The kite’s red wings rattled noisily as it soared higher and higher over Kendal Castle into the clear blue sky, its string held firmly by a guy in a big puffa jacket. “Can I hold it, Dad? Please, can I?” begged the young girl beside him. “OK, but you must wrap it round your hand REALLY tight.” An anxious few moments as he transferred the string in a complicated manoeuvre to her small fist. She squealed with delight as she felt the kite’s impatient tug as it swooped and flipped in the chilly breeze, silhouetted against the afternoon sun.
Kendal Castle and kite
It was New Year’s Day and perfect weather for a walk to blow away last year’s cobwebs and overindulgence from the night before. Having just had lunch with my aunt and uncle, who live in the town, I’d come up to Kendal Castle for some fresh air.
Kendal Town and River Kent
Kendal spreads out towards the Lake District fells (hills), the River Kent flowing gently towards the coast. Hard to believe that a year ago it burst its banks in one of the worst storms we’ve had for years, flooding houses and businesses, causing huge damage and many to be homeless for far too long. I wandered over to the ruins of the medieval Manor Hall; children were scrambling over the walls and chasing each other around the lower vaults.
Children at Kendal Castle
Kendal Castle was probably built in the late 12th century as a fortified home for the Barons of Kendal. It was sold to the Parr family a few hundred years later. Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr was once thought to have been born here, but as the castle was already in disrepair in the 1500s that’s not likely. The Manor Hall and the North West Tower (originally called the Troutbeck Tower) plus a couple of underground cellars and walls the courtyard and moat. are all that’s left now. Throughout the site there are information boards telling the history of the castle and illustrating what it might have looked like when it was the inhabited.
Kendal Castle Tower and view
The wind was cold but the sunshine brightened up the day. New Year’s a time for reflection, looking back as well as forward. I thought of all the amazing places I’d been lucky enough to visit over the past 12 months. Highlights included having a female gorilla in Rwanda walk over my feet, clambering across the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, feeding flamingos on Aruba in the Caribbean, driving through the Rockies on a Canadian road trip and finding the quirky quokka in Western Australia. However, I always love coming back home and on the first day of a new year, this is exactly where I wanted to be …
Kendal Castle and Tower
Sitting on a wall beside the tower were two young girls, oblivious to everything but their conversation. I thought of all the dramatic changes in the past year, the famous people, part of the fabric of our growing up, who’d died, and the major shifts in world power. The future is always unclear, but this new year brings greater uncertainly than for many a long time. The future is in the hands of these youngsters; we owe it to them not to mess up the present …
On Kendal Castle walls
As I wandered back down the hill, a woman in an electric wheelchair zoomed past, her scarf rippling out behind her. She waved and said, “Gorgeous day isn’t it! Makes you happy to be alive.” It was and it did …
“I really like being a part of the #LightupLancaster Festival because of its accessible scale, its friendly atmosphere and the way Lancaster lends itself to a variety of settings for the events and installations. The whole city comes out to enjoy it.” Renowned artist Steve Messam was explaining what he enjoyed about exhibiting his unique artwork, ‘When the Red Rose – in Lancaster’. We were standing beneath a collection of bright red balloons of various sizes, some of which had lights bobbing around inside them. Rain gently pattered onto the brilliant globes, “It’s a lovely sound, isn’t it? Working with balloons is about colour and size. It’s visual and about the sound too. They make people happy.”
For the past three years, Light Up Lancaster Festival, part of the Light up the North Consortium, has been brightening up the city over the November 5thBonfire Night weekend. Local and international artists put on lively street performances and virtually every corner of the city has some quirky artwork or show to illuminate the evening. This year’s was bigger and, of course, better than ever.
Light up Lancaster 2016 programme
A couple of weeks’ earlier, I’d been to the LightPool Festival in Blackpool, where Steve had created a very different version of When the Red Rose, this time encasing one of the Victorian shelters on the promenade in one huge balloon. I live just 10 minutes away from Lancaster but had never been to Light up Lancaster so I was really excited to see what it was all about. It was fascinating to watch Steve and his team putting up the balloons in the ‘Secret Garden’ at the back of the Storey Institute. They inflated them indoors then brought them outside and attached them to a large metal frame. It took a long time to get it all in place but by the time the festival officially started as dusk fell, When the Red Rose – in Lancaster’ was ready for its audience.
