So, What Were Our Favorite… Castles?!

We’ve finished our RTW trip. We get a lot of questions about our favorite things on the trip, so we’ve decided to start a new series called “So, What Was Our Favorite…” We visited 29 countries on our RTW: Egypt (just 1 day), South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe (just 1 day), Namibia, Germany (just 1 day), Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Ireland, USA, Myanmar, Singapore, Indonesia (just Bali), Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Macau, and Nepal.

This edition will cover our top 10 favorite castles/fortresses around the world. These are not in order of preference, instead they are in the order in which we visited them.

Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town, South Africa

The Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town was the first permanent European settlement in South Africa, built by the Dutch East India Company in the 1660s. It is quite beautiful, with yellow walls and a star shape. Entrance includes a tour which we quite enjoyed. We also were fortunate to see the “Key Ceremony” at noon.

IMG_0302

Český Krumlov Castle, Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

This building doesn’t quite look like a fairy tale castle, but was fun to explore! It’s free to walk around the grounds, but to go inside you do have to pay for a guided tour. There are a few different tour options; we chose the one that took us through Renaissance and Baroque era rooms (no pictures allowed inside, unfortunately). We also really enjoyed strolling through at sunset. You can get quite high in the castle which makes for lovely views over the city.

Spiš Castle, Slovakia

As you approach the town of Spišské Podhradie by bus, you are immediately struck by the enormous size and majesty of Spiš Castle on the hill above town. The entrance fee includes the use of an audio guide (free as long as you returned it within 90 minutes). We walked through the castle and listened to the stories on the guide. There actually wasn’t very much left of the castle. The royals stopped living in it in the early 18th century, and then in the late 18th century it burned down. What’s left has more of the feel of an archaeological site than the other castles we visited. It was built in the 12th century and went through many phases of construction and purpose. It has 3 baileys, which we learned were walls to protect itself. It is really more of a fortress. It went through many owners, but always was an imposing view over the valleys nearby.  The grounds of the castle are massive: there are multiple courtyards within the complex. After doing the audio tour, we spent some time just soaking in the ambiance from different places within the structure. The view was great as well!

Diocletian’s Palace, Split, Croatia

This palace takes up a good portion of old town Split. It was built for the retirement of the emperor of the Roman empire around 300 AD. There are an interesting mix of original Roman structures and other houses and shops built during the next several centuries after villagers moved inside the walls following the Slavic invasion in 700 AD. It was awesome to see that the area had been inhabited for so long, with people still living and working inside.

Diocletian's Palace is in the background, with all the modern development now surrounding it

Diocletian’s Palace is in the background, with all the modern development now surrounding it

Fortress and City Walls at Kotor, Montenegro

Kotor has a very impressive defense system. Not only does it have thick walls to protect from attacks from the sea, it also has a series of walls running up the hill behind the Old Town that protect from attacks by land. Today, you can pay a small fee to hike up the old walls all the way to a fort at the very top. We took advantage of this one evening, and had great views over the bay as the sun set.

Gjirokaster Castle, Gjirokaster, Albania

The castle at Gjirokaster offered sweeping views of the valley, an eerie collection of old tanks from WWII, and even a tomb of Bektashi, the founder of the Bektashi sect. It also had an old US Air Force jet that was shot down during communism that was just there, ready to play on. It was nice to spend time in the castle where we didn’t see a lot of other tourists. There was also a museum of more old armory which we did not choose to visit. The views of valley and neighboring mountains were absolutely stunning.

Palamidi Fortress, Nafplio, Greece

We took an afternoon to visit the largest of Nafplio’s Venetian fortresses, which doesn’t have much in it but provides excellent views of the surrounding area. You can take a taxi up to the fortress at the top of the hill, but we decided to climb the steps. We didn’t start heading up until 2:00… and were disheartened when we saw a sign at the base that the fortress was closing at 3:00! We raced up the stairs and made it at about 2:30. The good news was that admission was free since it was the first Sunday of the month. We just had time to explore one of the seven bastions, but were quite impressed with the structure. (We think they should film Game of Thrones here!) We were kicked out at 3:00 and regret that we weren’t able to spend more time in the fortress, but we found a piece of the walls that was outside the gates to sit on, and read our books while looking down over the Old Town. It was a great place to relax and then later enjoy the sunset.

Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey

Topkapi Palace in Istanbul was the home of the Ottoman sultan from 1465 to 1856. The palace has four different courtyards and many exquisitely decorated rooms. We toured through all of the areas open to the public, including the harem which required an extra ticket. The grounds were expansive and, despite sort of bad weather, we enjoyed exploring most of the nooks and crannies. We were particularly excited here because it finally happened!! – Someone recognized Eric’s Rice baseball hat. We met a current Rice student (Jones College) who was studying abroad. How fun!

Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand

We spent a hot and crowded day in Bangkok exploring the ceremonial home of the Thai monarchy, the Grand Palace. We paid our steep (500 baht = $15) entrance fee and headed into the first part, Wat Phra Kaew, a.k.a.the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. We first explored the colorful chedis, then braced ourselves and dove into the big crowds squeezing in to see the Emerald Buddha itself. The statue was pretty, but far away and a little small, so we didn’t linger. We left the wat and then walked through the grounds of the palace. This was formerly the residence of the Thai royalty, and there are many fancy buildings that show a mix of Thai and Western architectural styles. Most are closed off to the public, but a few of the throne halls are open, so we wandered through them to see the splendor and take a brief respite from the heat. The splendor of the buildings with colors and sparkles is hard to beat. We also followed a tip from Wayne and Peggy, who had visited the previous day, and finished our visit at the slightly out of the way Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, which ended making our top 10 favorite museums list.

