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Forts & follies

From the sumptuous châteaux of the Loire to the imposing Danish fortress which Shakespeare chose as the setting for Hamlet, our holidays visit some impressive castles. If the walls could talk, they would tell of politicking and poisonings, romance and wrongdoings, marriages and massacres, births and battles, and much more besides.
  • Of the three countries featured on our Nordic Cities Explorer touring holiday, two – Denmark and Sweden – are monarchies. Cue a profusion of palaces, particularly in Stockholm, where you’ll find no fewer than fourteen – including the Royal Palace and the parliament buildings – within Gamla Stan, the city’s iconic medieval quarter, and neighbouring Riddarholmen. While Sweden’s Royal Palace boasts the largest number of rooms of any royal residence still in use (a staggering 600), the main residence of the Danish royal family, the Amalienborg Palace, is the country’s greatest example of Rococo architecture. Just as worthy of a visit are Copenhagen’s star-shaped Kastellet, and Rosenborg Castle, set in immaculate gardens. What Helsinki lacks in castles – it has just two: the simplistic yet majestic Presidential Palace, and the island fortress of Suomenlinna – it makes up for in the thrilling contrast between its cutting-edge design quarter and its grand architecture, ranging from opulent Neoclassical buildings to Uspenski Cathedral, the largest Orthodox church in western Europe.
  • Innsbruck, Salzburg and Vienna are different in character. Innsbruck is dominated by mountains, while cosmopolitan Salzburg is dominated by music – it is, after all, Mozart’s city. Graceful Vienna feels different again. One thing they do have in common is an abundance of castles and palaces, including the Hofburg Palace with its opulent Giants’ Hall, and Archduke Ferdinand II’s Renaissance Schloss Ambras in Innsbruck; Salzburg’s Schloss Mirabell (in whose gardens several scenes from The Sound of Music were filmed) and Festung Hohensalzburg, the largest completely preserved fortress in central Europe; the Hofburg in Vienna, from which the Habsburgs ruled for over seven centuries, and, also in the capital, Schloss Schönbrunn, a celebration of Baroque architecture. It was in the Hall of Mirrors here that a 6-year-old Mozart played for Empress Maria-Theresa.
  • It was the elaborate murals in his childhood home, the yellow Neo-Gothic castle of Hohen-schwangau in Bavaria, that kindled Ludwig II’s passion for the Middle Ages. Neighbouring Neuschwanstein was one of three castles he commissioned in his lifetime, and is the most whimsical, with fairy-tale turrets and a fantastically adorned minstrels’ gallery, not to mention a suitably quixotic location above a wooded gorge. If it looks strangely familiar, it’s because it featured in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. You can visit both castles as you cycle amid Bavaria’s equally romantic landscapes.
  • In terms of proliferation of châteaux, the Loire Valley (dubbed the Vallée des Rois because of its popularity among kings) is unrivalled. On our Chateaux & Vineyards walk and Châteaux of the Loire cycle, you can visit between three and five over the course of your holiday. Ranging from the imposing fortified château at Chinon to small, but perfectly formed, Azay-le-Rideau, they are all so different, with such intriguing (and often grisly) histories, that they really add to your holiday. But, fascinating as they are, do not overlook the villages themselves, or the wine!
  • Thanks to Shakespeare, who chose Kronborg as the setting for Hamlet, this remarkable Renaissance castle has been forever linked with the legendary Danish prince, and the Bard’s most famous play is performed here every summer. It is not the only castle built by Danish kings in the area: Fredensborg is known as the ‘Danish Versailles’ and still serves as the royal summer residence, while Frederiksborg, set in superbly manicured gardens, is the largest Renaissance castle in Scandinavia, and is all the more impressive approached by boat across its lake.
  • Gathered together as if for a beauty pageant, the palaces and mansions in and around Sintra in western Portugal are flamboyant and ostentatious, each trying to outdo the others with their turrets, octagonal towers, ornate colonnades, brightly coloured domes, intricate azulejos (tiles) and luxuriant gardens. With such architectural treasures taking centre stage, the walking, though enjoyable, is relegated to the wings – these are places that you will want to linger, admiring the elaborate architecture and manicured grounds.
  • There is so much history in Castile, from age-old transhumance routes, to medieval towns that seem hardly to have changed over time, and from Segovia’s huge Roman aqueduct (one of the best preserved in the world, despite not a drop of mortar having been used), to the magnificent castles. Our rail journey linking Segovia, Salamanca and Madrid – on which you will be transported back to Spain’s Golden Age thanks to our detailed cultural notes – takes in the turreted castle which reputedly inspired Walt Disney, as well as the grand royal palace in the capital.
  • The castles along the Danube have some fantastic stories to tell. Those of the Habsburg castle at Artstetten revolve around its most famous resident, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was laid to rest in its grounds following his assassination in 1914. Downriver, Durnstein Castle is synonymous with a figure from further back in history: it was here that Richard the Lionheart was held for ransom for two years before being tracked down by his faithful minstrel, Blondel. There are two more castles you can visit, as well as two Baroque-style abbeys, meaning that cycling holidays in the Danube Valley are full of cultural interest.
 

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