Ever thought about castle hopping in The Netherlands? We all know about island hopping in Greece (which is by the way also possible in The Netherlands...), but what about being on the road for a few days while exploring some of the finest Dutch castles? In this blog post I will give you a full overview of our 3 day tour along 6 stunning castles in the heart of The Netherlands.
What to see:
The first foundations of Slot Zuylen were laid around 1250 by Steven van Zuylen. He built a residential tower on a strategic position on the river Vecht just outside of Utrecht. Over the centuries it was further expanded, adapted, destroyed and rebuilt again. In the 18th century the castle had its last facelift when it was adapted to the French style which was modern at that time. The last inhabitants donated the castle in 1952 to a foundation so that it could be opened to the public.
The 17th century tapestries on the walls of the Gobelin Hall make this room lush and inviting. These tapestries were also called 'verdure', because of the wooded scenes with vanishing points that made a room seem bigger than it actually was.
The most famous inhabitant was for sure Isabella Agneta Elisabeth van Tuyll Serooskerken (1740-1805), better known as 'Belle van Zuylen'. She is renowned for her progressive views on equality with regard to the position of women. You can walk through her rooms where she wrote poetry, novels, made music and drew.
For some reason the kitchens in old houses and castles are my favourite. Because with a little imagination you can see the action around the pots and pans on the (often open) fire and roaring ovens with the most delicious breads and cakes. In the beating heart of those grand and chic properties you can feel that these buildings were actually living and breathing structures which people called home. The kitchen of Slot Zuylen has an extra nice detail, there is a cozy tower room where the kitchen staff stayed during their tea break.
The narrow and winding road towards Slot Loevestein is surrounded by water, overlooks the beautiful varied landscape of Bommelerwaard and gives you encounters with cows, konik horses and many birds. It's wonderful to see how all animals roam here freely while there are no fences.
At this strategic position between the confluence of the rivers Maas and Waal a castle was built in 1358 by knight Dirc Loef van Horne. Over the centuries it had various functions from house to fort, to state prison, to museum as it is today.
Dutch speakers probably know the story of Hugo de Groot (1583-1645) who escaped from captivity by hiding in a bookcase. That happened in the year 1621 when Slot Loevestein was still a state prison. The prisoners were no criminals, but politically and religiously dissenters. Hugo de Groot studied law in Leiden, was very intelligent, had a lot of knowledge and is considered as one of the founders of international law.
Currently there is an exhibition inside the castle which tells you more about the escape of 400 years ago. Here you can learn about his ideas about peace, freedom and justice. To me, the highlight of the exhibition is a walk through a 'universe of thoughts' where a link to current events is made. Hugo's books are displayed in the disco balls, and the letters that reflect on the walls come from the titles of his books. On the screens prominent Dutch people shed light on current issues seen from Hugo de Groot's perspective.
Because the castle has changed a lot in form and function over the centuries, and has never been permanently inhabited by a family of nobility, the interior is quite sober. Former residents always took all their belongings with them to the next location, and have never invested in embellishing the interior. That's why it has this very sturdy and unpolished look, which makes it feel more authentic and gives a realistic view of life at that time.
De Haar Castle
Before we went to De Haar Castle I was aware of the fact that this is the largest castle of The Netherlands. But when I walked through the gate towards it, I was totally impressed by its scale and beauty. For me personally it's high on my list of the most iconic sights of The Netherlands. Therefore I am not surprised that the castle ranks among the top 20 most visited Dutch museums!
The first stone of the castle was laid in the Middle Ages after which it flourished for a while, fell into dispair and was rebuilt around 1900. Baron Etienne van Zuylen and Baroness Hélène de Rothschild commissioned architect Pierre Cuypers to restore the castle even beyond its former glory. Cuypers is known for building the Rijksmuseum and the Central Station of Amsterdam, and therefore the perfect person for this unique project.