Imperial Citadel, Hue, Vietnam

The Vietnamese city of Hue was the seat of the Nguyen dynasty and thus the capital of Vietnam from 1802 to 1945. The main remnant of this ruling period is the ruins of the Imperial City, the home of the emperors. It is surrounded by a large wall, and then within the Citadel is another set of walls and the impressive Ngo Mon Gateway into the Imperial Enclosure, where all of the main activities took place. From there we explored the large site which had been largely destroyed during the French and American wars. However, there is a lot of ongoing restoration work. We explored the Thai Hoa Palace which was used for official receptions and important ceremonies before heading to the Hall of the Mandarins. The Forbidden Purple City was once reserved for the personal use  and residence of the emperor, but there is not much left now. Some of the the most beautiful parts of the entire enclosure were the Truong San Residence and the Dien Tho Residence for the wives and mothers of the emperor.

 

Connections: Belgian Bikers!

Traveling is a wonderful way to meet people! Unfortunately, often those connections are strong but only fleeting. Connections is our tag to recognize and remember some of the wonderful people we meet.

We really enjoyed our time in Berat, Albania. We were able to meet and enjoy a lot of people from around the world. Not only did we meet an amazing Albanian tour guide/hostel worker, but we met another amazing traveling couple. This Belgian couple is traveling from Europe to Asia on bikes! Yes, that is correct, they are biking across the world! Amazing, right? Let’s just say that our trip felt positively cushy when thinking about theirs.

We met them during our tour of Berat and found we had a lot of similarities relating to our trip, age, and interests. We particularly enjoyed chatting about teaching (he works at a university to train teachers) and the differences between Belgium and the U.S. especially related to voting, politics, and other governmental systems.

One of the really fun things about meeting people on the road is being able to share experiences like this. We spent a wonderful day and fun evening with them in Albania. One of the really sad things about meeting people on the road is having to say goodbye knowing that it is unlikely that you will meet again. One of the slightly unusual things about this connection was that we didn’t have to say that goodbye right away. We knew that we were traveling the same directions, from Berat to Gjirokaster, and then on to Greece. They would be leaving ahead of us, though arriving behind us (they’re on bikes remember??) but we discovered we would be in Gjirokaster at the same time. We exchanged contact info and planned to meet up again. Unfortunately, our plans in Gjirokaster fell through. What a bummer! However, that made it all that much more fun when we realized a few days down the road that we would be in Meteora, Greece at the same time! We enjoyed another excellent evening with this excellent couple!

Now, it is hard to expect more than that, so we were especially thrilled when we saw the same couple (ever so) briefly in Delphi, Greece as well. After all of that, I hope we do manage to meet again some day!

Unfortunately, we failed and this was the only picture of us... Boo!

Unfortunately, we failed and this was the only picture of us… Boo!

Gjirokaster, Albania

We traveled to Gjirokaster from Berat via furgon. Unlike Tirana, there is an actual bus station in Berat. We took a Berat city bus to the bus station and then were able to take a furgon that left Berat at 2 pm. The ride was long because of bad roads and mountain passes, but we passed through some beautiful scenery.

IMG_2135_edt

We arrived in the newer part of town of Gjirokaster around 6. There is not really a bus station, but all the furgons arrive at and leave from the same gas station on the main road.

Where We Stayed

Babameto House – We were asked whether we wanted a taxi when we got off the bus, but we elected to walk to our accommodation. It was a looong walk up a steep hill (into the Old Town part). There were times on the walk where we wished that we had taken that taxi. Babameto House is actually an old and wonderful Ottoman-style house. It has several dorm rooms and beautiful Turkish-style lounge rooms. We were lucky because we paid for a dorm but instead got a large 3 bed room all to ourselves. The only downside was that the walls were quite thin and there were barking dogs that kept us up both nights. =/

IMG_2546_edt

Babameto House

IMG_2544

Our room. Notice the Ottoman style screens

IMG_2196

Common seating area

What We Did

Gjirokaster Castle –  Our accommodation was actually located very near to the castle, which is situated atop the hill and is a semi-large fortress. In contrast to the Berat castle, no one lives within its walls anymore. It offered sweeping views of the valley, an eerie collection of old tanks from WWII, and even a tomb of Bektashi, the founder of the Bektashi sect. It also had an old US Air Force jet that was shot down during communism that was just there, ready to play on. It was nice to spend time in the castle where we didn’t see a lot of other tourists. There was also a museum of more old armory which we did not choose to visit.

Walk around the Old Town – There is a small Old Town with a special market-y area called the “Neck of the Bazaar” which we enjoyed walking through. We also had received a map of the town from our hostel which had a couple of sites to see. The map didn’t have a lot of information other than the names of the sites, but we enjoyed walking around and trying to find them. The Old Town area is built into the side of the hill, so it was fun to feel like you were walking on top of the houses down the hill. The roofs of the houses were also very interesting: many were made of thick stone shingles.

IMG_2179_edt

Distinctive Stone Roofs

IMG_2189

Some monument… We weren’t really sure to what

IMG_2176

Walking around

Where We Ate

Kujtimi – This restaurant was recommended by both Lonely Planet and the woman at our hostel so we knew we had to try it. Like much of the food that we have had in Albania it was plentiful, yummy, and very affordable!

IMG_2198