Assembling ‘When the Red Rose’
Meeting up with a couple of friends, we then spent about four hours wandering round the city, finding laughter, light and colour everywhere we went. My favourite was Lock and Key at Lancaster Castle. It was a magical Son et Lumiere show projected onto the imposing crenelated walls of what used to be one of HM’s prisons, with pumped up music and audience participation. The castle is Lancaster’s biggest visitor attraction and the ideal place for such a dynamic show.
Lock and Key at Lancaster Castle
Other highlights included the Illumaphonium, an interactive musical instrument like a giant upright xylophone in front of the Priory and Light Boat in Market Square, a giant wooden structure under a light canopy, promoted as the slowest boat on earth. At Electric Fireworks in theStorey Institute,we shone coloured torches onto a screen and created our own firework display. Cosmic Paranoia was a rather unnerving film of big eyes drifting across the cosmos. One of the most popular interactive installations was LightWeight, where people had their photos taken which were then projected onto a giant revolving globe behind the Museum. Local dancers put on a lively performance called Light Rain in Sun Square; very appropriate as we had intermittent light showers all evening.
Light up Lancaster 2016
French artists Scenocosme lit up the Judges Lodgings where people joined together to bring the building alive, though something may have been lost in translation as it seemed to be unlit for quite a time! We were entertained by the Vox Boys Choir in the Priory; an impressive setting for Children’s Voices. The final event of the Friday night was also the most affecting. Recommisioned, by the Dukes Theatreat Lancaster Museum, explored the journey of young soldiers from Lancaster King’s Own Regiment in WWI through light, sound, text and movement. On entering we were each given an envelope representing one of the soldiers, some who lived and many who died. After the very moving performance we opened our envelopes; my young man was a corporal from Millom who’d died in battle.
The following night I returned for the Lancaster Firework Display but had time to visit If Boats Could Talk, a charming sculpture floating beside the Lancaster Canal towpath, illustrating the story of migration to the city by a Victorian paver and a Syrian refugee. In Aldcliffe Triangle I met artist Shane Johnstone, who explained its creation and how the children of Dallas Road Primary School designed much of this artwork, as well as the brightly lit lanterns.
If Boats Could Talk – Aldcliffe Triangle
For the grand finale I joined hundreds of spectators on Quay Meadow, where we were entertained by BBC Radio Lancashire and a very talented musician called Joni Fuller. Bang on 8pm, a rocket soared over Lancaster Castle, music boomed out from the radio tent and we were treated to 20 minutes of spectacular fireworks, a fitting end to a splendid weekend.
Fireworks over Lancaster Castle – photo c/o Light up Lancaster
I went along as a guest of Visit Lancashire and Light up Lancaster. It’s really encouraging to see the capital city of Lancashire putting such a vibrant cultural display of light and magic. I’ll definitely be going along next year; hope to see you there!
Rebuilt on the site of a medieval citadel, the opulent and impressive baroque Konopiste Castle (Konopiště) is in old Bavaria, now the Czech Republic, about 50km SE from Prague. Its most famous owner was Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, who bought it in 1875 when he was 24 years old. His assassination in Sarajevo in 1914 was to trigger the First World War. Looking rather like a French Chateau, it’s set in a beautiful park with a large lake, lovely Rose Garden, exotic plants in hothouses and extensive Game Reserves in the more remote areas.
If you’re a vegetarian or have a very strong objection to hunting, you may want to admireKonopiste Castle from outside. Staring down from virtually every inside wall of this beautiful building are the heads of just about every animal ever shot by the Archduke, totalling almost 300,000. The guide assures you that he was a great conservationist too, but it’s rather difficult to get that side of his character with these trophies all around. However, I would strongly urge you to take the guided tour of the Konopiste Castle, as it is truly fascinating.
As well as the Hunting Corridor, there are a number of official and social rooms where important guests were entertained and slept in formal state. The real highlight of the castle is on the second floor. The Este Armoury is one of the largest and most valuable collections of weapons in the world, including beautiful Italian pistols and rifles, ornate suits of armour for both horse and rider used in jousting tournaments, with rare linens and other many other intriguing artefacts collection.
