Favorite Castles & Castle Hotels

Americans have a fascination for castles. These mystical, fairy-tale structures are everywhere in children's literature, referred to in popular songs, and are even the basis for advertising themes - for decades a familiar Disney symbol has been its look-alike of Bavaria's Neuschwanstein.

Maybe part of the reason Americans like castles is that we don't have any. We Yanks have to be content with Grayline tours of exclusive Beverly Hills neighborhoods, Elvis Presley's Graceland, or historic dwellings like Monticello, Mt. Vernon and the White House.

But these are not castles. Real castles were, in football terms, two-way players; both defense and offense. Their principal purpose was not only to keep out intruders and provide a safe refuge for those who lived within, but to be a weapons system, a fortified dwelling which functioned as a secure base for the operations of an army. Heavily armored men on horseback rode out from them on missions of defense to protect the surrounding countryside. Offensively, castle armies secured new land and otherwise advanced the castle owner's political and financial interests.

However, not all Europe's castles - perhaps not even most - fulfilled such a role. For example, the flamboyant Bavarian King, Ludwig II, built his castles - Neuschwanstein, Linderhof and Herrenchiemsee - in the second half of the 19th century, long after the feudal system in which castles were little kingdoms requiring private armies to maintain their influence. But even though there was no longer a need for fortified residences, rich men continued to build houses that looked like and were called castles. They just came with indoor plumbing and without an army.

Then, sometime around the middle of the last century, castles, or parts of castles, began being turned into hotels. Though we couldn't own one at least we could sleep in a castle for a night or two. Next came the various associations of "castle hotels" and the definition of just what is a castle got lost. Only a few hotels are in what were actually feudal castles, most "castle hotels" are merely in interesting, old buildings. These days even a small hunting lodge once owned by someone with a few drops of royal blood seems to qualify as a "Schloss" hotel. This is not to denigrate such hotels; Landhaus Hubertushof in Altausee in Austria's lake district, is one of our favorite country hotels, but it is no more a castle than your local Holiday Inn.

We think the best castles are the real castles. The ones where, if you listen closely, you can hear the horses' hooves clattering over the drawbridge and where you can smell the boiling oil as it is poured from the ramparts over attackers scaling the walls.

In Germany, Austria and Switzerland there are hundreds of castles, wannabe castles, and castle hotels.

Setting aside the most famous - many of which are must-see tourist attractions like Chillon near Montreux, Ludwig's extravagant trio in Bavaria and the Heidelberg castle - here are some of our favorites. If the castle itself is not a hotel we have suggested nearby accommodations:

Burg Eltz - Germany

Where: 10 kilometers from Hatzenport on the Mosel just southwest of Koblenz. Requires about a half-hour walk through the forest.

Map: Die Generalkarte Deutschland #12

What: Fantastic, authentic feudal castle dating to the 12th century. Topped by a thicket of turrets and spires. Restored in the l9th century. Interiors are supplied with medieval furnishings. Open April-October. Offers guided tours.

Hotel Recommendation: A lovely small hotel with a very good restaurant is the Gutshotel on the edge of the village of Neumagen-Dhron, overlooking the Mosel. Ask for the converted attic that occupies the entire top floor.

Gutshotel Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt, Balduinstr. 1, D-54347, Neumagen-Dhron, tel. 0651/970640, fax 0651/9706416, rooms from 85 - 138 euros.

Hohenzollern - Germany

Where: South of Stuttgart and west of Freudenstadt, at Hechingen.

Map: Die Generalkarte Deutschland #12

What: Huge castle that can be seen for miles on the highest hill (2,799 ft.) around. Built sometime in the 15th century by the Counts of Zollern and reconstructed from the original plans during the period 1850-1867. The Hohenzollern family was Germany's ruling family until 1918 when Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated. Frederick the Great is buried here.

