Whether or not a country still has a reigning monarchy, castles and palaces are popular landmarks for visitors fascinated by centuries of history, tradition and pageantry. Sometimes just the mere folly of a rich ruler, other times a statement of power and position, castles could represent a stronghold and fortress, and palaces could simply offer leisure time and retreat for the upper echelons. Team Select’s Amy picks a selection of palaces and castles around the world - some of which have been recognised by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites - that offer up rich histories, intriguing legends, ornate architecture, and fabulous artwork to admire.
Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany
Looming majestically above the forested hills with its slim towers and luminous in white limestone brick, Neuschwanstein Castle is surely the picture-perfect fairytale castle. Indeed, its image calls to mind romantic princesses and daring princes as Walt Disney used Neuschwanstein Castle as the inspiration for the castle in Sleeping Beauty. One of the last great palace building projects of the 19th century - which saw a great enthusiasm for the construction and reconstruction of castles - Neuschwanstein was derided by contemporary critics as ‘kitsch’. Today, however, it is lauded as one of the major works of European historicism, and one of the continent’s most popular tourist destinations, with 1.3 million annual visitors, and up to 6,000 visitors a day during the peak summer months! Neuschwanstein was the pet project of Ludwig II of Bavaria, designed to embody both Ludwig’s imagined interpretation of the Middle Ages, and to commemorate the operas of Richard Wagner, however the King only lived in the palace for a total of 172 days, and never lived to see its completion.
Pena Palace, Portugal
Another eclectic mixture of architectural styles which so characterised the Romanticism of the 19th century, Pena Palace sits loftily atop a hill in the Sintra Mountains above the resort town of Sintra, roughly 30 miles from Lisbon. On a clear day, the palace can easily be seen from the capital. The castle has humble beginnings, dating back to a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Pena in the Middle Ages, which was constructed after an apparition of the Virgin Mary. For centuries, Pena was a small, quiet place for meditation, home to no more than eighteen monks - a far cry from the flamboyant palace built by King consort Ferdinand II in the nineteenth century! After first a lightning strike followed shortly by the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 devastated the chapel, the ruins were left untouched for some decades until its transformation into a summer residence for the Portuguese royal family. The Palace showcases a range of different inspirations (typical of the exotic tastes of Romanticism), ranging from castles of the Rhine river, to Medieval and Islamic elements. It was here that the last queen of Portugal, Queen Amelia, spent her last night in the country before leaving in exile. Following the Republican Revolution of 1910, the palace was classified as a national monument and transformed into a museum, soon drawing in visitors and becoming one of Portugal’s most visited monuments.
Fasil Ghebbi, Ethiopia
Known as the ‘Royal Enclosure’ Fasil Ghebbi itself covers a vast area of about 70,000 square meters, and was the home of Ethiopia’s emperors. Dating back to Emperor Fasilides in the 17th century when he founded the city of Gondar as his capital, this fortress-city complex features Fasilides’ castles, Isayu I’s palace, Dawit III’s Hall, a banqueting hall, stables, three churches, a chancellery, library, and Empress Mentewav’s castle. Gondar, and its castle complex, represented a break in a tradition in which Ethiopian emperors travelled around their possessions, living off the produce of peasants and dwelling in tents. This nomadic ‘royal progress’ came to an end when Emperor Fasilides founded a more permanent city, constructing a castle (Fasilides’ Castle), which saw successive emperors adding their own stamp by constructing their own castles.
If there is any palace that evokes the extravagance and opulence of royalty, it is the Palace of Versailles, the main royal residence of France from Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’ until King Louis XVI and the notorious French Revolution of 1789. Its historic significance, however, did not end when heads rolled at the guillotine; the palace was used as a stage for grand ceremonies by Emperor Napoleon III, including a lavish banquet hosted for Queen Victoria in 1855, and its famed Hall of Mirrors is particularly notable as the site where the Treaty of Versailles was signed, formally ending the First World War. Set just 12 miles southwest of the centre of Paris,Versailles is the second-most visited monument in the Ile-de-France region, with 7,700,000 visitors in 2017, second only to the Louvre (another grand former palace), and ahead of the iconic Eiffel Tower.
