Everybody has their own dream castle. For some it's the Disney castles with its turrets and spires; for others, a ruined stone tower standing on a mountain peak, or a brick gatehouse reflected in the still waters of a moat.
And castles are everywhere. Sometimes it seems you can hardly move without falling over one.
But there are a select few castles that just can't be missed. From the early keeps of the eleventh century to the romantic decadence of the nineteenth, each century seems to have one or two castles that sum up the spirit of the age.
Let's start with Castel del Monte in the deep south of Italy. It's unforgettable and completely unique; a stark octagon, its pristine geometry contrasting with the wild landscape around it. The mixture of classical detailing, Gothic construction and even Islamic elements reflects the multicultural world of Frederick II's Sicily and Apulia in the 1240s, when it was built. Even having lost most of its original decoration, it still impresses with its clear formal construction and precise detail.
Castel del Monte may in fact have been a hunting lodge rather than a fortress, but Caernarvon Castle was clearly created to meet a military requirement. It was one of a number of castles built by Edward I in the 1280s to consolidate his conquests in Wales. With four separate accommodation towers, and concentric walls that defend not just the castle but the whole town of Caernarvon, it's an impressive building. The setting – on a narrow spur of land between two rivers flowing into the sea – is magnificent. And it makes an unmistakable political statement. It was a home for the new (English) Prince of Wales – ruler of a conquered nation.
Carcassonne in southern France is for many people the quintessential French castle. In fact, it owes its many little spires to nineteenth century restorer Viollet-le-Duc – they're not original. But even if it's not as authentic a medieval castle as it feels, its double curtain walls, dominant hilltop position, and fifty-three separate towers have an undeniable grandeur. It even has a cathedral inside the walls. Less well known is its northern French twin, Pierrefonds – also restored by Viollet-le-Duc.
Spain had its own building traditions, which drew as much from Moorish culture as they did from common European archetypes. Brick rather than stone is the usual construction material, and it's spun out into delicate parapets, or stepped into jagged battlements. Coca is one of the most ornate, with a huge inner tower and two rings of walls. But perhaps the most impressive is Peñafiel, with its tall rectangular keep and long thin wall which follows the contours of the narrow ridge on which it sits.
Nuremberg castle is actually three separate castles – one part belonged to the Emperor, one to the Burggrave, and one to the city itself. Founded in 1050, it was added to over more than 500 years, in half timber as well as stone and brick. This is truly an imperial castle, in both size and richness; it even includes a two-storey chapel, the 'Doppelkapelle', in which the emperor could attend mass on the upper storey while the commoner attended below.
Nuremberg is luxurious – a castle for living well. The castle of the Teutonic Knights at Malbork, in Poland - originally Marienburg, the Virgin's fortress – is, by comparison, a military machine. It was built to defend the borders of Christendom against the pagan tribes of the north. Building started in the 13th century, but over centuries it was extended outwards from the original kernel, with a huge curtain wall and extensive moats linked to the Nogat river. There are other Polish castles – but this is the grandmother of them all.
Most castles have been added to over the ages and Heidelberg is no exception. Its red sandstone bulk dominates the city from its wooded hill. A quintessential medieval outline, you might think – but in fact its most characteristic architecture is in Renaissance style, added by the Prince Electors of Heidelberg in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Sumptuous ornament and fine classical details betray the fact that the castle was no longer an effective military stronghold, but rather a fine setting for a luxurious palace.
Leeds Castle in Kent shows the same shift from fortress to palace. The original twelfth century castle was a real fort; but when Henry VIII took it over, he transformed it into the fairytale it is now, with huge oriel windows projecting over the lake, and fancy parapets instead of rough battlements. Although the lake was originally a defence, now it forms a romantic setting; priorities have changed.
Castles more or less died out in the sixteenth century. Different, new kinds of fortification were needed once artillery, rather than hand to hand fighting, decided the outcome of wars. But in the nineteenth century, as writers and artists rediscovered the appeal of the Gothic, there was a new interest in castles. Most architects restricted themselves, like Viollet-le-Duc, to restoring old castles. But in just a few cases, they built new ones.
Neuschwanstein in southern Germany is the essence of castleness, distilled and made into a single building. Ludwig II of Bavaria chose the site for its picturesque appeal, on a precipitous gorge with views towards lakes and forests. But its form comes from the imagination; the whole design was based partly on stage sets for Wagner operas. What we see is like a dream of the middle ages – without any of the day to day requirements that a real castle had to fulfil. And what a marvellous dream it is.
If you visited all of these castles you'd have a good idea of what a castle ought to be. But be warned; castles are like chocolate – highly addictive. You'll end up visiting more of them and no doubt you'll end up with a personal favourite.
Mine? Simple. Not one of these great fortresses or palaces, but – a tiny castle in the deep south-west of France; Larresingle. Its simple houses built into the curtain wall, its red tiled roofs glowing against the deep green of woods and fields, make it more of a village than a castle. It's on the pilgrim path to Santiago de Compostela, and it still feels very much the way it would have to a medieval pilgrim.