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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Extravagant Castles Around The World

No place symbolizes the extremes of the romantic, fantastical castle ideal like Neuschwanstein Castle, rising from the hills near Germany’s border with Austria. The brainchild of Ludwig II of Bavaria — who also built several other extravagant castles, and left behind plans for still more — the 19th-century castle is a turret-bedecked, theatrically ornate confection that seems made for a fairy tale. No wonder Neuschwanstein reportedly served as the inspiration for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle.
Bounded by water on all sides, Eilean Donan Castle commands a dramatic landscape from a small island in the Scottish Highlands. In the castle’s early days, waterways were the main transit arteries in this inlet-filled region, and the castle — perched at the convergence of three sea lochs — was perfectly situated for defense. First built in the early 13th century as protection against marauding Vikings, Eilean Donan Castle has been associated with the Clan MacRae for centuries.

A castle on an island is one thing, but a castle in a cave? Slovenia has just that in the form of Predjama Castle, built in the mouth of Postojna Cave, about 100 miles east of Venice, Italy. The in-cave location provided excellent defensive capabilities for the castle, whose history goes back at least to the 13th century; these days, cave tours are popular with visitors to the castle.
Just west of London, Windsor Castle is huge, and it’s hugely old, too. According to the British government, Windsor Castle — one of Queen Elizabeth II’s official residences — is the largest and oldest occupied castle in the world. Its history dates back to William the Conquerer; in the nearly 1,000 years since then, Windsor has expanded to a floor area encompassing about 480,000 square feet.
With its multicolored exterior walls and its eclectic aesthetic styles, Portugal’s Palácio da Pena almost resembles a cake covered with colorful frosting. The romantic, fanciful castle was built on a craggy hill near Lisbon in the first half of the 19th century and incorporates elements of German, Moorish and other architectural traditions. These days it’s a Portuguese national monument and is used for state occasions.
Prague Castle is widely considered the world’s largest castle complex. Dominating the Prague skyline from a hill overlooking the Vltava River, Prague Castle has an area of about 750,000 square feet. The castle was probably founded around 880, and it houses the crown jewels and relics of the Bohemian kings who ruled from there over the centuries.
Castles are usually associated with Europe and the Middle East, but you’ll also find them in places such as Japan. One of the loveliest Japanese castles is Himeji Castle, about 70 miles west of Kyoto, dating from the 14th century. Sometimes called the White Heron Castle for its white exterior, Himeji Castle is Japan’s largest and most visited castle. It’s also one of the best-preserved, being one of the few Japanese castles to survive virtually intact to the present day.
There’s one castle in continental North America that has housed sovereigns: Mexico’s Chapultepec Castle, which Emperor Maximilian I called home during the short-lived Second Mexican Empire in the 1860s. The castle’s hilltop location in present-day Mexico City was once sacred to the Aztecs (chapultepec is Náhuatl for "at the grasshopper’s hill"); the modern castle’s history dates to the 18th century.

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