Konopiste Armoury – photo czechtourism.com
The private chambers of the Archduke and his wife Sofia, including sitting room, dining room and bedrooms are richly furnished with an air of faded elegance. Photos of the family have a real poignancy when the fate of the couple is known by the visitor. In addition, there is a lovely chapel, still used on special occasions, with a highly decorated vaulted ceiling, some old stained glass and a somewhat incongruous organ hidden at the back. The Archduke’s Game Room and Shooting Gallery (not included in the tour when I visited) must have been in constant use during his occupancy, when he wasn’t off in India, Africa or some other far-flung hunting ground.
Italian Renaissance sculptures are scattered throughout Konopiste Castle gardens, including a circle of maidens dancing around an urn and a big pond with what appears to a dragon’s head ready to spout water not fire. There was also a rather forlorn black bear prowling around a tatty enclosure; in the past it would have been fair game for the hunters as they roamed wild in the surrounding area till the last century.
In front of the castle is a sculpture of a young man armed with a hunting rifle and two dogs straining at the leash. It’s full of vigour and seems to embody the spirit of this fascinating castle.
After all that history and opulence, you must call in to nearby Stara Myslivna Restaurant (unless you’re the aforementioned vegetarian, in which case you might want to eat at the Castle Restaurant.) Not only is this place a carnivore’s delight, it’s also where all the hunting trophies and related paraphernalia that wouldn’t fit in to the castle, are on display. Designed in the style of the castle interiors at the time of Franz Ferdinand, it even has a gloriously OTT chandelier made of antlers.
Stara Myslivna Restaurant
The menu features a very wide selection of game dishes with great names such as the Archduke’s Roasted Wild Game Sausage, the Empress Elisabeth’s Rabbit in Cream Sauce with Bread Dumplings and Franz Joseph’s Roasted Wild Boar with Old Bohemian Red Sauerkraut. And, if you’re really lucky, you might get the table beneath the bear skin …
Gazing up through enormous sandstone walls carved into fluid waves, at the distant branches of enormous trees, it feels as if you’re in another world. A world where dryads, trolls, nymphs, dwarves and elves move unseen yet seeing, observing you from afar, luring you deeper into their universe, where who knows what may happen …
Bohemian Paradise, Czech Republic
I’m in Hruboskalske ‘Rock Town’, a sandstone mesa deep within a forested ridge between Hrubá Skála and the town of Turnov, in the Bohemian Paradise (Czeský Ráj). I’m being shown round by Andrew and Linda Philips and their two daughters, who have a holiday home for rent in this beautiful part of the Czech Republic. Within a short drive of ‘Peace of Eden‘, their traditional wood-clad Czech house, is this unique fairy-tale area of impressive rock formations, fortified towers and ancient castles, quaint villages and tranquil countryside.
We’d already been to The Old Woman and the Maiden. Trosky Castle, the most significant landmark of this region, is actually two towers, built in the 14th c on twin volcanic peaks which can be seen from far away across the Bohemian Paradise (aka Czech Eden). It’s one of the most popular castles in the Czech Republic and sums up this area’s attraction; historic, imposing, picturesque and yes, most definitely quirky.
Before we’d gone into ‘rock town’ we’d had a quick look round Hrubá Skála, an attractive chateau that’s been remodelled over the centuries and has an eclectic regal appearance.
Standing on a look-out platform in the castle courtyard, we got a splendid view of the surrounding countryside, with forests, farms and tiny hamlets scattered all about and Trosky Castle in the distance. We spent a fascinating half hour in a gem-stone shop; the owner’s wife makes jewellery from local semi-precious stones. He took great delight in showing us a photo of Sophie, Countess of Wessex, wearing one of their brooches at a Duke Of Edinburgh Awards ceremony in the Czech Republic.
We entered the ‘Rock Town’ down a flight of narrow steps between sandstone pillars, into a tranquil place of ‘towers’ reaching 55 metres high and straggling trees stretching up to grasp the sunlight above. The sandstone crumbles as you brush past and there are a number of caves, some of which used to be lived in. There is a very poignant memorial to a young boy who was killed falling down into this cavernous world. Emerging from its bosky depths, we followed the main road back to the chateau, passing many Czech families out on bikes and hiking in this popular walking area.
