17 May 2014

Castle Hunting: The Ones That Got Away

We visited, by my informal calculations, about seventy-five or eighty castles on the trip, and all of them were memorable in some way.  We explored the dungeons by lantern-light at snowy Pils Cēsis, in Latvia, and dodged stray dogs at Soroca, Moldova.  There were floating castles at Kizkalesi and Palamidi, recent ruins in the Bosnian hills (Ostrožac), serene Romanian wonders and brash Monagasque palaces.  Most Impressive?  Maybe Malbork Castle, the headquarters of the Teutonic Order (did you know they were based in Poland?). Maybe Slovakia's Spišský Hrad, even in ruin. Megalomania? Bojnice, the 19th century marriage proposal that didn't work.
There were rebuilds (Macedonia's Zamokot SamuilBelarus's Mirsky Zamak), wonders of engineering (Kamyanets Podilsky), seats of kings (Olite) and brooding, heavyset masterpieces (Serbia's last-stand Danube hulk, Smederevo).
We visited castles at the end of the earth, like the Towers of Svaneti, and tourist-trap museums like Warwick - but no matter where we were, these big piles of old stones always felt exotic.  To an American, castles are Europe.
Inevitably, we couldn't post about all of the forts and towers we poked around, and a lot of worthwhile places got left out of the blog.  Here, then, are some of the best Castle Hunting leftovers from our trip.
It had snowed when we visited Kilitbahir castle, but the day was mild and the air smelled of saltwater and grilling sardines.  The Gallipoli peninsula could lay a legitimate claim to the title "bloodiest place on earth."  What is today a peaceful bit of Turkish coast, dotted with fish restaurants and maritime villages, was long at the tumultuous fissure between Europe and Asia, where Byzantines and Ottomans once clashed and WWI saw some of its fiercest battles.
The name "Kilitbahir" means "lock of the sea."  Built to guard the narrowest point between continental coasts, and to control the entrance to the Sea of Marmara (and the Black Sea beyond, and the Sea of Azov beyond that), it's a sun-baked beauty.  There are gorgeous, spiral brick accents and cannon-ready, round towers.
It was also hemmed-in by ugly buildings, which is one of the more frustrating obstacles to fort photography.  Aside from a few washed out pictures from the sea-facing side, this was the only good picture.  Another memory I have of the place: walking along the snowy walls was pretty terrifying - Turkey's not as litigious a country as the United States is, and they didn't seem to care if you fell off the ramparts. (Actually, no worthwhile castle has guardrails - this isn't just a Turkish thing.)
Albanians will tell you that Gjirokastër was named after Princess Argjiro, a lovely young mother who jumped off the castle tower with her baby instead of surrendering to the Ottomans.  Greeks (and most historians) will tell you that the fortress and city got their name from the ancient Greek word argyrokastron, which means "silver castle."  Doesn't matter who you listen to, Gjirokastër is one of the coolest old cities in the Balkans.
Rebecca put up a post about the museum in the castle, and another about the town and the writer Ismail Kadare.  We had both just read "Chronicle in Stone," which takes place in town, and were excited to look for old landmarks.  We ate frogs legs in a tree-filled courtyard and byrek from a secret, cellar bakery.  The castle was full of communist bric-a-brac, but still managed to feel pretty medieval.
In Novogrudok, Belarus, we stayed in a little guesthouse run by nuns.  They'd never taken in Americans before, and were wary of us. The town was quieted by a deep snowfall. At the local kafeynya, everyone started drinking vodka at eight in the morning.
We walked up to the "castle" but found only this bit of brickwork.
At some point in the 13th century, Navahrudak (as it's called by non-Russian speakers) was the capital castle of the Duchy of Lithuania.  It was a major fortification by the 17th century, with seven towers.  Sadly, the Great Northern War was unkind to the place, and what's left is more monument than citadel.
Belarus has been so often fought over that not much remains from before the 1940's.  Their one real "castle" is a frosted-cake reconstruction in the town of Mir.
Out on Saaremaa Island, in the midst of an Estonian winter, we ate cod liver mashed with onions and visited craters and painted bus-stop/post-offices.  We also made a stop at the square-jawed Kuressaare castle, which sits on a fortified islet overlooking the Gulf of Riga.
There's a story associated with the fort that, at some murky point in its history, there were lions kept in a narrow pit inside the walls.  While I believe in lions, and I've seen the pit, I don't know if I believe that there really were fifteenth century lions in this particular Estonian pit - an alternate myth, perpetrated by some, is that the fearsome beasts were really wolves.  No matter, there's a surprising (as in, it made us jump) audio blast of roaring lions that's been rigged up to play as you pass by the "lions den," which looks suspiciously like a sewage drain.