Catherine Palace, Russia
One of a trio of famous palaces belonging to the imperial Romanov dynasty, which also included Peterhof and the Winter Palace, the origins of Catherine Palace date back to 1717, when Catherine I hired the German architect Johann-Friedrich Braunstein to build her eponymous Palace as a summer residence. However, the palace built by Catherine is not what stands today, as her daughter Empress Elizabeth decided her mother’s taste was too old-fashioned and ordered her court architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli to rebuild the palace in the flamboyant Rococo style of the day, on a scale to rival Versailles. In 1756, a grander palace was unveiled, nearly 1km in circumference. With over 100kg of gold used to gild the stucco facade, various statues erected on the roof, and an impressive formal garden laid out in front, the new Catherine Palace certainly dazzles on first impressions, and its interior is no less extravagant. The legendary Amber Room famously featured panels of amber mosaic, surrounded with gilded carving and mirrors, housing a substantial collection of amber-work and Chinese porcelain, until the room was ransacked by German troops in 1941, with even the amber panels dismantled from the walls. Another Catherine - Catherine the Great - also contributed to the palace, with the Cameron Rooms decorated by the Scottish architect, Charles Cameron.
Tower of London, United Kingdom
There are many castles and palaces to choose from in the UK, from Wales, the ‘Land of Castles’, to the likes of Buckingham Palace or ancient Windsor Castle, which hosted two royal weddings in 2018. However, is there are a castle or palace steeped in as much legend as the Tower of London? Officially called ‘Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London’, the Tower has performed many functions, ranging from a fortress, a zoo, and a prison (with prisoners as infamous as the Kray twins in 1952, and Anne Boleyn, and even her daughter Elizabeth I before she became queen), to a grand palace. Since 1669, the Crown Jewels have been on display to the public here. It has been the site of much intrigue, from the notorious Princes in the Tower, and the subject of legend, with the tradition of the ravens, who are looked after by the colourfully clad ‘Beefeaters’. Its iconic ‘White Tower’ is considered to be the most complete 11th-century palace in Europe. The Tower has long been a tourist attraction, since at least the Elizabethan period, gaining popularity with tourists steadily throughout the 19th century, with over 500,000 annual visitors by the turn of the century. In 2017, over 2.8 million people visited the Tower, which was recognised as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988.
Consisting of four identical palaces built in the classical style set around an octagonal courtyard, each facing the imposing statue of King Frederick V on horseback, Amalienborg was originally built for four noble families, but has been the home of the Danish Royal Family since the late 18th century. Amalienborg offers an insight into the history of one of the world’s oldest monarchies, and the continued tradition and pageantry which lives on daily with its famous Royal Guard, as the guards march from their barracks through the streets of Copenhagen, onwards to Amalienborg, where the changing of the guard takes place at noon. Whilst two of the Palaces are the residence of Queen Margrethe, and Crown Prince family respectively, the public can gain access occasionally to Christian VII’s Palace, and visit a museum in Christian VIII’s Palace, which showcases private royal apartments dating from 1863 to 1947 with their original fixtures and fittings.
Forbidden Palace, China
Oral tradition has it that there are 9,999 rooms, including antechambers, in the Forbidden Palace, although this is not supported by survey evidence. There are, however, a staggering 980 buildings, with 8,886 bays of rooms, which survive today, and with the Forbidden City covering over 180 acres, it certainly is vast. For almost 500 years, this was the ceremonial and political centre of Chinese government as the imperial palace of both the Ming and Qing dynasties, from 1420 to 1912. Construction began in 1406, lasting for 14 years, requiring over a million workers, and today it’s the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world. It is the archetype example of traditional Chinese palatial architecture, and its design - from the overall layout to the smallest detail - meticulously reflects philosophical and religious principles, above all symbolising the majesty of Imperial power.
Himeji Castle, Japan
With its brilliant white exterior and supposed resemblance to a bird taking flight, Himeji Castle is a striking looking building and has been given the nickname ‘White Heron Castle’. Sat atop a hill high above the city of Himeji with origins dating back to the 12th century, it’s both the largest and most visited castle in Japan, often regarded as the finest surviving example of prototypical castle architecture in Japan. Although some expansions and remodelling has been done to the castle since its original construction, it remained intact for over 400 years, avoiding damage from natural disasters, extensive bombing of the Second World War, and it was spared demolition during the Meiji period after the end of the feudal era. The castle has featured in foreign and Japanese films (including the James Bond movie ‘You Only Live Twice’), and also features in several local legends, including the ‘Dish mansion in Harima Province’, a localised version of the famous Japanese ghost story often set in Edo (Tokyo), although it is sometimes claimed that Himeji Castle is the bona fide location of the entire legend. According to legend, a servant called Okiku was falsely accused of losing dishes which were valuable family treasures, and was killed and thrown into the well, where her ghost remained to haunt, counting dishes at night in a despondent tone. The well can be seen in the castle to this day.
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