What’s great about staying in Peace of Eden is that you get all the comforts of home after a busy day out; in fact, much greater comfort than my home for sure! Set in over 3 acres of attractive grounds, including a pond and fruit trees, the house has four bedrooms, sleeping up to eight people in cosy comfort.
The kitchen- dining area is luxuriously fitted out with high-spec equipment, utensils and crockery with a traditional wood-burning oven at its heart. The large lounge has deep sofas and armchairs around a wood-burner, beneath an elegant brick-vaulted ceiling. It’s been renovated most sympathetically, keeping as many original features as possible whilst creating a contemporary feel. My bedroom had a king-size bed and luxurious en-suite bathroom and looked out over the garden and surrounding countryside. There is wifi throughout the house.
You can order fresh bakes and preserves from a neighbouring farmer and in nearby Turnov there is a Lidl supermarket for most other shopping needs.
You need a spirit of adventure to make the most of your stay in the Bohemian Paradise. Tourism is in its infancy here and this part of the Czech Republic gets fewer overseas visitors than Prague (only 1.5 hours away). A car is necessary; with a SatNav it’s fairly easy to get about. Many signs, directions, menus etc are only in Czech so bring along a dictionary/phrase book and you shouldn’t have a problem. We had lunch one day in quaint Restaurant Bouckuv in Mala Skala; Andrew had got the menu translated for us so it was easy to order. I can highly recommend the venison goulash …
Our final excursion was to imposing Kost, one of the best-preserved Gothic castles in Bohemia, surrounded by ponds which acted as defensive protection in the 14th c. Unfortunately, it was closed on the day we visited so we had to make do with admiring it from the outside. Aparently it has a macabre medieval torture chamber and an impressive collection of weaponry. Beside the castle is a footpath which leads into the Plakánek Trail, lined with massive sandstone rocks and home to a variety of birds and other wildlife. (Plakánek means ‘The Weeper’ and there are many legends about why is it called that, but according to the excellent Czeský Ráj information booklet, it was actually because charcoal burners got an eye-disease caused by the smoke from their fires.)
As we wandered along the valley, autumn sun filtered in and out of the clouds, lighting up the myriad of coloured leaves, shading from green to gold, amber to crimson, orange to yellow. The girls found a large frog croaking its way into the leaf litter and birds carolled through the canyon.
This is the Bohemian Paradise Protected Region, due to its unique natural beauty and historical sights. You may not have heard of it before, but now that you have, I hope you get to visit one day. There are very many other cultural attractions and excellent for mountain biking, hiking and other outdoor pursuits. It is a very special part of Europe with an unspoilt character that invites exploration at your leisure.
Many thanks to the Philips family for their generous hospitality and for giving me a glimpse of this romantic region of the Czech Republic. Find out more about Peace of Eden holiday home and booking availability here. Follow them on Twitter @peaceofedencz and on Facebook PeaceofEdenCZ.
Walt Disney must have visited Marienburg Castle or seen it in his dreams. It’s the epitome of a fairytale palace, all pointy turrets and rounded towers, set high on a hill amidst forested countryside in the heart of Lower Saxony, not far from Hanover (Hannover). Its story is a fairytale romance, though maybe more in the tradition of the Grimm brothers than Disney …
It was built for Marie Alexandrine Wilhelmine Katherine Charlotte Theresa Henrietta Luise Pauline Elisabeth Friederike Georgine of Saxe-Altenburg … She was the queen-consort of George V of Hanover (Hannover) in northern Germany. He gave her ‘Rehberg Hill‘ in 1857 and had the castle built for her 40th birthday. Theirs was a love-match, unusual for royal families of the 19th century, who usually had to make dynastic marriages, often to one of Queen Victoria’s relatives. King George was one of those relatives.
King George III and Queen Charlotte and their children
He was the grandson of George III of the United Kingdom and nephew of William IV. Blinded in a tragic accident in the gardens of Kew Palace in London when he was only 13 years old, Prince George of Cumberland went on to become the last King of Hanover, dying in exile in Paris and buried in St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle. I recently visited Marienburg Castle to discover the poignant story of this proud, romantic king and his loving queen.