Walking around at the Bel-etage (the main floor of distinguished houses) is a feast for the senses. You enter the castle via the 18 meter high Main Hall from where you can enter the library, dining hall, ballroom and majestic knight's hall. The luxurious interior contains antique art objects, valuable tapestries and exclusive furniture that was collected during distant voyages to the Middle and Far East.
On the first floor you can visit the elegant and stylish bedrooms which all have a different theme and appearance. It was common that in the month of September famous guests like Coco Chanel, Roger Moore and Brigitte Bardot were invited to stay some days in this lush environment.
The castle is surrounded by a wonderful park of 55 hectares (136 acres). Here you can stroll through a rose garden, a labyrinth, a Roman garden and walk along the pond. During our visit in July many flowers (like for example dahlias) were in full bloom which resulted in a spectacle of the most beautiful colours. Tip: a visit to the deer park should not be missed when visiting De Haar Castle with children :)
Amsterdam Castle Muiderslot
Muiderslot was built by Count Floris V van Holland (1254-1296) around 1285 for the purpose of defending and toll collection. The latter was pretty 'easy' as the location was strategically determined at the confluence of the Zuiderzee and the river Vecht. Access from one to the other was only granted after payment, and since this was a busy shipping route, Count Floris became quite prosperous because of this.
Count Floris V was also known as 'the god of the common man' and was very popular among the peasant population. But besides friends he also had enemies since he wanted revenge for the murther of his father, and as he constantly strove to increase his power. In the end, the same fate as his father awaited him...
About 3 centuries later P.C. Hoofdt (1581-1647) was allowed to inhabit Muiderslot as this was part of his new position of administrator and judge of the Gooiland region. But be became especially known for the many poems, books an theatre plays he wrote in his spare time. To indicate how well-known; the most prestigious literature award of The Netherlands is named after him. In the (pictured below) Knight's Hall he invited famous artists, writers, poets, academics and politicians.
Seven paintings of Muiderslot were made in the 17th century, and four of these paintings are in the castle's collection. The absolute masterpiece is this painting by Gerrit Berckheyde (1638-1689), who was the cityscape specialist of the 17th century.
In the 19th century the castle fell into dispair, but luckily King Willem I saved it from demolition. Architect Pierre Cuypers (also known from the above mentioned De Haar Castle) led the restoration, after which Muiderslot became a National Museum in 1878. It makes me happy that because of those decisions back then we can still visit and experience locations that played an important role in history.
The garden at Muiderslot was partly an ornamental garden to relax while strolling under the foliage. But it was also necessary for being self-sufficient in fruit, herbs, (edible) flowers and vegetables. In addition to consumption, the strong-smelling flowers and herbs were also used to embellish and make Muiderslot smell nice. You can book a garden or tasting tour (or listen to the audio tour) to learn about 'forgotten' crops and to try medieval recipes like for example (beer) bread, herbal wine, sweets and stews. Keep an eye on their calendar for upcoming activities.
All these fresh and seasonal products from the garden (and fresh fish from the sea and river just a stone throw away) were processed in this charming kitchen, using (for that time) expensive ingredients such as sugar and spices.
The youngest of the six castles we've visited during our road trip is Kerckebosch Castle which is located in the wooded area of the Utrechtse Heuvelrug. It was built in 1911 by a noble man called Egbert Lintelo de Geer (for the Dutchies among us; he was the father of television producer Ursul de Geer). This is the only castle which isn't a museum, but is definitely worth a visit because of its great restaurant and charming hotel (more about that later on in this blog post).
This castle may not be centuries old, but during its construction many antique materials and ornaments were used to give it a grand appearance. With the help of befriended antique dealers Mr. Lintelo de Geer managed to acquire a lot of special (art) pieces. The combination of the old and new makes Kerckebosch Castle a warm and welcoming environment. Especially when the open fireplace is lit in the evening!
Translation of the Dutch saying in the glass stained window: 'It does not matter how long, but how well one has lived.'
In 2014 the new owners, chef Hans van Triest and his wife Cynthia Schell, gave the castle some much needed TLC, and transformed it into the lovely place it is today. As of that time many parties and weddings were celebrated here. But no worries, you don't need your dancing shoes or an invite to come here, just walk in and enjoy a drink at the bar, in the lounge or on the beautiful terrace.
