I spent last week in Belfast for a conference, and was lucky enough to get an extra day to explore the Northern Ireland coast. The weather was volatile, with sleeting rain switching to bright sun and back every hour. At the Giant’s Causeway, intense wind gusts kicked up choppy waves and forced tourists off the columns, providing a few unexpected openings to take people-free pictures. Topped off with a beautiful sunset and a final stop to see castle ruins, it was a pretty incredible afternoon.
Schloss Neuschwanstein, one of the most photographed sites in Germany, was built in the 1800’s by King Ludwig II. It’s an idealistic version of a medieval castle, and has in turn been a source of inspiration, including for the design of Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle. We braved the tourist crowds for an afternoon, and enjoyed the bright evening views across the valley.
A fantastic visit from our family turned into a great opportunity to explore a new part of Germany. We spent the week in Bavaria, hiking in the mountains and to castles around Füssen. Our first destination was Castle Falkenstein, a ruined stone mansion that was built on top of a rocky hill. The hike started meadows with sheep and cows, whose bells filled the air with beautiful chimes. A steep push through a misty forest brought us to the castle itself, where we enjoyed glimpses through the fog of the alps around.
Another of the Roman structures in Trier is Emperor Constantine’s basilica. Erected to be an immense throne room, the basilica is a single room over 200 feet long and eight stories tall. Since it’s original construction in the 4th century, it’s been damaged and rebuilt many times, including incorporation into both a medieval castle and a baroque palace. It was converted into a church at the end of the 19th century, sustained heavy damage in WWII, and most recently refurbished in the 1960s to match the original structure. Interestingly, some of the original Roman walls were the sections that survived the best through the bombing.
The size of the basilica is mind-boggling, and hard to capture with pictures. Each of the wooden squares in the ceiling is 10 ft x 10 ft—the size of a normal bedroom. The two organs are mounted high on the walls, and the arches and windows extend even further.
Last weekend we visited a region called Saxony-Switzerland, which is in Saxony (Germany, not Switzerland), and reminds me a lot of Pinnacles National Park. With castles, because Germany. We walked around the ruins of Neurathen castle, a rock fortress that perched on the towering cliff formations during the Middle Ages, and the Basteibrücke, a sandstone bridge constructed in the 1800s for tourists. (The original bridge to the fortress was wooden, so it could be broken if enemies tried to cross). It was amazing seeing the high rocks where people walked, worked, and lived–and the modern climbers scaling the sandstone peaks.
Last weekend we went on a hike from the small town of Bad Kösen that looped through woods to two castles: Rudelsburg and Naumburg. Built as border posts in the 11th and 12th centuries, these two castles still overlook the town and the Saale river. One houses a museum and the other a lively restaurant. Along the hike were other monuments to important points in German history: a carved lion memorial to Germans who died in WWI, an obelisk to Kaiser Wilhelm I, a statue of Otto von Bismark and his dog, and a monument for soldiers who fought in the Franco-Prussian war in the 1870’s.
Our second stop was another city of enduring military importance, Newcastle-on-Tyne, and the gate and castle keep there guarding the bridge over the Tyne river. Excavations had revealed a Roman establishment to guard the same location centuries prior, which was marked on the pathways in stone. We spent a long time at St Nicholas Cathedral, admiring the storytelling in the stained glass windows, wood and marble carvings, and hanging battle flags.
The first of many posts from an absolutely stunning trip around Europe. Every place we went I wished for more time, including our starting point at Dover. The old city was adorable and full of small surprises, the cliffs were indeed white, and the castle reigned over it all.
The core is a castle established by Henry II, a stunning rock fortress with feet-thick walls, winding circular staircases, and narrow galley passages. Layers of history wrap around and under it, from a 1st century AD Roman lighthouse, to barracks for troops in the Napoleonic wars, to underground tunnels used for storage in WWII. Perimeter walls have been added and expanded, gates have been added, fortified, and sealed up, rocks upon rocks standing testament to the enduring military significance of the castle on the hill.