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1. Neuschwanstein Castle (Germany)
The fantasy castle about which other fantasy castles have fantasies. This elaborate slice of Romanesque Revival perches on a hilltop above the village of Hohenschwangau in southern Germany. It was crafted in the late 19th century (between 1869 and 1886, to be precise), to the ostentatious tastes of Ludwig II, King of Bavaria. Sadly for the man in question, he died in the same year that his dream residence was finished. His consolation (in the afterlife anyway) is that Schloss Neuschwanstein (whose name translates as New Swanstone Castle) has become the blueprint for such wildly flamboyant structures. It was the inspiration for the “Sleeping Beauty Castle” which lights up Disneyland in California.
2. Lichtenstein Castle (Germany)
The south of Germany has a thing for castles which sigh with splendor. Not too far from Neuschwanstein (110 miles to the north-west, in the neighbouring state of Baden-Wurttemburg), this stately pile was built in the Gothic Revival style between 1840 and 1842. It perches on an escarpment in the Swabian Jura, some 250 metres above the Echaz River – its position all but demanding that any passing princes clamber up its walls to rescue any princesses who happen to be inside. Even more romantically, the ruins of its own medieval predecessor on the bluff, Burg Alt-Lichtenstein, sit immediately next to it.
3. Ljubljana Castle (Slovenia)
Slovenia’s capital is a true box of delights – so small and picturesque that you start to wonder whether the locals have somehow concealed the uglier portions of the city. And it is topped by the medieval masterpiece which shapes its skyline. Initially built in the 11th and 12th centuries, and remodelled in the 15th, it has lost some of its fortress snarl – but it rewards those who make the walk upwards to sip a coffee in one of its pretty courtyards.
4. Chateau de Chinon (France)
The Loire Valley is, of course, a glittering cornucopia of fine castles and tall-towered flights of fancy – a legacy of the 15th and 16th centuries, when French royal power was concentrated here, and the Gallic nobility dutifully constructed their mansions close to the throne. Admittedly, Chinon pre-dates this period – there has been a chateau on its crag since the 10th century. And the river it looks down on is the Vienne, a tributary of the Loire, rather than the Loire itself. But it holds a crucial place in French history. It was here in 1429 that Joan Of Arc met Charles VII – an encounter which gave the monarch new impetus in his ultimately successful bid to liberate his kingdom from English rule.
5. Chateau de Saumur (France)
An image of symmetrical fairytale perfection, its towers leaping into the sky, its grand entrance accessed via drawbridge, the castle at Saumur ticks all the boxes required to be a spectacular Loire chateau – not least because it gazes out across the river in question (and its confluence with the Thouet). Tenth century in origin, though freshened and finessed in subsequent centuries, it has played host to a few beasts during its millennium of existence – it was converted into a state prison once Napoleon Bonaparte had seized the French reins. Happily, it is now restored to full splendour, staring imperiously at its surroundings.
6. Chateau de Chenonceau (France)
Some castles project their majesty via towers so lofty and tapering that they practically come with a resident Rapunzel. Not so Chenonceau, another fabulous fragment of the Loire region. Crafted between 1514 and 1522 (though there was a palace on the site as early as the 11th century), it is low-slung and lovely, delivering its visual coup de grace in its elaborate gardens – and in the way it straddles the River Cher via four elegant arches. Chenonceau is as beautiful as a castle can be – and it is wholly aware of its magnificence.
7. Kronborg Castle (Denmark)
Pitched on the very eastern edge of Denmark in the town of Helsingor – so close to the edge, in fact, that Sweden is barely a stone’s-throw distant across the Oresund strait – Kronborg is very much a castle for princes and princesses. Particularly princes. A squat brick bastion, founded in the 1420s but converted into a Renaissance masterpiece by the Danish king Frederick II between 1574 and 1585, it was – and is – the setting for William Shakespeare’s tour de force Hamlet. Every summer, actors stride around its cavernous interior playing the troubled lead and his doomed love interest Ophelia as part of the Hamletscenen festival. Never does the Bard have a greater auditorium.
8. The Alcazar of Segovia (Spain)
Spain revels in epic fortresses on seemingly unassailable hilltops – the incomparable Alhambra in Granada is an obvious example. But look further north, to the town of Segovia in Castile and Léon – where your eyes are greeted by the spectacle that is the Alcazar. Ancient in origin – there was a fortress on this swarthy hillock in the Roman era, - its sophisticated outline took form in the 16th century under King Philip II, when its broad gardens were designed by the architect Francisco de Morar. The castle supposedly resembles a ship’s bow – a description that, if anything, does its grandeur a disservice. It is also meant to be the inspiration for the “Cinderella Castle” at Disney World in Orlando.
9. Stirling Castle (UK)
Princesses in castles do not have to be happy. Stirling Castle – arguably Scotland’s most photogenic, even if Edinburgh Castle is more famous – was one of the backdrops to the life of a tragic figure. It was here that Mary Queen of Scots – destined to be beheaded at the order of her own cousin Elizabeth I – spent her childhood in the 1540s. Resplendent on a volcanic crag, it still surveys the valley of the River Forth with as keen an eye as it did during the Middle Ages, when it was besieged eight times. Its tormented former resident is said to haunt it – forever weighed down by her troubles.
10. Warwick Castle (UK)
Now owned by Merlin Entertainments and run (very successfully) as a family-friendly tourist attraction, it can easily be forgotten that Warwick Castle was once a formidable fortress – founded by William the Conqueror in 1068, as a new regime set a seal on its blood-won authority. It grew to be one of the great houses of England, the seat of the Earls of Warwick – but for all its hard-edged might, it was always a handsome devil, admiring its reflection in the River Avon. It is still very much a charming man, even when hundreds of children are running around it. Indeed, that is half the fun. Modern families can create their own fairytales by visiting the Princess Tower, which comes with as much sparkle and stardust as said name suggests. Castle admission costs from £13 per person.