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Castell Coch, Wales, restored to its previous splendour 

A passionate interest changes the way we look at a map. Standard topography gives prominence to urban conglomerations, great rivers and mountain peaks. An obsession brings different features to the fore. To the surfer it will be beaches, to the golfer, courses, to the music-lover, festivals, to the literary-minded, the haunts of favourite writers. These places assume an importance way beyond that accorded them in normal atlases.

The lens through which I redraw the map is that of the castle. Following the historian R. Allen Brown, I define this, loosely, as the fortified residence of a lord and his family, thus excluding hill forts such as Maiden Castle in Dorset or later structures built solely for garrisoning troops, such as Salses, in southern France.

I had a boy's interest in castles that was reawakened when my own children were small. The dramatic situation of many fortresses; the excitement of exploring ruins; the pleasing combination of green sward and grey stone; the development of military architecture from the simple motte and bailey to the subtleties of concentric wards: on all this I became hooked.

Over the years, castles have taken me extensively round the British Isles, twice to Spain, and once to Syria, the castle-lover's apotheosis. They have shaped the way my wife and I travel across France. They have been behind lengthy detours in Italy, Poland and Japan. And yet there are still trips which I long to make, in particular one which would begin in northern Cyprus, cross to the Anatolian coast, take in Rhodes and finish at Bodrum, overlooking the Aegean. Once the bug has bitten, it does not let you rest.

Although I have read a great deal about their technical aspects, my interest in castles is primarily romantic. They were undoubtedly draughty and often cruel places, but I prefer to see them as glorious monuments to an age of chivalry. It is a view shared with 19th-century Europe in its rediscovery of the Middle Ages. And it is in that century that I wish to start a journey that will lead from the restored castle via the ruin to one that no longer exists, each stage demanding more of the imagination.

My own imagination was first fired by ruins but as I have got older, I have also become interested in reconstructions. In Britain, no better example can be found than Cardiff Castle, or rather the line of buildings along the southwestern part of the curtain wall (the original Norman motte and bailey still stand). The work was commissioned by the fabulously rich Third Marquess of Bute in 1865 and carried out under the supervision of William Burges. Its chimney pieces, tiled floors and friezes, door panels, heraldic devices, murals, stained glass, paintings and sculpture afford an intriguing insight into how the 19th century saw the Middle Ages, no more so than in the timber-vaulted banqueting hall. A similar attempt by the marquess and his architect to recreate the past can be found a few miles away at Castell Coch, an overgrown ruin when they began work on it in 1875. In France, two notable examples of reconstruction are at Pierrefonds in Picardy, a 14th-century castle slighted by Richelieu and rebuilt under Napoleon III, and at La Roquetaillade near Bordeaux, which was erected by a nephew of the first Avignonese pope, Clement V (1305-14), and rescued from serious disrepair by the Marquis de Mauvesin's family in the late 19th century. Both projects were the work of Eugène Viollet le Duc, that indefatigable restorer of medieval fabric, from Notre-Dame in Paris to the walled city of Carcassonne.

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Fabio P.Barbieri
October 31st, 2009
10:10 AM
Central and northern Italy are also full of magnificent castles. The Alps especially, because of their strategic importance, hardly have a valley that is not dominated by some majestic keep. These were in medieval times what they still are, the busiest trade routes in Europe, and holding them was the key to power. And whole Italian cities are built within magnificent castle walls - that amazing medieval survival, San Marino, is famous for it. And what about the Sforza Castle in Milan and similar lordly keeps across the country?

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