Hotel Recommendation: Hotel Brielhof on the B27, D-72379, Hechingen, tel. 07471/98860, 07471/16908, excellent restaurant, rooms from 93 - 104 euros
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Veste Coburg - Germany

Where: City of Coburg, about 215 km east of Frankfurt, 47 km north of Bamberg

Map: Die Generalkarte Deutschland #12

What: A massive fortress hovering above the town, fading in and out of the clouds. Martin Luther holed up in this triple-walled citadel for five months in 1530, waiting his day in court before the Augsburg Imperial Diet. You can tour his apartment and there is an art collection of some note that includes paintings by Rembrandt and Albrecht Dürer. The Veste's museum, Kunstammlungen, is a wonderful surprise, particularly for those exhausted by endless religious paintings by Holbein the Younger or Cranach the Elder. Among the items of special interest is a cabinet with some 20,000 coins and medals, also, antique wedding carriages and an extraordinary display of armor and weapons, the largest in Germany.

Hotel Recommendations: Blankenburg Rosenauer Strasse 30, D-96450 Coburg, tel. 09561/6440, fax 09561/644199, rooms 87-97 euros

Romantik Hotel Goldene Traube Am Viktoriabrunnen 2, D-96450, Tel 09561/8760, Fax 09561/876222, rooms: 102 - 153 euros
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Schloss Spangenberg - Germany

Where: Town of Spangenberg, 36 kilometers south of Kassel, just east of the A7 Autobahn.

Map: Die Generalkarte Deutschland #11

What: To get a reaction out of first-time travelers to Europe, take them to Schloss Spangenberg on their first night (about 90 minutes from Frankfurt Airport). The 13th-century castle perches high above the town and the approach to it, up the winding narrow road, across the wooden bridge, over the moat and through the narrow arch into the courtyard, is positively Disneyesque.

Hotel Recommendation: The hotel is not special but comfortable with smaller than average rooms with few luxuries. There is no lift and last time we were there we hauled our own luggage in and out of the hotel. As you can see by the rates, one pays for sleeping in a real castle. The Ratskeller in the town has good food.

Schloss Spangenberg D-34286, Spangenberg, tel. 05663/8 66, fax 05663/7567, rooms from 99 - 183 euros

Schloss Waldeck - Germany

Where: Waldeck, 57 kilometers southwest of Kassel and about 80 km north of Marburg.

Map: Die Generalkarte Deutschland #11

What: One sees few castles that are both tourist attraction and hotel as is the case with Waldeck. The Schloss overlooks a vast lake formed by a dam on the river Eder which, in 1943, was blown up by the British causing a disastrous flood. Waldeck houses a museum and has a Witches' Tower (Hexenturm) and several prison cells.
Hotel Recommendation: The somewhat expensive hotel within the fortress pays little heed in style and decor to the citadel surrounding it. Lighting, furnishings and floor and wall coverings are all contemporary. The impressive entry features vaulted stone arches, modern furniture and oriental rugs.

Schloss Waldeck D-34513, Waldeck am Edersee, tel. 05623/589-0, fax 05623/58 92 89, rooms 130 - 198 euros
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Tarasp - Switzerland

Where: In southeastern Switzerland, 4 kilometers southwest of Scuol.

Map: Die Generalkarte Switzerland #3

What: Magnificently positioned Alpine castle near the Austrian border. Best viewed from the Kreuzberg summit. Dates to the 11th-century when it was home to the lords of Tarasp. Has passed through the hands of various Swiss and Austrian families and was fully restored at the beginning of this century. Still privately-owned by the Grand-Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt, it can be visited during the summer. Check with the tourist office in Scuol or with Swiss Tourism in the USA.

Hotel Recommendation: The expensive but breathtakingly beautiful Schloss-Hotel Chastè (located just below the castle) has some extraordinarily attractive guestrooms. In a region where wood is commonly used in interior decor, the richness of the Chastè's knotty pine stands out. This is a special hotel. For those who can afford it, Number 136, the two-bedroom "Panorama Suite," with cathedral-beamed ceiling, fireplace and spacious marble bathroom with large corner bathtub under exposed wood joists and wide skylight, is absolutely stunning. The restaurant is annually rated among Switzerland's top 100. Less expensive accommodations are available in nearby Scuol.

Schlosshotel Chastè CH-7553 Tarasp-Sparsels, tel. 0818/613 060, fax 0818/613 061, rooms CHF 180 - 360
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Gruyères - Switzerland

Where: In Gruyères, 40 kilometers northeast of Montreux.

