Dutch Castles and Country Houses

Cheese, yes; Clogs, yes; Tulips, yes; Windmills, yes; Castles – really? Yes, Castles! Castles were not what Anna Hyman had expected to find on a recent visit to The Netherlands – one of her favourite destinations and one she thought she knew quite well.

But why should there not be castles in The Netherlands – throughout the world, and for centuries, fortified buildings have been built for defence, and to signify status and wealth. The Netherlands is no exception. It actually boasts some 700 castles and magnificent country houses.

Many of the country houses date back to the 17th century and were built not by the nobility but by wealthy Dutch merchants wanting to escape the noise, bustle and dirt of city life. A number of those houses, along with several castles, now offer refuge for visitors who are also eager to escape the noise, dirt and rush of city life.

Loevestein Castle

Loevestein Castle really looks like castle, and a very impressive one, complete with moats and bastions. It sits at the confluence of the rivers Meuse and Waal in Gelderland in the middle of an idyllically pretty pastoral and watery nature reserve which calls out to be explored.

Originally built by a knight in the mid-14th century to collect tolls from passing river traffic Loevestein evolved over the years into a massive defence fortress, which in time also served as a state prison.

One of its most famous prisoners was Hugo Grotius, a scholar sentenced to life imprisonment. Periodically books would be delivered to him in large wooden chests. The guards became so accustomed to the heavy chests being taken in and out of the castle they stopped searching them. This gave Grotius’s wife the idea that this might be the way of smuggling her husband out of prison. It worked. Hidden in a chest he made his get-away and settled in France.

Loevestein is a great place to visit; costumed guides are on hand to tell the castle’s fascinating story, and there are special keys which unlock and reveal all sorts of attractions.

Along with the fortress the houses where the soldiers lived can also be visited. A Scottish army division was stationed here in the 18th century and in one of the rooms are charming murals depicting their Scottish country dancing.

There is also a very good tea room, and B&B accommodation is available for anybody wanting to stay in the fortress.

Landgoed Hotel Groot Warnsborn

A few minutes’ drive from Arnhem is Landgoed Hotel Groot Warnsborn, originally a family country house. The estate dates back to 1669, but the present building is of a more recent build following a disastrous fire at the end of the Second World War. Today it is a luxurious hotel conveniently handy for visiting the stunning Kröller Müller Museum but also worthy of being a destination in its own right.

Both the public and bedrooms are stylish, comfortable plush, and the food served in the restaurant was delicious. Breakfast was good too and what a treat to be able to enjoy honey from a honeycomb.

Outside is a beautifully landscaped formal Dutch Garden complete with Orangery, and beyond them 750 hectares of woodland waiting to be explored by foot or bike. Crayfish swim in the streams, several species of bats have taken over the old ice cellar, and there’s also the largest burial mound in NW Europe.

In 1941 Anne Frank sent a postcard to her grandmother – ‘Isn’t it lovely here’ she wrote. It still is.

Huis Middachten

About 20km from Groot Warnsborn is elegant Huis Middachten and estate. It dates back 800 years and has been owned by the same family for 25 generations.

The house we approached as we crossed the moat was built at the end of the 17th century, on the site of the original medieval castle. It is built in the Dutch classical style – a simpler, less flamboyant style than the castles and palaces found in other parts of Europe.

The current owner Duke Graaf zu Ortenburg was actually waiting for a visitor the day of our visit, but he had a little time to spare so took us round the house.

As we toured he told us its history, its occupants and visitors. William of Orange visited several times, Emperor Wilhelm II stayed awhile, and more recently so has Queen Beatrix and her husband.

I was enchanted by the main staircase with its magnificent plastered dome, and the grandeur, yet comfort, of the main rooms; but lovely as they were it was the below-stairs that fascinated me most; the massive black lead range, the gleaming copper moulds and familiar utensils.

In order to fortify ourselves for touring the extensive gardens we adjourned to the Orangery tea room for some excellent coffee and cake.

Fortified we set off to admire the formal lawns, herbaceous borders and herb garden. A magnificent old cedar of Lebanon and ginkgo biloba trees add to the charm of the grounds along with a ‘green’ open-air theatre sheltered by yew hedges where concerts and performances take place. The grounds are immaculate thanks to the many hours of work from the staff of 13 gardeners plus the team of enthusiastic volunteers.

The grounds are open to the public Sunday to Friday during the summer, and the house Sunday afternoons in July and August, but do check the website. Incidentally Middachten also offers B&B accommodation in some converted servants’ rooms above the coach house.

