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Whether built as a showcase of royal affluence or to ward off enemy attacks, castles and fortresses are some of the most fascinating landmarks on the planet. But what about when they occupy an entire island? These unique landmarks combine the fairy-tale allure of a castle with the isolation and mystique of islands. From the coastlines of England and France to the lakes of Lithuania and Russia, here are eight stunning island castles around the world.
Castello Aragonese d'Ischia, Italy
The medieval Castello Aragonese d’Ischia (Aragonese Castle) looms over a rocky islet connected by a causeway to the eastern side of Ischia, a volcanic island in Italy’s Gulf of Naples. Greek ruler Hiero I of Syracuse established a village on the island in 474 BCE, and it expanded during subsequent centuries under Roman and Norman rule. The castle’s name originates from Alfonso I of Aragon, who ordered the construction of the ramparts in the 15th century. A Napolitano lawyer purchased the castle in 1911, and his family continues to manage and maintain it. On the island, the lush green vegetation that grows freely amid grand arches, domes, and towers offers a dramatic contrast with the surrounding iridescent blue waters.
Fort Jefferson, Key West
While most associate the Florida Keys with tropical beaches, scuba diving, and spring break revelers, 68 miles west of the island of Key West is one of America’s most-storied fortresses — and the largest brick masonry structure in the U.S. Fort Jefferson has occupied Garden Key, within Dry Tortugas National Park, since the mid-1800s, when it was established to combat pirates in the Gulf of Mexico and Straits of Florida. Some 16 million bricks were used in the construction of the hexagon-shaped fort, which was active as a prison during the Civil War but later ravished by disease and abandoned following a hurricane. Though the fort itself was never fully finished, at its peak, it contained 37 powered magazines and 420 heavy guns, and could house 1,000 soldiers. Those wanting to get a feel for life in this island fortress can do so with guided tours or even by pitching a tent at its no-frills campground.
Set in a bay at the border of northern France’s Brittany and Normandy regions is one of Europe’s most enchanting medieval sights. Le Mont-Saint-Michel is famous for the Abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel, with slender spires that rise above a rocky tidal island. The site's oldest architecture dates to the eighth century, and the abbey survived the Hundred Years' War and both World Wars and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The changing tides present fascinating contrasts at this architectural wonder: When the waters are high, it seems to be floating in the bay, but as the tide recedes, a bed of shimmering, shifting sand appears around it. Le Mont-Saint-Michel was at one point cut off from the mainland, but visitors can now cross a bridge to discover a walled village of narrow cobblestone alleys and stairways, home to museums, restaurants, and a population of around 30 people.
Saint Michael’s Mount, England
Across the English Channel from France, Saint Michael’s Mount is England’s answer to Mont-Saint-Michel. This dazzling British landmark occupies a similarly rocky tidal island in Mount’s Bay, Cornwall. A Benedictine abbey has stood here in some form since the fifth century, but today’s abbey dates back to the 1100s. It was built by monks from Mont-Saint-Michel, who took control of the island following the Norman Conquest of 1066. Over its nearly-thousand-year history, it has been used as a coastal fortress and stately home, and is now owned by the noble St. Aubyn family and managed by the National Trust. Visitors today can stroll across the causeway to visit the castle rooms, admire its gardens, and enjoy afternoon tea on the waterfront. At the top of the castle is the supposed stone heart of Comoran, a fearsome giant who, according to legend, was slain by Jack the Giant Killer.
Maiden’s Castle, Turkey
Situated on a tiny island about 500 feet off the coast of Mersin, Turkey, is a castle that appears to be floating in the Mediterranean Sea — which is appropriate considering it is shrouded in mythology. Maiden’s Castle (also known as Kizkalesi) was built in the 12th century by Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komenos to spot pirates off the coast. Inscriptions in the stone walls confirm that the Armenian kings Leo I and Hethum I later also used it. The name of the castle comes from a local legend. After visiting a fortune teller, Alexios was told that he would lose one of his daughters to a snake bite. Believing it to be a safe house, the emperor sent his daughter to the castle; however, a snake snuck onto the island in a fruit basket and she tragically died. Once connected to the mainland by a causeway, the castle is now only accessible by boat or kayak. Visitors can wander the Byzantine ruins, admire the richly mosaicked floors, and take in coastal views.
Home to a medieval fortress atop a hulking gray rock, Monemvasia was first settled in the sixth century by residents of the mainland who sought refuge from Slavic invaders. It changed hands among the Byzantines, Venetians, and Turks, before being liberated from Ottoman rule during the Greek War of Independence. A narrow causeway presents the only way in and out of the town — the name Monemvasia translates to "single" (mone) "entrance" (emvasia). Nicknamed the “Gibraltar of the East” for its similarities to the rocky outcrop off the coast of Spain, the island is home to a walled town of zigzagging lanes lined with pretty Byzantine churches and old houses, which double as gift shops, guesthouses, and taverns. A climb to the upper town is rewarded with panoramic views of the southeastern coast of the Peloponnese, a peninsula at the southern tip of Greece, and the sparkling Myrtoan Sea, which invites visitors to swim in at the island’s beaches.
Oreshek Fortress, Russia
For around 700 years, the Oreshek (or Shlisselburg) Fortress has stood where Lake Ladoga flows into the Neva River, near present-day Saint Petersburg. The fortress started life as an outpost of Veliky Novgorod, one of Russia’s oldest cities, in 1323. Its intended purpose was to protect Russia from Swedish raids, but it ended up passing between the hands of both nations on several occasions. Originally a wooden structure, Oreshek Fortress later acquired its stone fortifications and was captured by Peter the Great in 1702. When Peter founded Saint Petersburg a year later, Russia’s main defense was moved across the Neva River to the Gulf of Finland. Oreshek would go on to become a political prison that housed notable Russians such as Vladimir Lenin’s brother, Aleksandr Ulyanov. It was officially abandoned following the 1917 Russian Revolution and is now a museum and part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is accessible by ferry from nearby lakeside towns.
Trakai Island Castle, Lithuania
Trakai Island Castle is another island fortress that has origins that date back to the 14th century. With graceful pointed red-brick towers that reflect in the still waters of Lake Galvé, the site appears to have been lifted from a fairy-tale scene. Medieval Lithuanian ruler Kęstutis laid the foundations for the castle, and it was completed by his son, Vytautas the Great, in the 1400s. The Grand Dukes of Lithuania once lived at Trakai, and Vytautas declared it the nation’s capital during his reign in the 1500s. Afterward, Sigismund II Augustus moved the royal residence to Vilnius. But today visitors can explore the island by crossing a footbridge and then wandering amid the castle grounds. Inside, the Trakai Island Castle Museum celebrates the landmark’s history with displays of artwork, jewelry, and knights' armor, among other fascinating artifacts.