Who has not been captivated by tales of knights and dragons, of medieval feuds, battles and betrayals? Serving as the backdrop for each of these stories is a castle. Visiting a castle can provide a playground for the imagination, allowing the mind to revel in legend and lore. Walking through grand halls past suits of armor, torches and tapestries, one cannot fathom so many stories embedded in stone. More than a getaway from the stresses of everyday life, castles have the ability to transport visitors to another time.
Castles come in all states of repair. Many are still occupied and many more hang on in some state of ruin. Each has its own personality, calling out to some hidden part of our curiosity about times shrouded in mist. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, the spirits of those who occupied the halls of Europe’s castles beckon to us, calling us by name.
This Travelhoppers guide will provide you with a guide to the realm of castle tours and stays. Use it to begin your research into your castle visit and to work with your travel consultant in planning a vacation suitable for royalty!
The United Kingdom and Ireland are the traditional areas for castle stays and tours. Britain alone has several thousand castles, most constructed in the 11th through 15th centuries. Austria, Spain, Portugal, Germany and France likewise have many amazing properties scattered throughout their many provinces and districts offering both tours and hotel like accommodations.
Central Europe is a quickly growing castle market with highly competitive pricing. In particular, Hungary offers several properties constructed during the Baroque and Rococo periods, as does the Czech Republic and its sister state of Slovenia. If you have a particular destination in mind, ask your travel consultant to investigate the possibility of castle tours and vacations as an alternative to more traditional lodging options!
Castle vacations offer visitors the opportunity to indulge in a tranquil and intriguing escape, not to mention unforgettable scenery. In general, castle vacations fall into two categories: tours and stays. Both types are recommended for travelers of all ages who have an appreciation for history, culture and beauty. But, a bit of planning is in order to make your castle experience the adventure it should be.
A good travel consultant can help you navigate the maze of castles. There are a number of important considerations, including the types of castle, the choice of rooms inside of the castles, the general condition of the properties and the number of guests permitted. Your travel consultant will inquire with regard to the standards of the tour company and how the company chooses the castles with which it works. For example, far too many tour companies include manor houses in their definition of “castles”, risking the disappointment of their guests. Your travel consultant will make sure that you obtain a match much closer to your preferences and will provide you with pictures of various properties along with a history to ensure that you will be in a castle of the period and age of your preference.
To better ensure an enjoyable stay and a high standard of quality, your travel consultant will choose a tour operator that that specializes in castle stays or at least visits its featured castles regularly. Some tour operators specialize geographically, while others offer castles in a variety of countries. Tour operators can give you the price of a stay, the size of the castle and its grounds, and the number of guests it can accommodate. They can be particularly helpful in arranging a stay if the castle booking system is not computerized, and most are not.
Tours of castles are rewarding trips into the past. Most tours will stay at each castle for at least a few hours, exploring the halls, stairways and grounds. Of course, the time allotted depends on the number of castles visited that day, the traveling time between them, and the castle’s visitation hours. To allow a longer visit your tour operator may try to arrange hotel accommodation nearby, but this is not always feasible in rural areas. Because of the large scale of many properties and their grounds, it is best not to try to squeeze too much viewing into too short a time period. If you time constraints are limited, choose quality over quantity and limit your tours to a few, select properties.
In terms of transportation, remember to be flexible. Though the tour will likely have a timetable, travel delays are common in the countryside. As a passenger, it is best to relax and savor the majestic views.
Remember that the better physical shape you are in for castle exploration, the more enjoyable your experience will be, especially when climbing to the top of a tower or getting lost in a garden labyrinth. Because of their age, castles generally cannot offer superior accommodation to disabled guests. Uneven floors, narrow passages and winding staircases can present particular hindrances. For these reasons, a castle tour that explores castle interiors may not be realistic for persons with certain disabilities. If you or a companion has a disability that might hinder full enjoyment of a property, let your travel consultant know well in advance. There are some destinations that boast ground floor bedrooms and restaurants, disabled parking and wheelchairs for hire. Some castles have been converted to offer ramps (permanent and removable) and bathrooms with handrails.
Fortunately for we commoners, the high cost of maintaining these vast and elaborate residences has driven many castle owners to extend accommodations to the public. Many castles have been restored, leaving the medieval décor in tact while adding modern amenities. Many castles and so-called “castle hotels” offer high-end and even luxurious stays for one night or for weeks on end.
