Europe is full of palaces, but which is the right one for me?
It shouldn’t shock you that I enjoy a palace. It’s true that whenever I’m planning a trip, the presence of a palace at a destination quite often tips the scales. A palace is often the landmark of a European city. It can be the centre-point towards which the city focuses and it is arguably the highlight of any tourist’s visit.
Aside from this, a palace is usually a dramatic feat of architecture, its interiors showcase the pinnacle of various periods of interior design and it is a veritable Aladdin’s cave of precious objects. You can learn a lot about the wider history of the country or city that you’re visiting by seeing a palace and, thanks to its status as residential property as well as a political building, it is so much more than a museum.
I’ve seen a fair few palaces on my travels. Of course there are many more that I need to see and experience. But seeing as I’m not realistically in the market for a royal residence and I’m not able to spend every day of my life walking the halls of kings (more’s the pity), here is a list of my favourites so far.
5. Palais des Papes
Set in the heart of an ancient city surrounded by medieval ramparts, the imposing Palais des Papes is probably the least well-known of this list and perhaps least what people would expect of a palace as it was never the residence of a king…not in the way that we’re used to anyway.
Built in 1252, this seat of medieval papal power looks more like an impenetrable fortress out of Middle Earth or Westeros than a gilded palace and this is likely due to the fact that it hasn’t functioned as a palace for over 600 years.
Thanks to a rather complicated history of bickering, The Palais des Papes spent around 100 years as the principle residence of the head of the Catholic Church, the Pope. Forget Rome, this French fortress was the place from where the Vicar of Christ waved his shiny stick and kept the conventional kings of Europe in check. As the modern day Pope is in fact the sovereign of a nation (Vatican City), it seemed acceptable to include this palace in the list.
The most striking thing about this assault of stone is the size. While we expect palaces to be large, the Papal Palace of Avignon is huge in a completely different manner to, say, Buckingham Palace or Versailles. Towering above the aptly-named Place du Palais, the Palais des Papes is enveloped by walls that are so tall and sheer that it makes you wonder how any invader in the 14th century could even begin to consider gaining uninvited access.
It’s easy to forget that anyone with power in the Middle Ages didn’t sit on his (or very occasionally her) throne simply by right; the view from the top was a dangerous one and even the Pope in a very God-fearing time was completely justified in feeling insecure enough to lock himself behind the walls and iron gates of a castle.
From the outside, we may be looking at a series of domineering fortifications, but the interior is a completely different story. While the inside of the palace is rather bare and due to it’s former religious affiliation can make you think of it as more church than palace, it would be unfair to not imagine the vast rooms as they were; dripping in as much luxury as any other royal residence.
Don’t let Christianity obscure reality (no pun intended), this was the home of a line of decadent, excessive and self absorbed kings.
4. Château de Versailles
Speaking of decadent, excessive and
unabashedly self-obsessed, there is probably no other palace in the world that epitomises all the above as much as the Château de Versailles while being visually a world away from the Palace of the Popes.
While the Bourbon dynasty took several steps to ensure that everyone from lord to leper was under the control of the king, it would be an understatement to say that Versailles was simply a royal palace. It was Louis XIV’s way of letting literally everyone who wasn’t him know that he was the most important person in the universe and that his house was the home of a God behind pearly gates.
As tourists today, we may look at Versailles and consider it to be something worth looking at. We see the magnificent facades, the endless rooms, the ornate furniture and that literally everything is covered in gold and think of this as just another example of illustrious interior decorating. But in this case, this is the Drag Queen of palaces…on steroids. And Louis XIV, XV and XVI’s chic château was more about conveying a message than about taste.
After having moved the royal court from Paris to the suburb of Versailles and subsequently giving the hunting lodge there an extreme makeover, The Sun King wanted his people to know who was boss by showing how much more he had than them. This of course backfired some years later with Louis’ great-great-great-grandson Louis XVI and his queen Marie Antoinette literally losing their heads due to the excesses of the French Royal Family, but when you visit Versailles today, you can still feel Louis’ desired effect.
While many European palaces have lost their essence thanks to being the seat of a sovereign dynasty in a country that has since felt the need to oust their monarchy, like France, Versailles still retains the awe that I imagine Louis was attempting to inspire in anyone who laid their inferior eyes on his projet d’or.
From the glittering crystal of the Hall of Mirrors to the jardins à la française in which the king is even taking control of nature, there is no doubt that Versailles is the finest representation of palatial power performance.
But because of this, Versailles doesn’t represent the lives of the hundreds of people who lived there. This was a place of business, not of opulent regal living and any slouching feels very frowned upon.
3. Schloss Sanssouci
From the divine ostentation of Louis XVI and the gilded cage he kept his noblemen in to the little cottage of Prussia’s Frederick the Great.
If you think palaces like this don’t exist in Germany, perhaps you could be forgiven. Southern Germany is known for it’s romantic castles built in the 19th century to resemble those of fairytales but on the whole most people don’t even consider that Germany ever had a king, let alone palaces.
This is partly true. While the area of Europe that is now the Federal Republic of Germany has a history as a long and varied as France, Spain and England, the nation as we know it today has never had a king. Because it was created in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall when the country was united. And division doesn’t stop there. At one point in history, Germany was a loose confederation of around 300 independent countries. So, even though the title of King of Germany has existed, it took a form that would take a whole other blog to explain.
The king residing at the Palace, or Schloss, Sanssouci was not King of Germany, rather the King of Prussia, a Baltic state whose territory only partly overlapped modern-day Germany.
