Beautiful castle-hotels in Europe – gates into history
By Gery de Pierpont
With genuinely unique accommodation for heritage and cultural tourism lovers
For most lovers of period atmospheres, a stay in history implies ‘staying the night in a castle’, which is not surprising as these great residences were built to survive the centuries and to leave a lasting impression. Their imposing dimensions or the opulence they flaunt, can still impress, as does the quality of their decorative features. And, of course, the attraction is their pervading atmosphere of knights and chivalry, which were embedded in the history stories that marked our youth. To our delight, some of these proud witnesses of the past have been converted into castle-hotels.
Reliving the Middle Ages in a fortress castle
The oldest castles in Europe are the keeps of the fortified manor houses with defence walls of solid stone. Windows are infrequent and narrow, their staircases spiral, their cellars are vaulted and their ceilings are supported by massive beams, blackened with age. Very few of these ancient seigniorial fortifications have come down to us in their original state, as evolution in warfare and armaments rendered them obsolete, and also because they didn’t offer much comfort! The ones that have survived were mostly put to different uses in the centuries that followed.
From the Romantic period in the 19th century to this day, fortress-castles regained popularity and some have been restored and converted into tourist accommodation. Their new owners have had to be extremely creative when insulating, heating and lighting the bedrooms, as well as fitting them out with bathrooms. These are not so much castle-hotels in the modern sense, but, given their settings, are more guest rooms or seasonal accommodation such as Moussac, in the Languedoc in France.
Sleeping behind walls that are over six foot wide is an incomparable experience – giving an extraordinary sense of security! The squeaking doors, the view over the moats or pointed roofs, will immediately transport you back to a heroic age. A word to the wise: these medieval residences are pleasantly cool in summer, but can be cold and damp in the low seasons. The bedrooms are not always equipped with Wi-Fi, or – given their restricted size – with private bathrooms. Also now, as at the time, you can sometimes hear everything that is being said from one room to another; and although a genuine escapade into another era, steep staircases may not be suitable for everyone.
When castles opened up to the light
From the time of the Renaissance sovereign power strengthened, and there were fewer border conflicts between kingdoms. Fortress-castles – feudal symbols – were progressively demolished or rebuilt into habitable stately homes. Rooms were equipped with large windows, high ceilings and decorated to the artistic tastes of the time. Staircases were widened and reception rooms came into being. The vestiges of warfare that remained – murder holes, towers, moats, and gatehouses – served only as reminders of the rank and military vocation of their original owners.
It is fascinating to explore and discover the traces of the many different periods that have left their stamp on these aristocratic residences, as they are physical evidence of the extraordinary cultural changes that were brought about by the Renaissance. The nobility wished to pursue a more refined way of life, but did not manage to completely shake off the medieval humus from which it was born. New rooms had to take into account the space allowed, which was often irregular. The old rubbed shoulders with the new; right angles were rare and alignment difficult to achieve. Corridors were narrow or non-existent; and there were many mismatched levels between the rooms. Every era left its mark in an astonishing combination of know-how and styles.
Many castle-farms and old estates also belong to this category of aristocratic manor houses with thick defence walls, and they too have been transformed over time to make them more habitable. Castle-hotels such as Grandvoir (Belgium), Kirkby Thore Hall (Cumbria, England) or Les Oliviers de Salettes (Provence, France) are charming examples of these. We could also include here the half-timbered buildings on aristocratic estates, which are typical of medieval structures.
Staying in this sort of castle-hotel can often be synonymous with adventure – a welcome one to lovers of old architecture – as well as offering a level of comfort that we have become used to. The small number of guest rooms allows one to get to know the owners or managers, who are usually passionate about heritage and keeping it alive. It is always a good idea to ask in advance about the bedding and bathrooms; some rooms may have period furniture or old-fashioned sanitary arrangements – albeit absolutely functional, if unusual! Don’t expect to find a lift or air conditioning.
