With Europe’s borders temporarily closed to American travelers, the continent’s icons shine an even more inviting beacon than usual—if partly because of their inaccessibility. And few European attractions pop up more often on postcards and in Instagram posts than its castles.
But the best place for serious castle spotters may come as a surprise. It’s not France’s Loire or Germany’s Bavaria. The true epicenter is Wales, which features more castles per square mile than any other country in Europe.
From the northern mountains of Snowdonia to Swansea Bay in the south, castles that could have dropped out of Camelot shoot up everywhere. Why the density? Blame it partly on Wales’ history as a contested territory. Fighting over turf, the Normans, the native Welsh, and the English, led by expansionist Edward I, all erected epic fortresses in an explosion of castle building that dominated the 13th and 14th centuries.
The sheer number of Welsh castles is matched by their variety. “For a small country,” says historian Kate Roberts, “we have just about every type and form, including concentric castles with moated defenses, castles with gigantic well-fortified gatehouses, castles that make every possible use of natural defenses, and castles designed to be beautiful luxurious residences.”
History in stone
That vast range of castles suggests just how profoundly the fortresses reflect Wales’ tumultuous, always shifting history. Take Chepstow Castle, which crowns a cliff overlooking the River Wye. The 11th-century stronghold started life as one of the first Norman command posts constructed by William FitzOsbern, a close ally of William the Conqueror. But it was its subsequent commander, William Marshall, who turned the homely castle into a formidable Norman fortress, building the first twin-towered gatehouse in Britain.
The castle did double duty. It also served as the repository for the gold and silver collected by Marshall. Chepstow’s most striking attraction is its massive timber doors—the oldest in Europe—which were originally sheathed in iron plates to both repel invaders and keep Marshall’s plundered treasures safe.
Carreg Cennen in south Wales stands on a lofty rocky crag and offers another regional history lesson. “The castle’s Lord Rhys,” says Roberts, “enjoyed a long and successful reign as a prince, expanding his territory across southwest Wales and gaining the respect of his contemporaries, including Henry II. But his later life was beset with family strife as his sons vied for supremacy and he actually ended up imprisoned by them”—suggesting the choppy fortunes of even the most astute warrior prince.
Castell y Bere, atop a remote outcrop in a Snowdownia valley, is a prime example of a Welsh castle constructed by a native Welsh prince, the formidable Llywelyn the Great. Although the native princes couldn’t command the architectural resources and craftsmen readily available to the English king, the 13th-century fortress, built to protect Llywelyn’s southern frontier, stood strong.
“In spite of additions made by Edward I after he captured the stronghold in 1283, the castle is fundamentally a Welsh princely castle,” says historian Bill Zajac, “and it displays a number of characteristic features, including two D-shaped towers.” While the Anglo-Norman knights designed their fortresses as a treasure house for their collected loot, Llywelyn was more concerned with guarding his cattle range, which symbolized real medieval currency for the native aristocracy.
If Castell y Bere represents a classic Welsh fortress, Conwy Castle is the stellar example of the much more opulent castles erected by King Edward. The king offered master mason James of Saint George a hefty budget to erect a circle of high towers, curtain walls, a monumental central hall, and massive battlements.
“It’s one of the most complete medieval town circuits in the world,” Roberts notes, allowing for a view of Snowdonia’s jagged mountains and the still largely medieval town of Conwy below.” Despite spending an enormous amount of money on the castle and town walls, Edward I only managed to stay there once: When the local Welsh rebelled in 1284, he passed a very sad and boozy Christmas in the castle, comforted by a single barrel of wine.
From stronghold to stately home
Over time the Welsh castles changed shape. As the internecine wars died down, they slowly evolved from primarily stony fortresses and command posts to stately homes flush with some of Wales’ finest art and most flamboyant treasures, nestled in elaborate gardens.