It was cold, grey and unbeautiful on that December day, and we got only a few worthwhile snaps.  That early on in the trip, I wasn't very good at taking pictures of things that weren't perfectly lit.
Narikala fortress is a ruined crumble of bricks and soft stone, high up above the dusty sprawl of Tbilisi.  There's not much left to see, but the feeling of the place is wonderful.  Georgia already feels far away from the rest of the world, and eighth-century Georgia (when the castle really took shape) seems like a fragment from Scheherazade.
It was chilly in the January breeze.  Below us, in the town, generators and car horns coughed and spluttered.  The walk up to the castle passed a pretty little painted church.  Little prayer flags or remembrance tokens had been tied amongst the brush - some made of cloth, others just brightly-colored plastic bags.
Later, in the middle of the Caucasus, we saw some even more interesting Georgian fortresses.
Pazin, Croatia, is best known for its chasm - the funny sounding "Pazin Chasm" - which Jules Verne wrote a story about.  Perched beside the chasm is a very Adriatic looking castle, with a tiled roof and a jaunty little clock tower.  From the street side, it looks like a Baroque post office.  From across the abyss, it looks like an abandoned mill or a prison.
Grad Pazin was closed when we visited, and the town was in the middle of the hot, dry Istrian peninsula - we didn't linger too long before hurrying back to the coast.
Castle hunting was an obsession, but it was also one of the most popular parts of the blog, and we were chasing content as much as fun experiences.  Sometimes, the search brought us to places we'd never have found otherwise.  Sometimes, it meant a frustrating, hot afternoon.  The Bulgarian town of Veliko Tarnovo was much more interesting than the lame, reconstructed fortress of Tsarevets we had come looking for.
Castles bring visitors - or, at least, town officials hope that they'll bring visitors.  Tsarevets, like too many other ruins, was "rebuilt and restored."  This means a medieval-looking stone thing was built with cranes and tractors and outfitted with bathrooms, ticket counters and souvenir stands.  Another name for this kind of thing is "theme park."
In it's defense, Tsaravets was one of the largest and most important fortresses of the early castle age, though almost nothing of the original is still around.  In Bulgaria's defense, we visited two other, much cooler fortresses in the country: Baba Vida, at a broad part of the Danube, and the incomparable, indescribable Belogradchik.
Tallinn is one of Europe's overlooked gems.  Estonia isn't a big place - or a very bright place in the middle of the northern winter - but its capital is cosmopolitan, cool and beautifully medieval.  It was around Christmastime when we slipped and skidded our way through the icy, cobbled streets. There were holiday markets and little mitten stores, crowded beerhalls and friendly locals.
The old town is entirely ringed by an impressive, many-turreted wall.  It's one of the last surviving, well-preserved town walls in northern Europe, and it looked especially good bedecked in festival lights.  We were coming to the end of our first block of the trip, and were probably too worn out to put up a good post.
Away from the sweeping coast, the wine country and the glitz of Lisbon, Portugal's Alentejo backcountry is dry, hardscrabble and beautiful.  Red-trunked cork trees shade skinny cattle and goats.  There are bull-rings and whitewashed towns.
Portugal has a long string of castles along its eastern border.  We did a post about the pretty, tiled Castelo de Marvão, but neglected nearby Castelo de Vide.  It was a little grubby, with trash in the corners and some half-hearted graffiti inside.  But, when the Portuguese sun hit the walls, it attained a fiery glow.
There was work being done on Sümeg castle when we visited.  Battered Unimog trucks rumbled up the steep castle road and scaffolding was set up in the courtyard.  It was overcast and hot.  We came upon the town while driving through the Hungarian Puszta, in the last days before we headed south for Croatia and the sea.
Sümeg was built quickly as central Europe was being swarmed by the Mongol horde. European castles in 1440 - especially this close to the Ottomans - were already being built with gunpowder in mind. Sümeg, though, was constructed in an older, squarer style.  Apparently, it was just horsemen the Hungarians feared, not cannon fire.
Valletta is one of those fortified cities that - like Luxembourg City - should really be more famous. It has some of the most extensive and incredible sea-walls I've ever seen, and countless castles and towers built into the defenses.  All of it is done up in a Mediterranean style using beautiful yellow limestone.
Malta is full of quirks, and it barely surprised us to find the "largest cannon in the world" among Valletta's defenses.  We put up a post about Victoria Citadella, on Gozo, but never did a proper write up on the capital.

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