King George V and Queen Marie in Marienburg Castle
If you are lucky enough to visit the castle before the end of 2016, you will be also able to see the excellent exhibition, Path to the Crown.Historical furniture, paintings and rarities of art history from the collection of the Royal House of Hannover are on display. The Hannoverian crown, along with the sceptre and bridal crown are on show for the first time since the end of the Kingdom of Hanover to mark the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the Personal Union between Hanover and Great Britain from 1714 to 1801.
Andre Mertens and The Path to the Crown exhibition
I was shown round byAndre Mertens, who explained how the castle had been designed as a summer residence and the Gothic/ Neo-Gothic appearance was designed to reflect ‘the true essence of Germany to be found in the Middle Ages.’ Royal family friend Major Eduard Witte proposed the first design, then architect Conrad Wilhelm Hase followed by Edwin Oppler created more detailed plans, with continuous input from the George and Marie. No wonder it took more than 10 years to build. The courtyard reflects the ornate, nostalgic vision of all involved.
Marienburg Castle courtyard
By the time the castle was finished, Marie was besotted. She wrote in a letter, “Oh you cannot know how lovely it is here. It cannot be described, the most beautiful place on Earth,” and said it was her ‘little Eldorado’. Unfortunately, during the last year of building, Hannover entered into a futile war with Prussia, were defeated in 1866 and King George fled Germany. Marie moved into Marienburg Castle with her daughter Mary; she had only stayed there briefly before. A year later she too had to flee and join her husband in exile; the calender above her bureau still shows the date 23rd July 1867, the day she left. Above it is a portrait of the queen aged 85 years old.
The castle is a charming mix of romantic styles with ‘modern for its time’ furniture and fittings. The octagonal entrance hall sets the tone with its star arches, impressive columns and a large model of the castle. It has an absolutely glorious blue and gold ceiling with eight allegorical personifications of the Arts.
One of the most impressive rooms is the Rittersaal (The Knights Hall), which was unfinished at the time of the royal exile but has been fitted out with some magnificent paintings and the splendid Augsburg silver furniture, once owned by George II of Great Britain and Hannover. The Speisesaal (Dining Hall) has a fine sedan chair and elaborate uniforms that are still worn by servants in the British Royal household.
Augsburg silver furniture
There are many fascinating rooms to explore, including the Queen’s Parlour with ornate carving, wooden ceiling and detailed ornamentation. The Princesses’ Room has wall paintings depicting scenes from popular fairy stories including Snow White (supposedly set near here) and the Sleeping Beauty. The corridor onto which this room opens is reminiscent of the cloisters of a monastery, with curved archways and dainty lanterns. The Chapel, now used for weddings, has a marble statue of Christ, a beautiful organ and modern stained glass windows; the originals were shattered during WWII. My favourite room is the Queen’s Library. Under a gothic dome painted in similar style to the entrance hall, are book-laden shelves and busts of famous literary and musical figures admired by the queen. It is perfect in every detail and a work of art in itself.
The Queen’s Library
Although George never lived in Marienburg Castle and Marie was only there for a year, it retains an air of romance and mystery. Still owned by the Guelph family, Prince Ernst August of Hanover takes a lively interest in the ongoing refurbishment, development and daily life of this magical place.
Hannoverian Kings of Great Britain and Sophia Electress of Hanover
If you’re British you’ll probably know about the House of Hannover (German: Hanover) from school history lessons or elsewhere but, if you’re like me, you may only have a vague notion of why and how we got a king from Germany in the early 18th century. It was due to the lack of an heir to the Stuart Royal Family. Their last monarch was poor Queen Anne who had 17 pregnancies yet no child outlived her. She was therefore succeeded by her second cousin, Protestant George I (1660-1727) of the House of Hannover, who was a descendant of the Stuarts through his maternal grandmother, Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia, a daughter of James VI and I.
Five Hannoverian British Monarchs
I recently visited in Hanover (Hannover), a dynamic northern city in Lower Saxony, to find out more about the history of the British Crown in Germany. The city is a vibrant mix of old and new, the centre having been almost totally rebuilt after WWII. Arriving at Hanover Railway Station from the airport, first impressions are of fresh air, space and lively, friendly people.
