Five European castles to stay in

Sleep in comfort behind stone walls in strongholds large and small, including a Scottish tower house, a French chateau and a Tuscan hamlet.

Sleep in comfort behind stone walls in these strongholds large and small, but try to resist the urge to drop boiling oil from the battlements.

England: The intimate one
Britain’s largest castle is in Windsor, and if you manage to get a room there, do send us a postcard. For those who prefer a shorter walk to the breakfast table and fewer corgis in the way, Hellifield Peel Castle is a fortified home on a more human scale. Located just outside the village of Hellifield, at the southern boundary of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, this was originally an Anglo-Saxon manor house, beefed up by a succession of owners including one of the last Knights Templar in the 14th century.

Just a few years ago, the castle was a roofless ruin, but in a project filmed for the TV series Grand Designs, husband-and-wife team Francis and Karen Shaw made the building habitable once more. And not just habitable but positively comfortable – guests at this B&B stay in one of four bedrooms or a spacious attic apartment under the modern roof, and each comes with a four-poster bed, including two hugely elaborate examples from the 17th century. The Yorkshire Dales are also within easy raiding-party distance. The village of Malham makes a good starting point for walks in the area, with its impressive limestone rock formations at Malham Cove and Gordale Scar.

France: The classic one
Few corners of Europe are as richly endowed with castles as the Loire Valley. Almost everywhere you turn there is a splendid château that could be an illustration from Puss in Boots. The most elaborate ones were built during France’s 16th-century Renaissance, when the style of the château became less about withstanding a siege and more about entertaining royal mistresses.

The Château de Chissay is truly of this genre, with its walls built of the palest stone and turrets topped with witch’s hat slate roofs. Inside are rib-vault ceilings, spiral staircases and a wide range of guestrooms including a ‘troglodyte’ option with rough-hewn stone walls, and a double-level turret room up in the donjon (keep) where you can see up into the rafters. Evening meals in the period-perfect dining room are a particular highlight here. Chissay-en-Touraine, where the château is located, is a small village on the River Cher – one of the tributaries of the Loire. An hour’s drive away is the vast and ornate Château de Chambord, begun in 1519 as a hunting lodge. It’s the largest of the Loire châteaux, but there are dozens even closer to the hotel, including the most romantic one of all, the Château de Chenonceau, which is built out on arches over the River Cher. This region, more than anywhere, is the place to go on a castle binge.

Scotland: The self-catering one
Some Scottish castles brood over lochs, while others are architectural flights of fancy, never intended to be tested in war. One distinctive type is the tower house – a tall stone residence for a laird who wanted some protection during clan feuds and other periods of strife. Historians distinguish these towers as C-plan, L-plan, T-plan or Z-plan depending on their footprint, but the point was to be able to shoot from a side wall at attackers outside your front door.

Hopefully you won’t need to resort to this at Castle of Park, an L-plan tower house. Forbidding from outside, the tower is wonderfully evocative inside, with huge stone fireplaces, hidden nooks and thick whitewashed walls. Built in 1590, it was restored in the late 20th century after years of neglect, and is now rented out by the Landmark Trust. The tower can sleep up to seven people in four bedrooms, making it a great place to gather your own clan and hole up in baronial style.

Castle of Park stands on a hill enveloped by forest, outside the village of Glenluce. It lies just shy of the Rhins of Galloway – the hammer-head peninsula at Scotland’s southwestern point, which has Scotland’s mildest climate, as evidenced by the magnificent Castle Kennedy Gardens and sub-tropical Logan Botanic Garden. Also within reach is Wigtown, famous within Scotland for its great number of bookshops.

Italy: The luxury one
In the line of hills that divide the sepia-tinted Tuscan landscape south of Arezzo from the even more rapturous countryside around Siena, Castel Monastero has watched nearly a thousand years go past. The name refers to the fact that this hamlet (also called Monastero d’Ombrone) has served as both castle and monastery, besieged by Florentines fighting against Siena in 1208.

These days, if you stand in the piazza at the centre of the hamlet, you will find yourself in the middle of a luxury hotel. The clustered stone houses and the cottages in the grounds beyond have been given a contemporary interior design that’s sensitive to their historic charm; the spa is the very opposite of monastic; and Gordon Ramsay is in charge of the menu at one of the two on-site restaurants.

Ensconced in this timeless setting, the world around feels as remote as it must have done to medieval castle-dwellers. Down the road, however, is Siena – the very definition of an Italian Renaissance city state, with a wealth of art in its churches and galleries. Also under an hour’s drive away is the wine-growing region of Chianti, and the magical hill country of the Crete Senesi.

Spain: The budget one
El Castillo de Buen Amor
(the Castle of Good Love) may be about the least martial name ever conceived for a fortress, but in truth this place in the plains north of Salamanca was designed more for pleasure, despite its crenellations, impressively bulky walls and (dry) moat.

Inside there are suits of armour, hunting trophies and other touches of Spain’s partly Arabic-influenced version of the Middle Ages, including a lovely double-colonnaded central courtyard. Windows are often authentically small, but the rooms can be cavernous.

The castle lies between Salamanca and Zamora, both worth an expedition. The former is home to Spain’s oldest university and possibly its prettiest main square, and the latter town is an open-air museum of Romanesque architecture.

The article 'Five European castles to stay in' was published in partnership with Lonley Planet Traveller.