Rambling Through the Ruins of Europe's Castles
Chateau of Peyrepertuse in the French Pyrenees
Castle ruins can offer jaw-dropping views, like this one at Chateau of Peyrepertuse in the French Pyrenees
Travelers have long ago discovered most of
But beyond the touristy castles are the ones I prefer -- the forgotten ones. These are evocative, stony husks without plaster or furnishings -- where you'll see broken stairways and open skies rather than rooftops. Massive chunks of stone no longer guard anything from anyone and lichen grows on walls seemingly to cushion stones for a fall they've been expecting for centuries.
Castle ruins invite you to ramble the ramparts and let your imagination roam. Climbing through waist-high weeds on rubble corralled by surviving walls, you can break off a spiky frond and live a sword-fern fantasy.
In France's Dordogne region, I like to hike to Chateau de Commarque near Sarlat. The Chateau is a 20-minute walk through a forest of chestnut trees to a clearing, where the mostly ruined castle appears like a mirage. The owner, Hubert de Commarque, bought the castle in 1968 and has been digging it out of the forest ever since.
In the scenic foothills of the French Pyrenees lies a series of surreal, mountain-capping castle ruins. Like a Maginot Line of the 13th century, these sky-high castles were strategically located between
Along the coast of
Thanks to invading French armies, there are lots of ruined castles in
I've clambered through Rheinfels, climbing a dark spiral staircase, as bat dung drifted softly down around me. Standing gingerly at the top of the stairs, I looked out at empty space instead of a floor. Across the expanse was the most finished element of the castle: the still-tidy square holes into which hand-hewn floor beams had been stuck. What became of the beams and all they supported?
Light filtered from slits in the wall. Archers used these narrow breaks to shoot at invaders. Peering out, I surveyed the overgrown terrain beyond the castle; green and brushy today, but once shaved clean to create a no-man's land, where no enemy could find cover as he approached.
At Rheinfels and some other castles, you can crawl through (claustrophobic) underground tunnels leading away from the shell of the castle. This is where explosives would be packed, ready to surprise invading forces and blow them to smithereens if they dared approach the walls.
Ruined castle appreciation isn't for everyone. Some might say it's a guy thing ... to peer, wonderstruck, over the shoulder of a guide who lowers a lamp on a rope into a dungeon that has only one way in or out -- a mean-spirited hole in the ceiling. Stories of knights sleeping in wooden boxes filled with hay in dank, ground-floor rooms evoke an era when life was nasty, brutish, and short (like the people).
The advent of powerful cannons -- near the end of the Middle Ages -- changed the very architecture of castles. Cannon balls were great levelers. Instead of soaring tall (and vulnerable), castles had to be built squat and stocky. But whether you like your castles short or tall, intact or in rubble, what's always free to soar is your imagination. And when that kicks in, then humble and forgotten ruins can rival
Verona Italy: City of Romance
About two hours from bustling Milan and touristy Venice is Verona -- a welcome sip of pure, easygoing Italy. Made famous by Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers, Verona is Italy's fourth-most-visited city and second in the Veneto region only to Venice in population and artistic importance. If you don't need world-class sights, this town is a joy
What's New in Rome and Venice
Rome and Venice are two of my favorite cities. But to enjoy these classic destinations fully, you need to be prepared for changes in 2010. Knowing about a few recent developments will make your visit smoother this year.
Venice Beyond St. Mark's
Margaret M. Johnson
Venice is today more noted for its constant throng of tourists -- more than 12 million annually -- who come to see its spectacular churches, elaborate-but-faded palazzos, incomparable art, and of course, the maze of alleys, canals, and bridges that link the little islands that make up the city as a whole.
Venice: Italian Magic on the Adriatic
Barbara Radcliffe Rogers
To discover your own personal Venice, head for the less trammeled streets of Dorsoduro, San Polo or Cannaregio. Instead of other tourists, you'll meet craftsmen in their studios, Venetians shopping for their dinner, nannies and nonnas watching children play and couples drinking Prosecco in canal-side cafes
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(c) 2010 Rick Steves' Europe
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