30 August 2008

Castle Conwy

I’ve visited a number of historical castles in my travels, from medieval European, early modern European, feudal Japanese, imperial Chinese, and imitation French Chateaus. I’d love to do nothing more than go on a castle tour of Europe for a few months, sojourning from England and structures like Warwick Castle, through France and into Germany to Frederick the Great’s Neues Palais, and finally end in Romania and its many fortresses from the period of warring with the Ottoman Empire. An expensive dream, I know, but an historian and a writer’s dream nonetheless.

My upcoming trip (leaving in three days!) to Munich and then into Slovenia promises a few more grand castles. My Slovenian friend Maja, my tour guide for that country, promises me that her nation is dotted with abandoned castles from the days when Slovenia was part of the Holy Roman Empire of the German People, divided into principalities such as Styria, Carniola, and Carinthia. I’m looking forward to seeing these stone sentinels overlooking the land of the Julian Alps.

The most astonishing castle I’ve seen in my travels is Schloß Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, perhaps the most famous castle in the world. However, Neuschwanstein is a “fantasy” castle, created by König Ludwig II of Bavaria as a fairy-tale world to reflect the fantasies in the operas of Richard Wagner. It is, therefore, as unreal a castle as you might find in a storybook printed at the turn-of-the-century. That is part of the charm—the feeling that, as you approach it, what you are seeing cannot possibly be real.

Switching to the other side of castle-construction, the most impressive practical castle I’ve gone to, a medieval construct designed for defense and not aesthetics, is Conwy Castle in Wales, which I visited in the early ‘90s and which left an enormous impression on me. King Edward III finished the castle in 1289 as part of his dominance over Wales and to guard the shore from a possible attack from the north.

The castle is in a semi-ruined condition from its age and the relentless ocean wind battering its gray stone. When I visited it, the sky was a bleak slate hue and winds whipped hard from the ocean. It was perfect. I remember I climbed to the top of the leftmost high and thin tower in the photo below along a tight winding staircase.
The guard stones around me were very low, and the tower stared right down into the crashing waves of the sea. The sense of vertigo and instability were overwhelming. Another tourist, also an American, stood on the twin of these two forward towers (the one immediately to the right in this photo), his camera in hand but strapped over his neck and under his arm with a secure band. We were close enough to be able to hear each other, even over the skirling of the wind—the photo doesn’t give a sense of how close these two towers actually stand to each other.

He looked at me and smiled, the shouted across the gulf: “Really gives you a secure feeling, doesn’t it?”

And, even though we were Americans, standing on a castle almost eight hundred years old in the land Wales, where all the signs are printed in two languages, I think for that moment we both felt the weight of the bygone era, the sensation of English guards keeping sentry on a miserable blustery day over the harbor. It was a moment of heightened reality that I will never forget, and the closest I have ever come to feeling… medieval.