Regular readers of this blog will know that I love a good castle. This fact traces to my childhood, when my favorite movie was Disney’s Robin Hood. I delighted in watching the cartoon animals sing and frolic around ye olde countryside and dreamed of being Maid Marion in a castle of my own. (Dramatic scenes were often reenacted on my backyard jungle-gym.) What I didn’t know then was that real stone fortresses are scattered across Europe, just waiting to be explored. While many have been left in ruins due to centuries of war and neglect, others, like Trakai Castle in Lithuania, have been restored to their former glory.
Trakai Castle was originally built in the late 1300s to help protect the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and nearby capital Vilnius from crusading Teutonic Knights that plagued the Baltic region. After the troublesome knights were trounced in the Battle of Grunwald, Trakai was no longer needed as a military bastion. Instead, it was refashioned into a ducal palace that remained in use until the end of the 17th century.
Interestingly, several different empires and occupiers had a hand in the restoration of Trakai Castle. Work that was begun by Imperial Russia in the early 1900s was continued by Germans and Poles until the end of World War II. Soviet authorities finished the job and established the Trakai History Museum. The end result is surprisingly cohesive and the stuff childhood fantasies. Stone foundations are topped with red brick towers in the French Gothic style and wooden balconies encircle every floor of the soaring ducal palace. Allow yourself plenty of time to poke around the nooks and crannies, both inside and outside the castle’s thick walls.
Trakai Castle is located on a island in Lake Galve and connected to the mainland by wooden bridges. Originally, a second castle protected the shores of the lake, but all that remains of that one are a few watch towers and some crumbling walls. Both castles are encompassed within Trakai Historical National Park, which is on the Tentative List for UNESCO World Heritage status.
The surrounding town is button-cute, with brightly colored wooden houses fronting immaculate streets. Trakai’s small population is surprisingly diverse, with Lithuanians, Poles, Russians, and Karaites calling the place home. A few restaurants were open during my off-season visit, but I was happy to make do with piping hot kibinai (sweet and savory pastries) from a convenient food truck. I stopped at Trakai en route to Kaunas, but the castle’s proximity to Vilnius makes it an ideal day-trip destination.
Which of Europe’s fairytale castles is your favorite?