Frederick the Great may not have had the power of the multiple Louis of France, but he did have a palace which is sometimes considered as Germany’s answer to Versailles. This, however is misleading. Sanssouci, which is actually a French name meaning “carefree,” was built as Frederick’s country getaway. His centre of ceremony and king-ing was back in Berlin. Sanssouci in Potsdam just outside the capital was his place to relax and entertain his friends rather than his courtiers. And this becomes more believable when you visit.
Whoever said that Sanssouci is the German Versailles was clearly not considering all aspects of either palace. It’s true that they have their similarities. They both lie in a suburb of the national capital, they were built roughly around the same time and therefore represent similar types of design and they both housed a rather showy king in a time when PR for the blue-blooded was at one of its zeniths.
But Sanssouci is tiny in comparison to Versailles. While everything at Versailles is on the grandest scale possible, Sanssouci is comparatively quaint and simple. King Frederick’s retreat does not assault you in the same way as Louis’ gilded political centre and doesn’t fill you with awe in the same way as many other palaces, including Versailles.
But Sanssouci was not built for this. Whereas a day in 18th century Versailles would, in my opinion, have been involved a never-ending gymnastic display of bowing, curtsying and uncomfortable boning (in corsets, of course), Sanssouci is altogether more relaxing. It resembles more of a fancy conservatory that a feat of architectural artwork and being there it’s easy to imagine walking through the vast park on a summer’s day before heading back to the palace for an informal dinner and music.
When can I move in?
(Sadly I can’t find any photographs of my trip to Sanssouci. I guess I’ll just have to go again. In the meantime, I suggest you Google it.)
Austria is another country that we’ve forgotten as being a powerful example of monarchism. Another casualty of post-World War One republicanism, like Germany, Austria was the nucleus of a European-based Empire that puts modern day Austria, with its measly population of 10 million, to shame.
With an Emperor boasting absolute control of an area covering modern day Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, The Balkans and Ukraine, as well as parts of Italy and Poland, the capital of the Habsburgs was in need of an imposing palace to make Austria’s rivals quiver in their stockings.
While the whole palace complex covers much of the city centre, the most well-known façade of the Hofburg (literally meaning court-castle or -fortress) is the statue-crowned, columned crescent that faces towards Heroes Square.
While the Hofburg is as grand and gilded as any other palace that showcases Baroque interior design at its most over the top, the exterior is altogether more masculine than the camp pieces of costume jewelry that are Versailles, Sanssouci, and St Petersburg’s Winter Palace (not on this list as I haven’t been to Russia).
The Hofburg is a place of imperial business with a mighty appearance similar in functional, if not architectural, style to the Palace of Westminster (a.k.a. The UK’s Houses of Parliament).
That said, this confident edifice houses a history that illustrates the history of the countries it has served. Not only Marie Antoinette’s birthplace, the Hofburg today is the official residence of the President of Austria.
Despite monarchy being long gone and noble titles being legally banned, the Hofburg is a national landmark that shows a lasting respect of an almost forgotten version of this small European country.
1. La Alhambra
Oh Alhambra. Dominating the skyline, and the tourism industry, of the Andalucían city of Granada, the bastion of multiple dynasties is one of the most interesting and hardest in this list to write about.
For me, there is no other place in Europe that represents the ever changing face of its country. You can become much more acquainted with the story of all of Spain just by visiting The Alhambra, which is a formidable complex of luxury palaces, towers, castles and fortifications.
Beginning towards the end of the 12th Century with the establishment of the Moorish Kingdom of Granada in order to protect Islam’s medieval stronghold in mainland Europe and on the site of an even earlier fortress, the history of The Alhambra showcases the lives, struggles and styles of Muslim sultans and emirs, then, beginning in the 15th century, the same dramatic stories of the Christian Trastámara, Habsburg and Bourbon kings and queens. Just by acknowledging the names of the various components to the complex, it is plain to see that the Alhambra has not remained in the same hands since time in memoriam. From the Palacio de Carlos V, the Renaissance palace of Holy Roman Empire Charles V, to the name Alhambra itself from the Arabic phrase meaning red castle, this palace is the symbol of Islamic rule in in the Iberian Penninsular (modern day Spain and Portugal) as well as the subsequent Christian-led Reconquista, when a succession of religiously-motivated (at least officially) kings took back what they believed was the rightful territory of the adherents of the Roman Church. The Reconquista’s culmination and arguably crowning glory was the taking of Granada by Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon, know as Los Reyes Cátolicos (The Catholic Monarchs) in 1492.
But enough history. Despite the obvious power of the place, a visitor today is met with pure magic. Although it is in one of the hotter parts of the European continent (it was 44 degrees when I visited) it is in my opinion best seen in the summer. Ignoring the popular advice to avoid the summer months due to the crowds, the intense heat combined with Arabic archways, trickling fountains and courtyard gardens transport even the most jaded visitor back to an admittedly stereotypical time of flying carpets and magic lamps. The Alhambra may have not have seen a sultan in over 500 hundred years, but you can still feel the overwhelming influence of Islam.
And given that in this day and age visiting actual Muslim countries present somewhat of a problem to me and my, also male, boyfriend, Granada offers an opportunity to see, and more importantly experience, the wonders of medieval Islam without fear of imprisonment and hanging.
But insensitive assumptions aside, the Alhambra truly does need to be seen to be believed and if I were a Catholic Monarch, I would be more than ready to set up my court here.
And so concludes this exceedingly long list. But don’t take my word for it. I might be A Touring Lordship but I’m by no means an expert. Let me know what you think of Europe’s grandest buildings…