I like castles there is no doubt about it. From fairytale chateaux to austere fortifications; ones with drawbridges, dungeons, gatehouses, keeps and moats; built in stone, brick and even sand, I’m not fussy.
I am, if you like, a bit of a castle fan.
It is perhaps because I was born and bred in a castle – Barnard Castle, an 11th century Norman fortification sited on a promontory overlooking the River Tees in the North East of England.
Admittedly I was born in the town bearing the same name and not the castle itself thought I did spend an inordinate amount of my childhood scaling the battlements; exploring dungeons and helping my sister look after our pony, Bob whose paddock and stables were inside the grounds of the castle. In fact I spent so much time in the castle, now a Grade 1 listed building, it was almost a home from drafty home.
Before moving to Portugal my partner and I visited a huge number of castles and chateaux across Europe and Northern Africa in our two-year, time out, motor homing tour.
In France, due to my poor navigation, we had to manoeuvre a very wide motor home through a not very wide medieval castle gateway and later fell in love with the stunning chateau at Samur.
In the Czech Republic we tried to visit as many as we could, but only managed 30 of their reported 2,000. In Poland we went on a Teutonic Knight pilgrimage and ended up at Marlbork, an amazing and enormous brick construction, the largest of its kind in the world.
We will, we’ve been told, be allowed back if we don’t detach ourselves from the organised group and explore areas of the castle not officially open to the public such as the staff tea room as we did last time.
So as a castle fan you can imagine my glee upon moving to Portugal to find there were lots of Castelos to discover and explore. In fact only a few kilometres from our then home there were more castles than I could count on both hands.
Portugal has an amazing number of castles up and down the country, more than I could hope to mention here. So I’ve listed my favourite castles in Portugal and they are not only worthy of a visit, they are a must if you’re in the central and Northern regions of the country.
Castelo do Almourol – this fairytale structure, based on Roman foundations, but rebuilt by the Knights Templar in the 12th century, is strategically situated on an island in the River Tagus (Rio Tejo) only a short drive from the equally historic town of Tomar in central Portugal.
Accessible only by a small, but colourful ‘taxi’ boat, this castle makes for an interesting day out. Watch out for the Templar inscription above the entrance arch, I think it’s in Latin, but not quite sure.
The castle, made a national monument in 1910, has not been officially resided in for some time. However I found out to my detriment it is still fiercely defended by a swarm of wasps on the second floor of the keep.
Castelo Templário – constructed by the Knights Templar in the 12th century this stunning masterpiece is a tour de force of the stonemasons’ art situated in Tomar, central Portugal. The Castelo Templário was the warrior monks’ European headquarters for many year and is in fact the only castle the Knights Templar completely constructed in Portugal, so a must see for anyone interested in Templar history and architecture.
The castle has continually evolved over the centuries to create a visual timeline of architectural styles and a delight for anyone with an interest in photography.
My advice if you visit is to do so on a Sunday when admittance is free and remember to take your camera battery. I’ve been to the Castelo many times with my partner who loves photography, but has a mind like a sieve.
On each and every occasion we visited the Castelo he has managed to leave the battery to his, large, all singing, all dancing camera at home and ends up using my not so singing and not so dancing compact, then delights in telling me how bad mine is!
Óbidos Castle – a superb example of a walled fortress, just inland from the Silver Coast (Costa da Prata), around an hour north of the capital, Lisbon. The medieval fortress surrounds a particularly quaint town with rather a lot of tourist, though tasteful, outlets inside its walls.
The Castelo de Óbidos was built on the remains of a much earlier Roman fortification. And in fact the name Óbidos it is believed derives from the Latin oppidum for fortified city.
You can, if your nerve and head for heights allows, scale the castellated battlements. However, if like me you have developed a fear of heights it’s best to stay where you don’t need a guardrail to continue to walk.
I and the countless other visitors now know it’s not easy to pass someone who refuses to move from the two foot stone platform they’ve wedged themselves into, secured by nothing more than fingernails for over an hour as they are fearful they’ll fall onto pointy rock formations below as there is no handrail.
(As I a child had had no fear of heights or of falling, but as an adult I do. It is perhaps too many bones broken, dislocation of joints, sprains and other such things in climbing related incidents, which have made me so fearful.
However it does curtail a jaunt around battlements these days as my fear only clicks in once I am mid climb up a set of unprotected stairs. Though I do provide my partner with some excellent ‘retreating’ shots as I scurry (sorry way too quick of an adjective, slowly flump), step by step with as much surface area of buttocks on stone.)
Although visiting the Castelo de Óbidos is fun at all times of the year if you truly want to get a feel of what life would be like in the 12th century, mark July /August in your diary as this is when the town hosts its’ annual Mediaeval Fair (19th July – 12th August 2012).
Heraldic flags are hoisted and costumes are donned for a two-week long spectacular where knights joust, jester juggle, minstrels serenade and merchants will attempt to sell you any number of mediaeval souvenirs. Pigs are roasted on the spit and rustic taverns serve wine from tankards not glasses.
It’s an amazing event and enjoyable for young and old. And if you don some 12th century attire there is every chance you’ll get in for free. (for more information on the Mercado Medieval visit www.cm-obidos.pt)
Guimarães Castle – is in Northern Portugal and possibly the most Portuguese of all Portuguese castles. Constructed in massive grey granite blocks, atop equally large grey granite boulders the castle domineers the small city’s skyline and the nation’s birth.
Built it is said, by Dona Mumadona Dias, to defend Christians from Moorish and Norman attacks. However the original castle was torn down and a new one erected by the Count of Portugal and when in 1147 on the creation of the Kingdom of Portugal it became the official residence of the royal family.
Guimarães Castle is a definite must see if you want to get a feel for where Portugal was born and given Guimarães is the European Capital of Culture for 2012, taking a trip there this year will ensure there will be plenty of other things to keep you entertained.
However, again if you are fearful of heights and the pain inflicted in a fall off one, don’t scramble up the granite steps to the walkway, which can be ever so slightly slippy when damp. I only managed five steps before I scuttled back down on my bum but the view was magnificent even at this lowly height.