It is possible to obtain exclusive use of a castle property with enough advance notices. “Exclusive use” of a property indicates that you and your party will be the only guests in the castle during your visit, essentially a charter of the entire property. There likely will be minimum stay requirements and charges for such usage, as well as some possible minimal usage of dining and banquet facilities.
So called “self catering” castle stays are those where the property is hired on an “accommodation only” basis. Meals and other services are not a part of the package price, although guests are sometimes provided use of kitchen facilities.
Room sizes for sleeping within castles vary, but in general are characterized by the familiar “double/twin/single/suite” nomenclature. Generally speaking, the better grades of rooms are typically larger with better furnishings and views. Likewise the styling of the bedrooms and beds will vary not only from castle to castle but from room to room. Not every room will have four poster beds and lush tapestries. If you have particular tastes and preferences, make sure to make them clear to your travel consultant well in advance of booking!
Dining is often a highlight of a castle stay. In some instances, not only will you have the opportunity to dine as the royals do, but you may be sitting next to one. Dinner can be an occasion for all guests to dine with the residing duke or lord. If this is the case, be sure to ask your tour operator about dress code. Some tours and stays include all meals while others include only one meal. Others may offer food on an a-la-carte basis. Determine the meal plans offered by the properties in which you are interested and make sure to include the cost of the meals in your final budget calculations.
Many castles have a variety of on site activities which may include horseback riding, fishing, falconry, trekking, cycling and croquet. Some castles even have tennis courts and putting courses. Check to see if advance reservations for these activities are needed. For visiting nearby towns, the castle’s staff may provide car hire. A great many guests hold their weddings at castles. Because this is an area of frequent inquiry, many tour operators have special packages available for wedding parties and ceremonies.
In some instances, castle property management has developed very elaborate tours and even role-playing games or contests. Many castles have wonderful gardens, some of historical significance. Castle properties sometimes include garden mazes on their grounds. The mazes typically consist of high hedges formed into a walking path that turns in upon itself with many puzzle-like paths and circuits. Most mazes are constructed of hedges, but others are constructed of bricks, logs, concrete and other materials.
Many castles have dress codes for various times of the day or particular activities, while others do not. The dress code varies from castle to castle, but most have relaxed standards for daytime wear with slightly more formal requirements at dinner. Be sure to check in advance to ensure your comfort and conformity with any requirements.
Often situated in the lush countryside, castles are not always easily accessible by public transportation. Consequently, hiring a car is often a good option, and can be arranged by your travel consultant. Car access also enables you to visit nearby towns and attractions. Remember to map out your journey beforehand and be prepared for slow and bumpy country roads.
As many castles have narrow staircases and elevators are few, smaller luggage is advisable. If you are going on a castle tour, there may be an extra charge for bringing additional luggage. You will also want to find out if your destination offers log fires or central heating, and pack according to your destination and season. As usual, pack only what you need. You do not really want to carry more that you must, and there will almost always be more than ample opportunity for shopping along the way!
What child wouldn’t jump at the chance to live like a prince or princess, to slay imaginary dragons on the castle grounds, or let down fantastical hair from an actual tower? Castles indulge children’s fantasies as well as those of adults. Though not all castles are child-friendly, many will accommodate young ones. Your tour operator should be able to tell you which sites have designated family rooms, interconnecting rooms and/or rollaway beds. Certain castles also provide play areas, children’s menus and early dining hours. Those properties that are chid friendy vary with the minimal acceptable age, so be sure to check if your party includes persons less than 18 years of age. As previously noted, make sure that the properties you visit will accommodate any physical limitations of members of your party.
The cost of a tour or a castle stay varies widely with the country in which the property in located and the special amenities each property offers. As your travel consultant develops your itinerary, make sure to provide your optimal budget to ensure the final costs are in line with your expectations. Accommodations and castle entry fees are usually included in the price of the tour; airline tickets are not. Your travel agent can find the best possible air values given your destination and season of travel. Many tour packages include breakfast and dinner in the itinerary. In general, you will need money to pay for lunches, snacks, drinks and of course, shopping.
When pricing your stay, remember to take into consideration any Value Added Tax (VAT) levied by many countries in Europe and elsewhere. Because VAT is often as high as 20% of the cost of an accommodation or good purchased, the amount is often not insignificant! Many travelers assume that VAT is refundable. However, this is typically not the case for services such as transportation, accommodation, food, gas or any other goods or services consumed within the country itself. Ensure that the price you are quoted includes all taxes and other fees.
Castles are the stuff of dreams. Fulfill yours today!