A beautiful path leads you through the lush (rose) garden with bridge over the castle moat towards the stately Amerongen Castle. The history of this location dates back to the 13th century when Count Floris V (remember him from above mentioned Muiderslot?) gave permission to build a fortified house here. Over the centuries this house developed into a castle which was bought by the van Reede family in 1557.
This noble family owned the castle for over 300 years. During this time they played an important part in the National and European history. Unfortunately, the French occupiers burnt down the castle completely in 1673 because the family refused to pay the 'brandschatting'. Which came down to the simple question: pay or burn. Exhibition 'Goet en Bloet' (which runs until the 26th of March 2023) tells you everything about the Rampjaar (1672-1673) exactly 350 years ago. (rampjaar can be translated as disaster year)
Fortunately, they were able to bring valuable possessions and precious interior pieces to safety in time. Thus the rooms with the permanent collections are luxurious and abundantly decorated. After the castle had been rebuilt, it came under the ownership of the van Aldenburg Bentinck family. And yes, there we have him again, architect Pierre Cuypers was commissioned to modify and embellish some rooms :) In 1977 the castle was transferred to a foundation, and since then Amerongen Castle is still furnished as the residents left it in the seventies.
The main hall is in my opinion the most impressive room of the castle. In the middle is a huge staircase with a massive chandelier above it. The walls are hung from floor to ceiling with stately portraits of the family. And even the ceiling is decorated to the smallest detail.
One of its most famous (and also controversial) inhabitants of Amerongen Castle was the German Emperor Wilhelm II, who is held responsible for not preventing the outbreak of WWI. After he had relinquished his powers in Germany he fled to (the neutral) Netherlands. It was intended that he would only stay a couple of days, but because the political situation remaind unclear for a long time, the Dutch government demanded an abdication. After his abdication in 1918 he lived here one and a half years, until he bought Huis Doorn. And guess where we went next...
Because of the much-discussed former owner of Huis Doorn this location has become the largest place of remembrance in The Netherlands regarding the First World War. The Last German Emperor (Wilhelm II) fled to the neutral Netherlands in 1918 after the German defeat in WWI. He lived here until his death in 1941. A pavilion was created on site to give enough space for a permanent exhibition about WWI. The exhibition highlights the Dutch neutrality in five different topics.
The history of Huis Doorn dates back to the 14th century, but its present appearance of a neoclassic country house was created around 1800. The estate covers a 35 hectares (86 acres) park which includes an English landscape garden and a rose garden.
Wilhelm II was given permission by the German government to transfer thousands (30.000 to be more precisely) of valuable pieces of furniture, paintings, porcelain and art objects from his palaces in Potsdam and Berlin to Huis Doorn. 95 train cars were needed to move all of his belongings to his new home.
The collection is known for its myriad silverware and porcelain with pieces from China and Japan, ancient wall tapestries and extremely detailed chandeliers to name a few. But there are also some other remarkable items. For example, take a closer look at the custom made chair in the picture below.
The emperor said the best decisions were made in the saddle...
The German royal family owned many residences in Germany and therefore needed lots of tableware. In fact, their demand was so high, that they decided to buy their own private porcelain factory. When you are in the dining hall (depicted below) make sure to take a closer look at the Emperor's fork. But this time I'm not going to reveil why :)
We ended the tour through the museum via the kitchen, which looked like a still life painting to me...
I was impressed by this special place, which has a loaded but very important role in our history. Therefore I think it's good to visit places like these, to educate yourself, learn from past events and feel encouraged by this to engage in a better future.
Coffee and (vegetarian) food
Castle Shop Annebetje is located in the Orangery of Amerongen Castle. Besides finding nice souvenirs and local products (like honey) this is also the perfect place to start (or end) your visit to the castle with a cup of coffee and sweets (cakes, cookies and ice cream). Bonuspoints: you get a beautiful view over the rose garden.
