Think of castles in Europe and many of the finest are usually to be found in the vast stretches of pastoral countryside set away from the hustle and bustle of city life. The châteaux of the Loire and the mighty Mont St Michel are fine French examples, as are Leeds and Windsor Castles in the UK, not to mention the sheer feats of architectural brilliance that make up many of the castles across Central Europe – Neuschwanstein being a prime candidate. And yet there are a number of city-centre castles that are more than worthy of a mention; here’s just a brief glimpse at a quartet of Central and Eastern Europe’s finest.
According to the Guinness Book of Records, Prague Castle holds the title of being the largest ancient castle complex in the world, being roughly the size of seven football fields. Built as early as the 9th century and fortified and expanded during the 12th to 14th centuries, this vast complex includes churches, gardens, towers, alleyways and royal residences, resembling in fact a small city within a city. Following the cessation of World War I, the castle became the seat of the Czechoslovakian government and is today the official residence of the President of the Czech Republic. A most worthy UNESCO World Heritage Site, the jewel in the crown must surely be the Gothic St Vitus Cathedral, one of the city’s most recognised landmarks with its beautiful Art-Nouveau, stained-glass windows, beautiful mosaic of the last judgement and its coronation jewels.
Set atop Castle Hill (Várhegy) and overlooking the River Danube dissecting the city some 50 metres beneath, Budapest’s imposing Buda Castle is a striking edifice playing host to a somewhat tumultuous history. Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the first royal castle was built in the hills above Budapest in the 13th century when the first citizens settled there and enjoyed a prosperous golden age in the 15th century, when King Matthias Corvinus married his Italian queen, who brought with her many Italian artists and craftsmen. Rebuilt after the Turkish occupation and again after World War II, today Castle Hill plays host to a wealth of 18th-century Baroque houses lining cobbled streets, Gothic arches, statues, fountains and a labyrinthine cellar system consisting of natural caves and man-made passageways. You can also find the city’s National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum located here.
Symbol of Poland’s national pride and identity and representing the very best of Krakow’s architectural treasures, the city’s Royal Castle and Cathedral sit atop Wawel Hill overlooking the Vistula River and provide a dominant backdrop to the Old Town’s skyline. For centuries a seat of kings, a former royal coronation and burial site during Krakow’s tenure as the country’s capital in the 12th century, part of the Austrian Empire in the 18th century and a Nazi residence during World War II, today Wawel Castle and Cathedral are proudly recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and offer a wealth of historical and architectural attractions including the Polish crown jewels and a most unique ecclesiastical interior. On a more sombre note, the Royal Crypts represent the final resting place of President Kaczynski and his wife, Maria, who were killed in the 2010 air crash outside Smolensk.
Bratislava Castle, like its contemporaries above, overlooks the Old Town and River Danube from its lofty hilltop position and dominates the city skyline. Considered the symbol of the city, Bratislava Castle was built in the 9th century and stood at an important crossroads of ancient routes during the Great Moravian Empire, not to mention its strategic defensive role in the battle against the expansion of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. Scene of coronation for no less than 11 kings and eight queens, Bratislava Castle for a time was also the formal seat of the kings of Royal Hungary. Razed to the ground as a result of fire in 1811, the castle was rebuilt after World War II and has since been the site of a number of important historical and political occasions, most notably the signing of an independent Slovakian Constitution in 1992.