Hanover City Railway Station
Royal Gardens of Herrenhausen
I started my exploration with a visit to the Royal Gardens of Herrenhausen, one of Hanover’s most famous attractions. The Great Garden, a baroque gem, was created by Sophie, Electress of Hanover and mother of George I. She loved this horticultural sanctuary and walked in it whenever possible. This marble statue is near the very place where she died, two months before Queen Anne passed away. Had she lived, she would have been Britain’s first Hannoverian monarch.
Sophie, Electress of Hanover
With exquisite planting and flamboyant statuary, Herrenhausen is a delight to stroll round. I was fortunate to visit on a warm late summer’s evening for the Glowing Gardens event when the many fountains and cascades are lit up, classical music and the heady scent of thousands of flowers fills the air. As the sun set the garden glimmered in a soft haze and it was easy to imagine artistocratic courtiers following the queen as she inspected her creation and was pleased with what she saw.
The Great Garden in the evening
My next stop on the Royal Heritage trip was Celle Castle, about 45 minutes by train from Hanover. I was met by Irina, who was to be my guide for the morning. The oldest parts of the castle are from the 13th century – Irina showed me a piece of ancient wall in the ladies loo! Its beautiful facade glows white, in the heart of the town, which is riot of medieval half-timbered houses dating back over 500 years.
Celle Castle – horse with trainer sculpture
Irina was a walking Wikipedia on the GuelphDukes of Brunswick-Lüneburg, the oldest princely house in Europe, explaining the links between this family and George I. His father, Ernst August, lived here, as did his wife Sophie. George married his cousin Sophia Dorothea of Celle, daughter of George Wilhelm of Brunswick-Lüneburg. It ended badly; she had an affair and was exiled whilst her husband went across the water to be King of Great Britain.
George and Sophia Dorothea of Celle
Highlights of my tour of Celle Castle included the beautiful State Chambers with lovely stucco carvings and crystal chandeliers, a pair of regal thrones, the Royal Bedchamber and some very fine paintings. The Court Theatre has been restored and plays are performed here throughout the season. There’s a very impressive Renaissance Chapel with stunning artwork and a delicately arched blue and white ceiling.
What most impressed me were the many portraits and objects belonging to the Hanoverian Royal Family in what, to most of us in Britain, is a relatively unknown, truly beautiful castle.
The following day I made my way to Bückeberg Castle in the heart of Lower Saxony countryside. (I saw rather more of this fertile countryside than originally planned as I hired a car and the SatNav took me the scenic route rather than via the Autobahn!) As far as I could see, this Renaissance castle, belonging to the House of Schaumburg-Lippe for over 700 years, has no direct link to the Hanoverians but is a superb architectural masterpiece with very fancy decor.
I joined a tour group whose leader only spoke German so I had time to admire the elaborate furnishings and gold embellishments without knowing exactly what I was seeing. It didn’t matter. The whole place is like a giant cupcake, highly decorated, rich and delightfully OTT. The Renaissance Inner Courtyard with its ornate Chapel, the airy 17th c White Hall, the breathtaking Banqueting Hall, the bright Yellow Hall and tapestry-covered Gobelin Hall are amazing, but nothing prepares the visitor for the opulence of the Golden Hall. As its name suggests, it is lavishly decorated in gold, its crowning glory the Heavenly Gate, a lavishly adorned doorway replete with gilded figures and a veritable cornucopia of twirls, curlicues and flourishes.
Heavenly Gate in the Golden Hall
Back in Hanover I went for a walk, following The Red Thread, a great way to see more of the city on foot. ‘The Red Thread is painted on the pavement, is 4200 metres long, and weaves its way through the inner city joining up 36 prime attractions.’ After a stroll around the Old City, well-restored to reflect its medieval history, I passed the Leine Palace, housing the State Parliament of Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony). Sophia of the Palatinate, later Electress of Hanover, lived here and her son, King George I, who died near Hanover on a visit, was buried here. His remains were moved to the chapel at Herrenhausen after World War II when the Palace was bombed.
