Europe’s Castles: Find Your Own Camelot

Part 1: Castles of France and Portugal
By Laura B. Foy
Before the castle days of Camelot in England with its round table politics and jousting, honorable knights, continental Europe was also building castles that were breathtaking. Wherever you traverse the European continent, somewhere a castle will find you. From the Portuguese Atlantic in the town of Sintra to the Mediterranean Fortress of Rhodes, your castle experience is beckoning. If you are looking for the quintessential castle experience maybe you will find your special place below.

France

Carcassonne
Located in Southwest France, Carcassonne is not only a castle, but also an entire medieval city that somehow has survived the centuries fully intact. The walled city of Carcassonne stands high on a hill above the River Aude. It is Europe’s largest fortified citadel entrenched in fierce battles and legends.

The history of Carcassonne, La Cité, began in the 2nd century BC when the hill overlooking the River Aude was fortified because of its strategic location on the old Roman trade route between Bordeaux and Rome. Because of this significance, very strong fortifications were necessary to protect it from hostile enemies. During the many wars that were waged for its possession, the fortifications were enlarged and modified by the resulting victors.

In 122 BC the Romans were among the first major contributors to what is now Carcassonne. They built the first wall around the city, of which about one third now remains. The Romans were conquered by the Visigoths (Germanic tribe) in 466 AD, who in turn were conquered in 725 AD by the Saracens (Arabs) from Spain for a short period. Read more about the famous legend of Lady Carcas, a Saracen princess, who defended Carcassonne against a five-year siege by Charlemagne.

After a brief Saracen reign, the Frank empire gained control followed by the famous Trencavel dynasty (12th-13th century), one of the more peaceful periods for Carcassonne during the feudal ages. The prosperous times of Carcassonne came to an end in 1209 AD when the Cité was overthrown by Crusaders from Northern France. Numerous battles and sieges continued through the centuries until 1659 AD when Carcassonne lost its status as a frontier establishment and the necessity of defenses at Carcassonne no longer existed. Today, one can see the old Cité of Carcassonne as the most complete fortified town in the world with its double line of walls, its 50 towers, and its castle complex.

If you want a full castle experience with very few tourists, I recommend you stay at the unique Hotel De La Cité within Carcassonne’s city walls. You can fully explore the castle, its towers, turrets and cobbled winding alleyways on your own after the day-crowd disappears.

Carcassonne is close to the A61 autoroute, which links the Mediterranean coast with Toulouse and Bordeaux to the west. The city is also at the junction of the D118 and N113, two main cross-country roads. The city is served by one of the main north-south railway lines.

Portugal

Moorish Castle (Castelo dos Mouros), Sintra
Unlike its more famous neighbor, Pena Palace, which caps the adjacent hill, the desolate ruins of this 1000-year-old Moorish Castle are not to be ignored. The ruins of Sintra offer a feeling of the old Moorish world with its ramparts and beautiful vistas overlooking the sea and the town of Sintra, a half hour drive west of Lisbon.

Castelo dos Mouros
Constructed by the Moors in the 8th or 9th century AD, this impressive fortress winds around the rugged peaks of the Serra de Sintra. The Moorish Castle was conquered by Dom Afonso Henriques’ Crusaders (1147), the monarch who also built the nearby Romanesque Chapel of São Pedro, of which interesting traces remain, along with a cistern and an Arab horseshoe arch gate. This chapel retains two interesting Romanesque doorways, with traces of fresco paintings in the altar area.

Like Carcassonne, the Moorish Castle has its own legend of treasures buried beneath the ramparts by the Moors upon their hasty flight from the Crusaders. Surrounded by walls and several towers, it underwent various repairs, particularly in the Romantic period (about 1860), when King Consort Fernando restored the ancient ruins. On a clear day you can see all the way from the ruins to the sea at Cabo da Roca, the most western point in continental Europe.

To get from Sintra to the ruins, take a taxi or ride the shuttle bus. Parking is available if you go by car. Ruins are free and hours are 9:00 to 19:00 (in winter) and 9:00 to 20:00 (in summer).

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