Luxurious country mansions and palaces
High society in the 17th century was bent on a display of good taste and refinement. It held balls and concerts and discussed the arts, philosophy and politics. Stately homes and palaces now followed plans determined by ordered proportions and symmetrical lines inspired by classical treatises on architecture and the great master architects. Opulent reception rooms took up an important part of the available space – an entrance hall with an imposing staircase, impressive drawing rooms, and dining rooms – in a display of wealth and ostentatious decoration that was carried through to the formal precisely laid-out gardens. Chateau de Waleffe (Belgium), Chateaux Saint-Fargeau, and Ménessaire, in Burgundy (France) – whose many wings were reconstructed in the 17th century, the ‘grand siècle’ – are perfect examples of this extravagant impetus.
These displays of ostentation, taken to their limits by Louis XIV, were offset in 18th century, by wealthy owners who preferred more intimate spaces, which were more conducive to good conversation, board games, chamber music, and witty banter. It was a time of libraries, boudoirs, private drawing rooms, discreet water closets, and improved heating. Decoration was at the height of refinement. This was the Rococo period, which every country interpreted in its own fashion.
Two chateaux, La Montchevalleraie (Loire) and Serrigny (Burgundy), will give you an idea of typical 18th-century countryside manors.
Many country mansions, manors, and other palatial residences of the 17th and 18th centuries, are now particularly attractive castle-hotels. Their ample proportions, sumptuous décor, and landscaped parks and gardens, will delight the most demanding of guests. However, the original luxuriousness of these residences have sometimes incited their owners to modernize them to excess, and while wishing to offer their guests multi-star comfort, their renovations show little respect for the period of a heritage property. The current practice in numerous international hotel chains is to offer their clients a bland, standardized environment riveted within their brand image from one end of the globe to the other. A tip: Check on the internet what the bedrooms look like, even if the hotel’s façade, dining room and the avenue, planted with centuries-old trees, have outwardly preserved the prestige of their time.
The singular charm of ‘neo’ styles
From the end of the 18th century, many architects turned to a rather more restrained style. The popular curves of the preceding generations gave way to a harmonious linear regularity. Sculptured reliefs became flatter, and decorative motifs were restricted to friezes and medallions. This neoclassical style, largely inspired by antiquity and the Italian Renaissance, was extremely popular in Britain and France, and also in other countries such as, Belgium, Hungary, Russia, Spain, Italy, and Malta. It was to be the first of the ‘neo’ movements that flourished during the 19th century.
Another very typical feature of this period was a romanticized passion for the Middle Ages – cloak and dagger heroes, and the chivalric code. Many chateaux were given a neo-Gothic aspect (whether their foundations were genuinely medieval or brand new). After a period of devalorization, the medieval style, abounding with mock crenellations, towers, sculpted wood panelling, murals, cast iron lamps, and look-alike medieval sculptures, started to attract a genuine following. It became an exaggerated, almost mythical universe exalted by the great poets, romantics, musicians, artists, sculptors, and of course, architects such as Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Many rooms in the Castello Chiola (Abruzzo, Italy), and those in the castle-hotels of Prye (Burgundy) and Harzé (Ardenne, Belgium), will give you the chance to wallow in this admirable and romantic atmosphere.
Other ‘neo’ styles also found favour with mansion owners of the 19th century, such as the neo-Renaissance and a second wave of neoclassicism, with a focus on ancient Rome that combined modern construction techniques – iron or cast iron load-bearing structures – with old-style exteriors and decoration. These ‘end-of-century’ stately homes and mansions, generally lend themselves well to conversion into hotel bedrooms.
On the other hand there were very few chateaux built in the more contemporary architectural styles – such as art nouveau or art deco, which broke away from imitation, or more precisely, reinterpretation. As for current trends, international modernist and post-modernist architecture does not lend itself to this type of aristocratic building – indeed the philosophy behind these movements is becoming less and less compatible with even the idea of palace or stately home.
Do you like staying in castle-hotels? Do you know of a period place where you have enjoyed and a break and would like to recommend? Do please share your experiences below; we would love to hear from you!