development, expanding the original convent into an enormous fortification with towers, deep moats, strong walls, an armoury and a palace for the Grand Masters. All that did not prevent capture, first by Poles and then by Prussians, and the castle was virtually razed during WWII. Now restored, it houses an extensive museum – but it is the monumental building that wows.
Malbork is a 45-minute train ride from Gdańsk, itself worth exploring for its wonderfully restored medieval centre.