Raglan Castle is a prime example of the shift. “The older parts of the castle,” says Roberts, “extend back to the 13th and 14th centuries but what visitors see today mostly dates from the 15th century, when Raglan had become a grand manorial home, boasting sumptuous apartments surrounding a fountain court. Late additions in the 16th century included a conversion into a magnificent Elizabethan country house, surrounded by garden terraces and a lake.” An army of fanciful gargoyles and heraldic carvings frame the castle courtyards, testimony to the artistic flourishes that began to gild the original fortresses.
Caerphilly Castle represents another example of an endlessly evolving fortress. This 13th-century behemoth in south Wales, erected by the Norman baron Gilbert the Red to block the advance of a Welsh prince, was meant to be imposing, and it succeeds. It is second only to Windsor Castle as the largest in Britain.
A model fortress, it relied on a series of concentric fortifications, three drawbridges, and five sets of double gates to repel invaders. But when the castle, reduced to ruin after the English civil war, passed into the hands of the marquesses of Bute, in the late 18th century, the fortress was refitted as a very courtly manor.
Among the renovations overseen by successive marquesses over the next two centuries was a magnificently carved wooden ceiling in the great hall and a series of rich moldings framing the windows. Today its duck-filled lake and hunting park are a purely aesthetic castle-lover’s dream.
Powis Castle, on a prominent rock near the English border, is another medieval fortress that was reinvented as an artistic showcase when it became home to the aristocratic Clive family in the 19th century. Taking pride of place among the castle’s collection is the rich range of artifacts Robert Clive and his son Edward hauled back from India as their colonial spoils, including an entire, intact sultan’s ceremonial tent.
There is something for everyone crowded into the castle’s galleries: hand-woven tapestries, baroque furniture, a Joshua Reynolds portrait of Lady Henrietta Clive, and a prized Roman marble figure of a cat wrestling a snake. The show continues outside, in the 25-acre terraced Italo-French gardens that frame the castle. The lush landscape features clipped yews and formal flower plots all punctuated by a whimsical orangery.
In some cases, more recent Welsh castles were conceived, from the start, as grand pleasure houses. Penrhyn Castle, a mock neo-Norman structure bristling with jutting towers and battlements, may look like a fortress. But it never saw any military action.
The current iteration was built in the early 19th century for a mega-wealthy north Wales mine owner as a kind of fantasia of a medieval fortress. It was specifically designed to house a master class of curated art. Containing one of Wales’ finest collections of paintings, it features everything from Dutch 17th-century landscapes to Spanish portraits and Venetian masterworks, including a Canaletto canvas depicting the Grand Canal. A formal walled garden adds to the artistic overflow.
Castell Coch, yet another designed as an artwork in itself, is more grand folly than bona fide castle. The 19th-century “Red Castle” was erected on the site of an 11th-century Norman fortress in high Gothic revival style by the wealthy Lord Bute. Since money for the south Wales country retreat was unlimited, architect William Burges went to work with decadent exuberance.
The result—a favorite of wedding parties and film crews—is a storybook castle, complete with conical towers and a romantic drawbridge. The fanciful interiors follow suit: Vaulted ceilings come carved—why not?—with fluttering butterflies. “My favorite room,” says Roberts, “is the drawing room with its beautiful murals based on Aesop’s Fables. This is a 19th-century version of the middle ages, a riot of color and fantasy.”
There is one other feature of Welsh castles that adds to their allure. If they evoke both Wales’ roiling history and its evolving sense of artistry, they also allow a view of the country’s natural beauty. Typically situated on high ground, as impenetrable defensive lookouts, they often offer stellar views of Wales’ backroads, rivers, valleys, and mountains. Rhuddlan Castle sits above a stretch of the River Clwyd. Harlech Castle perches above a nearly vertical sea wall, overlooking the dunes below and backed by Snowdonia’s peaks. And telegenic Kidwelly Castle—featured in the opening scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail—is located near the mouth of the River Gwendraeth Fach.
Part of the local landscape now, these stalwart castles are emblems of a Wales that kept changing shape, but that can now, finally and very happily, live in peace.
Raphael Kadushin is the editor of three travel anthologies. Until recently, he was executive editor at the University of Wisconsin Press.