Map: Die Generalkarte Switzerland #2

What: The 13th-century castle is the focal point of this touristy little hilltop town, most of which is located within the castle's fortifications. The castle belonged to the counts of Gruyères who dominated the Sarine valley for 400 years. It was rebuilt after a fire in 1480 and, in 1555, sold to the canton of Fribourg which held it until the Bory family acquired and restored it in the 19th-century. In 1938 it was returned to the canton and can be visited from March through October.

Hotel Recommendations: The hospitable little Hostellerie des Chevaliers, a member of the Relais & Châteaux hotel group, is located just outside the gates to the town but no more than a couple of hundred yards from the main square. The antique-filled guestrooms are a bit small but rustically charming. Many have good views of the surrounding countryside. The restaurant is very good but expensive.

Hostellerie des Chevaliers CH-1663 Gruyères, tel. 0269/211 933, fax 0269/212 552, rooms CHF 180 - 260
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Hôtel de Ville CH-1663 Gruyères, tel. 0269/212 424, fax 0269/213 628, rooms 120 - 300 Chf

Spiez - Switzerland

Where: In Spiez, on the south shore of Lake Thun, 18 kilometers from Interlaken.

Map: Die Generalkarte Switzerland #2

What: The castle sits on a raised bit of ground that juts into the lake. Built in the 12th and 13th-centuries and added on to several times since then, some of its rooms - notably the Festsaal and the museum - can be visited year round. Climb the tower for a magnificent view.

Hotel Recommendation: The Hotel des Alpes is in the center of town and offers great views of the lake and mountains, especially from the large terrace. The restaurant offers good meals for less than CH 20 ($16).

Hotel des Alpes, Seestr. 38, CH-3700, tel. 033/654 3354, fax 033/654 8850, rooms CH 110 - 170
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Schloss Haunsperg - Austria

Where: Oberalm bei Hallein, about 13 kilometers south of Salzburg, along the Salzach river.

Map: Die Generalkarte Austria

What: This authentic castle offers just eight guestrooms/suites, but every one is a charmer. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes and furnishing. Some are very large and each has a unique character. High ceilings, ancient three-foot thick walls, squeaky wood floors, antique furnishings and glorious objet d'art, most of which have been in the family hundreds of years, will do that for a hotel room.

You'll be happy with any of the eight, but two couples traveling together should ask for the suites that connect with the music room. On a recent visit our quarters consisted of a giant corner bedroom and sitting room plus separate rooms for toilet and bath and a second small bedroom that could have been used for a third person. On the other side of the almost opulent music room, with its black Bösendorfer grand piano, numerous windows and crystal chandelier, our companions occupied an equally comfortable bedroom and separate sitting room. The four of us shared the music room and thus had most of an entire floor to ourselves - a total of at least 1,500 square feet of living space.

Hotel Recommendation: Schloss Haunsperg Hammerstrasse 51, A-5411 Oberalm bei Hallein, tel. 06245/80662, fax 06245/85680, rooms 126 - 170 euros
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Schloss Dürnstein - Austria

Where: Dürnstein, seven kilometers west of Krems, in the Wachau valley on the Danube.

Map: Die Generalkarte Austria #1

What: The ruins of this medieval fortress sit dramatically on a cliff overlooking the left bank of the Danube. The Kneuringer family is said to have built this and the nearby castle at Aggstein early in the 12th century. The Dürnstein castle is famous as the place where Richard I (the Lionhearted) of England was imprisoned and held for ransom by Duke Leopold V of Austria as Richard returned from the Third Crusade, and where he was discovered by the minstrel Blondel. It functioned as a castle until 1645 when it was captured by the Swedes. The ruins can be visited daily, though it is rather a steep climb.

Hotel Recommendations: The Hotel Schloss Dürnstein is one of Austria's best known "castle" hotels. its charm is undeniable, but unfortunately, on our visits, the restaurant a disappointment and the service spotty.

Hotel Schloss Dürnstein A-3601 Dürnstein, tel. 02711/212, fax 02711/212 30, rooms 186 - 246 euros.
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Romantik Hotel Richard Löwenherz Dürnstein 8, A-3601, Tel 011 43 2711 222, fax 011 43 2711 222 18, rooms 146 - 171 euros
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