Saturday, 15 June 2013

World's prettiest castles part 1

The Alhambra
Granada, Spain

Gone are the days of kings and queens ruling the populace from on high (in most of the world,

anyway). But while many monarchs have fallen, their palaces remain as permanent — and beautiful —

testaments to their rulers' transient power. From the fairy-tale spires of German castles to the delicate

wooden eaves of Japanese feudal strongholds, these royal dwellings have prevailed long after their

original residents abandoned them. We've rounded up 10 inspiring castles that captivate travelers

with their stunning architecture and fascinating royal histories.

Matsumoto Castle
Matsumoto, Japan

Built in 1504 during the Sengoku (Japan's civil war period), Matsumoto Castle was originally designed

as a small fortress. It wasn't until Japan's unification under the Tokugawa shogunate in the early 17th

century that Matsumoto Castle was refashioned into the three-turreted structure we see today.

Matsumoto was built to withstand enemy attack, but by the time it was assembled around 1595,

Japan's wars were drawing to a close. Matsumoto was never attacked, which is probably why its 95-

foot-tall tower is Japan's longest-standing inner tower. Visitors to Matsumoto — which sits about 44

miles southwest of Nagano in central Japan — can marvel at the castle's black walls and swooping,

tiered eaves that earned it the nickname Crow Castle (Karasu-jo in Japanese). Plus, a peek out the

fifth- or sixth-floor windows affords sweeping vistas of the surrounding mountains. Meanwhile, the

landscaped grounds below burst with gorgeous cherry, azalea and wisteria blossoms in the spring.

Château de Versailles
Versailles, France

When French King Louis XIII originally established Château de Versailles in 1631, it was just a

hunting lodge situated about 15 miles west of Paris. It was his son, King Louis XIV, who expanded

Versailles into a sprawling palace complex between 1661 and 1710. Each king who lived at

Versailles added his own personal touch to the palace. In the 1670s, Louis XIV installed the

resplendent Hall of Mirrors, with its intricate glasswork and chandeliers. And in 1774, Louis XVI gave

his wife Marie Antoinette an expansive private estate, tucked away in Versailles' lush gardens. The

French monarchy remained at Versailles until 1789, when an uprising connected to the French

Revolution forced the regents to flee to Paris. In the years that followed the Revolution, Versailles

served many purposes, acting as a lavish retreat for Napoleon Bonaparte, a French history museum

(opened by King Louis-Philippe in 1837) and the staging ground for the Treaty of Versailles. Today,

the palace is one of France's top tourist sites, luring millions of visitors each year.

Catherine Palace
Pushkin, Russia

When he commissioned this architectural wonder for his wife, Catherine I, in 1717, Russian Tsar Peter

the Great envisioned Catherine Palace to be a modest, two-story affair. However, visitors to this

enormous blue, white and gold structure in Pushkin (situated about 20 miles south of St. Petersburg)

will tell you there is nothing modest about it. That's because Peter's daughter, Empress Elizabeth of

Russia, had the entire palace redesigned in 1743 in an effort to create a structure extravagant enough

to rival Versailles. The result: a 1,066-foot-long Rococo-style fortress featuring a stucco facade

gilded with more than 220 pounds of gold. The palace's interior is just as grand. Its Great Hall, or

Hall of Light, comprises nearly 10,764 square feet. Meanwhile, the palace's famous Amber Room that

was once adorned with nearly 12,000 pounds of amber gems. When Empress Elizabeth's niece,

Catherine II (Catherine the Great), ascended the Russian throne in 1762, she remodeled the palace

once again. Catherine found her aunt's tastes to be outdated, referring to the palace's showy

flourishes as "whipped cream." Catherine II implemented the less-gaudy Classical style, which is best

exhibited in the symmetrical lines of the Green Dining Room and the Blue Drawing Room.

Neuschwanstein Castle
Schwangau, Germany

Commissioned in 1868, Neuschwanstein Castle was built to serve as German King Ludwig II's

secluded Bavarian retreat. However, on the eve of the king's mysterious death nearly 18 years after

the first brick of his domicile was laid, the mountaintop castle was far from completion — much of it

was still shrouded in scaffolding. Construction on Neuschwanstein continued until 1892, though the

architect simplified many of Ludwig's more ambitious designs. But the castle is far from simplistic:

The Romanesque Revival spires and turrets seem as though they were lifted directly from a fairy tale.

(In fact, Neuschwanstein inspired Sleeping Beauty's Castle at Disneyland.) Nowadays, Neuschwanstein

Castle welcomes 1.4 million visitors a year, many of whom make the roughly 75-mile drive

southwest from Munich to wander its halls.

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