Landgoed Hotel Rhederoord

In spite of coffee and cake, lunch was much on our minds as we drove up to Landdgoed Hotel Rhederoord.

This property is an example of a 17th century merchant’s country house. A business man living in Arnhem bought up acres of land, but didn’t live long enough to build his mansion. Nevertheless a few years later a house was built – a house with stunning views over the Ijssel valley.

Unfortunately our hoped for meal on the terrace enjoying the view never materialised; rain put paid to that.

But the lunch in the hotel was excellent. The ingredients are chiefly organic, from local produce – much of it from the estate.

Don’t leave without trying their own blond beer brewed with spring water from 159 metres deep on the estate – they also bottle the water calling it Water 159.

Kasteel De Haar

Close to Utrecht and looking like a genuine fairy tale castle with its towers, ramparts and moat set in glorious grounds is Kasteel de Haar. De Haar is the largest castle in the Netherlands, and also one of the most famous. As castles go it is not that old – though there has been a castle on the site since 1391.

In 1887 Baron Etienne van Zuylen van Nijevelt, who had inherited the ruined castle, married Hélène de Rothschild. They set about a massive restoration scheme which took some 20 years, during which time the couple set off travelling to many far flung corners of the globe buying antiques and works of art – anything that caught their eye. They planned in many respects to make the castle a living museum!

The couple owned many other properties so De Haar was rarely lived in, but once a year chiefly for the month of September they visited, and with them their friends and celebrities of the day – Coco Chanel, Maria Callas, Gregory Peck, Roger Moore, Yves Saint Laurent, Joan Collins and Brigitte Bardot amongst many others.

No expense was spared for their lavish house parties.

The castle has 200 rooms and 30 bathrooms.

Whilst the interior and its décor and contents might not be to everybody’s taste, from its basement to its attics, from the kitchens to the bathrooms, and not forgetting the servants’ quarters, it is both stunning and fascinating.

It glows with colour from the opulent velvets and satins, the tapestries and stained glass windows; and the huge, ornate minstrel gallery is breath taking.

A ferry home but one last castle

There was time for one last castle before driving back to the ferry port to catch our DFDS ferry to Dover.

We had realised ages ago that the cost of an extra £12 per person to unwind and relax in the welcome and comfort of the ship’s Premium Lounge was well worth the money.

With a glass of fizz, fresh fruit, pastries, newspapers and tea and coffee on hand it was. But before catching the ferry back to the UK we had one last night in a castle. This time Kasteel Kerckebosch at Zeist.

Kasteel Kerckebosch

Like de Haar, Kasteel Kerckebosch is also comparatively modern, having been built as a country house in 1904. It’s been a hotel since 1945.

It has a slightly Gothic aspect, and with its large stained glass window it gives the impression that it might have been a church or monastery at one stage.

It wasn’t, but some of the artefacts etc did come from monasteries and churches or other old buildings.

Rest assured there is nothing old fashioned about this stylish and supremely comfortable and welcoming hotel with its gorgeous bowls of flowers and jars of sweets on the reception desk, big fireplaces with blazing log fires, comfy chairs and bedrooms.

Meals are served in a modern style conservatory – which houses both an à la carte restaurant and a more casual bistoria (as they call it – a combination of trattoria and bistro).

We ate in the bistoria choosing a selection of smaller dishes, all of them delicious. By walking slowly down the corridor to the restaurant with its ‘indoor herb garden’ I could glimpse the team of chefs at work in their open plan kitchen – fascinating.

Owners are Ingmar Sloothaak, Front of House, and Chef Patron Hans van Triest. They had heard that the hotel was looking for new management and jumped at the opportunity acquiring it in 2015 and immediately began major renovations. It has certainly been given a new lease of life and identity.

There are many splendid hotels in the Netherlands offering great food and hospitality – but thank goodness amongst them are so many fascinating castles and country houses. Proost.

More Information

Netherlands Tourist Board:

DFDS Ferries: In the UK, DFDS Ferries operates passenger ferry services on routes from Dover to Calais, Dover to Dunkirk, Newcastle to Amsterdam and Newhaven to Dieppe.

They currently operate up to 54 sailings a day between Dover and France on the Dover-Dunkirk and Dover-Calais routes. DFDS also offers two daily sailings between Newcastle and Amsterdam. There is also a passenger and freight service Newhaven to Dieppe, with four daily sailings operated by Transmanche Ferries.

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