Leine Palace and Venetian-style bridge
Historic Hanover video
The final stop on my regal Hannoverian odyssey was to Marienburg Castle, a magical Gothic-Revival confection of turrets and towers on the south-west slopes of Marienberg Hill, about 20 miles from Hanover. Designed by blind King George V, the last monarch of the Kingdom of Hanover, and built for his wife, Marie of Saxe-Alteburg between1858 and 1867, it was hardly lived in by the family, due to the outbreak of war with neighbouring Prussia.
I was met at the impressive entrance gate by Andre Mertens, who showed me round and was both highly knowledgeable and extremely patient with all my questions. It’s a fascinating castle, magnificent yet somehow ethereal with an intriguing history. It’s still owned by the Guelph family, Prince Ernst of Hanover and his son Ernst August, who is active in the running of Marienburg Castle. Its interior is as charming as its exterior, but what is especially interesting is the ‘Path to the Crown‘ Exhibition, which has been extended until the end of 2016.
In the latest article in the World Travel Blogger series, archaeologist and travel writer Thomas Dowson, takes us to the historic city of Caen, in northern France.
William’s Ducal Chateau in Caen
From the walls of the imposing castle in the centre of Caen you have a vast view over this northwestern French city and beyond. Presumably this is why William, then Duke of Normandy but later William the Conqueror, chose the location for his ducal château. The castle is still one of the largest Medieval fortresses in Europe today housing the departmental art, archaeology and local history museums.
Caen and the Abbey of St Etienne – photo Dennis Peeters
Looking east, to your right are the striking spires of the abbey Church of Saint Etienne. To your left you would be able to see the large and somewhat unassuming towers of the abbey church of Sainte Trinité if you could see them. They are now blocked from sight by more modern high-rises. Although separated by the city centre and at least a 45 minute walk between them, these two abbeys have a much more intimate history.
Abbaye aux Hommes
The Abbey of Saint Etienne is also known as the Abbaye aux Hommes, or the ‘Men’s Abbey’. It was dedicated to Saint Stephen and founded in 1063. Founded in the same year, the Abbey of Sainte Trinité is also called the Abbaye aux Dames as it was a monastery for women. That both of these abbeys were founded in the same year is no coincidence. Rather, it is a consequence of the power of the Catholic church in France in Medieval times.
Abbey aux Dames central door
Anyone who has read anything about William will know how ruthless he was in seeking out and establishing political alliances. For himself, he had decided to marry Matilda of Flanders. Matilda was the daughter of the Count of Flanders and Adèle of France (daughter of France’s Robert II). He was initially refused her hand, and there are differing legends that detail his reaction and his brutal treatment of Matilda.
Whatever the truth of these legends, Matilda eventually wanted to marry no one but William. This was strictly against her father’s wishes, but more importantly, against a Papal decree from Pope Leo IX. William and Matilda were cousins. Not to be deterred, William and Matilda were married in the city of Eu (in Normandy) in 1051 or 1052.
The Prior of a nearby abbey, Lanfranc of Pavia, despite his reservations with the marriage, sought a reconciliation between the Pope and William. William and Matilda agreed to establish two monasteries as penance and to gain Leo IX’s forgiveness, one for men and one for women. And so the two abbeys of Caen were founded in 1063. For his services, Lanfranc was made the first Abbot of Saint Etienne.
Both abbeys suffered greatly in the battles that have raged across Normandy in the intervening years since their founding: the Hundred Years War, the French Revolution, and World War II. But both are definitely worth a visit today. Saint Etienne is one of the finest Romanesque buildings in Normandy. The spires of the abbey Church of Sainte Trinité were destroyed during the Hundred Years War. Although these were replaced by the less striking towers we see today, there are still some wonderful Romanesque features surviving around the church.
William the Conqueror’s tombstone
Most poignantly, these two abbey churches in Caen are the final resting places of William and Matilda.
Thomas Dowson is an archaeologist turned traveller, writing about his journeys back in time on Archaeology Travel. You can follow him on Facebook Archaeology Travel Twitter @archtrav and Instagram @thomasdowson, where he shares his experiences of visiting archaeological and historic sites around the world, from our earliest times to the not so distant past.