We've had a vegetarian lunch at the Koetshuis Café of Slot Zuylen, with this special view at an antique carriage. On the menu is (toasted) sandwiches, soup and homemade cakes. You can even order high-tea or a picknick (including blanket) here. We've enjoyed their tasty vegan zucchini soup with edible flowers from their own vegetable garden.
The beautiful vegetable garden and greenhouse are maintained with great care by many volunteers.
Make your visit to De Haar Castle complete with a lunch at Koetshuis De Haar. Here were the former stables, residences of the staff and the 'laverne', the former washing place of the carriages and horses of the noble family. If the weather permits, you can also reserve a trolly with picknick in advance. It includes a sunshade umbrella, 2 beach chairs, a blanket and a cooler. The menu contains several vegetarian options, like for example a salad, sandwiches, a soup, grilled panini, sweet pies and cakes.
From Slot Loevestein a water taxi takes you within a couple of minutes to the charming village of Woudrichem. In the oldest street in town you will find Restaurant 't Oude Raedthuys. The charming building dates back to 1592 and breathes a cozy atmosphere. The building may have been here for 500 years, but the menu is contemporary and contains several fusion dishes. We've truly enjoyed the vegetarian dumplings as a starter, and a tasty vegan Thai curry and a vegan strudel (a layered pastry with vegetable filling) as main course. The dessert with 4 different homemade sweets closed this pleasant evening perfectly.
Now this is wat you call 'a table with a view'! After our visit to Amerongen Castle we sat down on the beautiful terrace of Restaurant Bentinck with this amazing view over the garden and castle. In the old days the horses of the noble family stood here in their stables, but nowadays you can indulge in French cuisine at this stylish location. Chef Kevin Move and his team opt for pure flavours, fresh produce and as many local product as possible from the Utrechtse Heuvelrug.
The menu follows the seasons, because much use is made of the vegetables, fruits and herbs from their own kitchen garden, which is situated on the grounds of the castle. Our lunch dish was a delicious vegetarian ravioli with celeriac, and fries with truffle mayonnaise and Parmesan cheese.
I think there are few places where you feel more welcome than here. From the reception upon entry, to the great service during dinner, to the pleasant welcome at breakfast, everyone we met at Bistoria and Kerckebosch Castle was extremely friendly and genuinely hospitable! The restaurant Bistoria (created by merging Bistro and Trattoria) is located in the conservatory with lots of natural light. From here you have a wonderful view over the trees surrounding the castle and even several free-range chickens and two super cute and energetic goats. Entertainment assured!
This cozy table in the corner was ours for the evening, and for us the ideal place to enjoy a great four-course vegetarian menu. One of the dishes was called 'Joep Meloen' (Dutchies, if you know, you know :)) which was a tasteful gazpacho with grilled watermelon. The steamed buns with pulled oyster mushroom and the veggie rendang with cabbage and ginger were also spot on! And the desserts (one with strawberry and the other one a millefeuille with mango) didn't just look good, they probably tasted even better.
Spend the night like a royal
Can't get enough of the views over Slot Loevestein? Then why not stay the night?! At B&B Loevestein you can retreat between the moats of the castle and totally relax because of the silence. We have stayed in the cozy Commieskamer with view on the 'dike' of the moat. In the morning a delicious breakfast awaits with an even better view. To us it was very special to have the feeling that you have the castle almost to yourself. In the evening the castle was beautifully lit, and in the morning we've enjoyed a short walk along the moat while overlooking the landscape and the grazing sheep.
After the above mentioned wonderful dinner at Bistoria at Kerckebosch Castle, we only needed to take the stairs to our hotel room for a great night's sleep. We would have loved to stay longer here, because the room was spacious, had large windows on two sides and as icing on the cake we had our own private terrace/balcony. To us, it really felt like a mini vacation to stay in such a calm and green environment. Lastly, in the morning a tasty (vegetarian) breakfast with fresh bread awaited us in the conservatory. Couldn't have wished for a better ending to this trip!
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Please note: we were invited for this press trip by Visit Netherlands.