Image: Peyrepertuse
Rick Steves
Castle ruins can offer jaw-dropping views, like this one at Chateau of Peyrepertuse in the French Pyrenees.
By
Tribune Media Services
updated 8/3/2010 5:11:58 PM ET 2010-08-03T21:11:58

Travelers have long ago discovered most of Europe's castles. These fortresses can be fun, offering battle re-enactments, sound-and-light shows, catapult demos, dress-up costumes, fake garden parties, wagon rides, tourist accommodations, and medieval banquets.

But beyond the touristy castles are the ones I prefer — the forgotten ones. These are evocative, stony husks without plaster or furnishings — where you'll see broken stairways and open skies rather than rooftops. Massive chunks of stone no longer guard anything from anyone and lichen grows on walls seemingly to cushion stones for a fall they've been expecting for centuries.

Castle ruins invite you to ramble the ramparts and let your imagination roam. Climbing through waist-high weeds on rubble corralled by surviving walls, you can break off a spiky frond and live a sword-fern fantasy.

In France's Dordogne region, I like to hike to Chateau de Commarque near Sarlat. The Chateau is a 20-minute walk through a forest of chestnut trees to a clearing, where the mostly ruined castle appears like a mirage. The owner, Hubert de Commarque, bought the castle in 1968 and has been digging it out of the forest ever since.

Along Italy's Amalfi Coast in Ravello, the ruins of the 13th-century Villa Rufolo impressed Richard Wagner enough to place the second act of his opera "Parsifal" in a setting inspired by the villa's magical gardens. With its commanding coastline view, the ruins create an operatic experience that doesn't even need music.

In the scenic foothills of the French Pyrenees lies a series of surreal, mountain-capping castle ruins. Like a Maginot Line of the 13th century, these sky-high castles were strategically located between France and the Spanish kingdom of Roussillon. The most spectacular is the Chateau of Peyrepertuse, where the ruins seem to grow right out from the narrow splinter of cliff. The views are sensational — you can almost reach out and touch Spain.

Along the coast of Northern Ireland, the romantic remnants of Dunluce Castle perch dramatically on the edge of a rocky headland. On a stormy night in 1639, dinner was interrupted as half of the kitchen fell into the sea — taking the servants with it. That was the last straw for the lady of the castle, who packed up and moved inland. Ever since, the forces of nature have had their way.

Thanks to invading French armies, there are lots of ruined castles in Germany's Rhineland. One massive edifice, Rheinfels Castle, sits like a dead pit bull above the village of St. Goar. It withstood a siege of 28,000 French troops in 1692. But in 1797, the French Revolutionary army destroyed it. Once the mightiest of Rhine castles, it offers the best ruined-castle experience on the famous river.

I've clambered through Rheinfels, climbing a dark spiral staircase, as bat dung drifted softly down around me. Standing gingerly at the top of the stairs, I looked out at empty space instead of a floor. Across the expanse was the most finished element of the castle: the still-tidy square holes into which hand-hewn floor beams had been stuck. What became of the beams and all they supported?

Light filtered from slits in the wall. Archers used these narrow breaks to shoot at invaders. Peering out, I surveyed the overgrown terrain beyond the castle; green and brushy today, but once shaved clean to create a no-man's land, where no enemy could find cover as he approached.

At Rheinfels and some other castles, you can crawl through (claustrophobic) underground tunnels leading away from the shell of the castle. This is where explosives would be packed, ready to surprise invading forces and blow them to smithereens if they dared approach the walls.

Ruined castle appreciation isn't for everyone. Some might say it's a guy thing ... to peer, wonderstruck, over the shoulder of a guide who lowers a lamp on a rope into a dungeon that has only one way in or out — a mean-spirited hole in the ceiling. Stories of knights sleeping in wooden boxes filled with hay in dank, ground-floor rooms evoke an era when life was nasty, brutish, and short (like the people).

The advent of powerful cannons — near the end of the Middle Ages — changed the very architecture of castles. Cannon balls were great levelers. Instead of soaring tall (and vulnerable), castles had to be built squat and stocky. But whether you like your castles short or tall, intact or in rubble, what's always free to soar is your imagination. And when that kicks in, then humble and forgotten ruins can rival Europe's great and famous castles.

(Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at rick@ricksteves.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.)

© 2010 Rick Steves ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Photos: Perfectly Paris

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  1. Mood lighting

    The Eiffel Tower and the Hotel des Invalides are illuminated at dusk with in Paris. (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Heart of the Louvre

    The intricate ceiling of the Appolo Gallery at Paris' Louvre Museum is reflected in a display case in the foreground. Built in 1661, the gallery was not fully completed until 1851. In all, over twenty artists worked on the decoration. The Appolo Gallery gallery contains more than two centuries of French art, and houses such wonders as the French Crown Jewels, including the famous Régent (140 carats) and Sancy (53 carats) diamonds, as well as the 105-carat Côte de Bretagne ruby. (Joel Robine / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. To the heavens

    The Sacred Heart Catholic church (Basilique Sacré-Coeur) is seen on Paris' highest point, in Montmartre. The view at the top of the dome is excellent -- 271 feet above Montmartre Hill -- and is the second-highest viewpoint after the Eiffel Tower. (Benoit Tessier / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Looking glass

