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.


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.


Colorful Hues of Hue, Vietnam

After the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City and the touristy but lovely lanterns of Hoi An, we headed to the ancient city of Hue (actually pronounced like “Hway”- which does indeed negate our title rhyme). This was another UNESCO site that we had been itching to visit. The city is located on the Perfume River and was the capital of Vietnam under the Nguyen emperors from 1802 to 1885.

Getting There

We had read that the coast from Hoi An up to Hue was one of the prettiest trains rides in all of Vietnam. We couldn’t pass that up and booked the trip. It was indeed lovely! We were expecting a 4 hour ride but arrived in only 2 (we must have misread some information) so we were quite surprised when we pulled into the station. A quick taxi ride and we were at our hotel.

Where We Stayed

We stayed at the Sunny Hotel. We quite enjoyed this hotel – it had really friendly and helpful staff and a wonderful view from our room. However, the view came because we were on the 5th floor… and there was no lift! Definitely got a bit of exercise during our stay. The room was comfortable but there was a small downside. We discovered little parades of ants wandering our wall and had a visit from a cockroach our first evening. However, once that was resolved, we were quite comfortable. We also enjoyed the location which was on a small alley/street with many options for eating.

What We Did

We only had two full days in Hue, so did our best to make the most of them… despite the sweltering unseasonable heat. We arrived early our first day, so Peggy and Wayne went out to explore the river and a pagoda. However, Della was feeling quite sick having caught a bad chest cold. She decided to relax in the room for the afternoon and Eric opted to join her, hoping to catch up a bit with the blog.

The next day, however, we set out for a full sightseeing experience. We headed to the Imperial Citadel which was a short walk from our hotel. We enjoyed the foot crossing of the bridge over the large Perfume River on our way.

We then headed over the moat and first through the 6m high walls of the Citadel. 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. “Mandarins” were any government official. We found it interesting to read that they were chosen by testing alone. They would go through schooling and official tests were set up every few years. As the mandarins passed each test, they would move to a higher level. The final test was given by the emperor himself and would determine whether a mandarin would work or not.

The Emperor’s Reading Room was small, but very lovely. We enjoyed the formal Royal Theater, where we were able to escape from the scorching sun for a few minutes. The Co Ha Gardens were lovely to stroll through.

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. It was here where we found a small coffee shop to relax and escape the heat for awhile.

Our final stop was the Thai To Miew Temple Complex which houses shrines to each of the emperors. We enjoyed learning a little bit about the personalities of each emperor. We were especially amused as one was described as working late into the night because he “was slow.” We interpreted that one way, but found out the next day that it really meant something more like cautious and deliberate with his work.

By this point, the heat had sapped almost all of our energy. Della especially, but also Wayne and Peggy, were still recovering from illness so we headed back to the hotel for a much needed siesta.

The next day, we rented bikes and headed outside the city of Hue. There are many extravagant tombs of Nguyen emperors dotting the countryside nearby. We decided, again because of the heat, to head to the closest tomb, the Tomb of Tu Duc, which was about 6 km outside of the city. We debated the idea of hiring a car to take us to more of the tombs (in air-conditioned comfort) but decided against as each tomb had a steep entrance fee and we weren’t sure we needed to see more than one.

The bike ride was slightly nerve-racking at first as we navigated our way through the busy, motorbike filled roads. But, we made it safely and breathed a huge sigh of relief as we passed into the countryside and once again found ourselves making our way through lovely, green rice paddies.

Emperor Tu Duc was the emperor we mentioned above as being “slow.” But learning more about him through visiting his tomb led us to change our interpretation of the term from the day before. He designed his tomb himself, for use before and after his death. He apparently lived a life of excess and spent lavishly. The construction of the tomb actually caused a coup plot, but it ultimately did not succeed. Near his planned tomb was the Stele Pavilion which houses a 20-ton stone drafted by the emperor himself. Apparently, on it, he freely admits his mistakes and is quite reflective about his life.

Apparently, despite everything that went into building the tomb, Tu Duc is not actually buried there. His real burial site is unknown; he and his wife ended up only using the site while they were living. There is a lake which holds a small island where Tu Duc did some of his hunting, a temple where the emperor and empress worshiped, a pavilion where Tu Duc wrote poetry and entertained his concubines, and even a theater. All of the buildings are mostly restored and quite lovely.

Again, drained by the heat, and not looking forward to the heart-pounding ride back to town, we took a different way back. This was slightly longer, but kept us farther away from the big city streets for longer and allowed us a meander along the river. This was a good choice and we enjoyed a quick snack in a park before arriving back to the hotel.

We also celebrated Easter in Hue. By celebrated, we mean that Della and Eric slept in a bit and Wayne and Peggy attempted to visit a church. However, the posted times of the services seemed to be wrong and they were only able to catch the last 10 minutes of the service.

The end of Easter mass

The end of Easter mass

What We Ate

The food in Hue is fit for a king! Or, rather, the traditional foods of Hue were some of the emperor’s Tu Duc’s favorites. We also enjoyed them. The first we tried were a kind of rice pancake, called Banh Khoai. They would serve it with rice paper wrappers and you would roll the pancake in with bean sprouts and other greenery. We also tried a smaller version which was a tiny bite sized pancake with a morsel of flavor called Banh Beo. Eric also made sure to try a soup we had first had in Saigon called Bun Bo Hue.

Two of our more memorable meals ended up with us taking away something that wasn’t food! We ate at a restaurant called Lac Thien after our day exploring the Imperial Citadel. We enjoyed both Banh Khoai and Banh Beo and beer, of course, because it was so hot. The staff was very sweet and particularly enjoyed showing us how to open our beer with a different kind of opener. We actually were familiar with them as they were used widely in Myanmar, but it was a lot of fun to see them again. The owner is deaf so we weren’t able to chat exactly, but he communicated so much energy, kindness, and delight it was lovely. He also signed one of the beer openers and gave it us to keep! The second restaurant was lunch after our long, hot bike ride to the Tomb of Tu Duc. We ate at the Mandarin Restaurant which was quite good. Here, the owner is a photographer, so we were surrounded by lovely images of Vietnam while we ate. When we left, the staff gifted us with two postcards with the owners photographs!

Our final dinner was eaten on the waterfront of the Perfume River. The whole area becomes quite lively after dark with street musicians and a large food market. We expected the restaurants there to be expensive, but we found one with quite reasonable prices. We enjoyed the cool breeze and the lovely lighting of the bridges over the river.

Final Thoughts

We really enjoyed our time in Hue. We found that it didn’t really feel as touristy as we were expecting. The evening on the river front was enjoyed mostly by locals, almost no foreigners at all. Through discussions with travelers after we left, we found that most tourists make Hue a day trip either on their way to or away from Hoi An. We were so glad that we stayed a few days and got to experience more that the city had to offer. The tourist sites were beautiful, marred only by the outrageous heat. Hue is worth a bit of time!