    This elaborate stained-glass cupola (dome) inside Magasins du Printemps department store is located above the main restaurant in the store. Installed in 1923, it is composed of 3,185 individual pieces of stained glass. (David Lefranc / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Keeping cool

    Tourists soak their feet in a reflecting pool at Place du Trocadero, an area of museums and gardens. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Sights from the Seine

    A "Bateau Mouche" tourist boat travels near the Paris Justice court. These boat tours are a popular, but relaxing way to view the sights of Paris along the Seine River. (Benoit Tessier / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Museum of masterpieces

    Originally a royal fortress for kings, and open to all since 1793, the Louvre is one the world's greatest art museums, housing 35,000 works of ancient and Western art, displayed in over 60,000 square meters of exhibition space. More than 6 million visitors see the Louvre per year. (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Shopper's haven

    Local art, food and other goods are sold in passage Jouffroy, across Boulevard Montmartre. Originally designed to protect pedestrians from mud and horse-drawn vehicles, the passages (shopping arcades), arre located between the Grands Boulevards and the Louvre. (Amélie Dupont / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Modern art

    A view of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Its 1977 factory style architecture contrasts with the surrounding buildings of Paris' oldest district near Notre-Dame cathedral. It has a public library, and the French National Museum of Modern Art. (Loic Venance / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Holy architecture

    One of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture is the Notre Dame Cathedral, attracting 13 million visitors each year. The name Notre Dame means "Our Lady" in French. (Stéphane Querbes / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Practical protectors

    The famous stone statues of Notre Dame. (Amélie Dupont / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Tranquil gardens

    The Jardin des Tuileries is Paris's most central garden. Its fountains, sculptures, cafes, formal gardens, and central location, make it a popular destination for visitors and locals. (Amélie Dupont / Paris Tourist Offi) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Tuileries Palace

    Tuileries Palace encloses the western end of the Louvre and the formal gardens that make up Jardin des Tuileries park, stretching from the Louvre to the Place de Concorde, and bordered by the Seine. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Moulin Rouge

    The cabaret Moulin Rouge was built in 1889, in Paris' red-light district of Pigalle on Boulevard de Clichy. The Moulin Rouge is best known as the birthplace of the can-can dance. (David Lefranc / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Flowing with history

    The Fontaine des Mers at one of the main public square, Place de la Concorde. At 20 acres, it is the largest square in Paris. (Henri Garat / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Honoring warriors

    The Arc de Triomphe stands in the center of the Place Charles de Gaulle, at the western end of the Champs-Elysees. The arch honors soldiers who fought for France. The names of generals and wars fought can be found on the inside and top of the arc. Underneath, is the tomb of the unknown soldier from World War I . (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Coffee break

    People walk past a boulangerie (bakery) in the Montmartre district in Paris. (Michel Euler / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Paris blues

    A piece of renowned French Roquefort blue cheese is displayed in a shop in Paris. (Philippe Wojazer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Pricey real estate

    The Place Vendome is an octagonal square located to the north of the Tuileries Gardens and east of the Eglise de la Madeleine. The bronze spiral column at the center of the square was constructed in 1810 by Napoleon to celebrate the French army’s victory at Austerlitz. Within the square are apartments, and posh hotels and high-end retailers, including Cartier, Chanel, and Bulgari. (Benoit Tessier / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. French connection

    The high-speed rail network in France goes to several Parisian train stations, including Gare Du Nord shown here. The name was derived by the idea that travelers would be able to travel to Belgium, Netherlands, Northern Germany and the Scandinavian countries. It is the busiest railway station in Europe, and the third -busiest in the world. (Cate Gillon / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. The grandest address in Paris

    The Pere Lachaise cemetary (Father Lachaise Cemetery) on the eastern edge of the city, is named after the Jesuit Father Lachaise, King Louis XIV's confessor. Many famous people are buried here, including Musset, Chopin, Moliere, Oscar Wilde, Delacroix, Balzac, Jim Morrison. (Amélie Dupont / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Impressive collection

    The Musée d'Orsay is one of Paris' most popular museums, housed in the former railway station, the Gare d'Orsay. The museum houses an extensive collection of sculptures and impressionist masterpieces by Monet, Degas, Renoir, and Cezanne. (David Lefranc / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Grand design

    The Grand Palais (Big Palace) was built for the World Fair of 1900. The building is best known for its enormous glass-domed roof, making it one of Paris’ most recognizable landmarks. The Grand Palais was the work of three different architects, and is currently the largest existing ironwork and glass structure in the world. (Marc Bertrand / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Prestigious avenue

    The Louis Vuitton department store is located on the stunning Champs-Elysees, one of the world's most famous and beautiful streets. (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Le Pantheon

    Le Pantheon was originally intended to be a church dedicated to Saint Genevieve to fulfil a vow made by Louis XV while he'd fallen ill. It was used for religious and civil purposes until 1885 and now functions as a famous burial place. (David Lefranc / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: General view of Paris
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    Above: Slideshow (25) Perfectly Paris
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