Rebuilding castles in the air

fairytale fixture

Rebuilding castles in the air

One of the most fascinating aspects of travel is visiting centuries-old monuments and buildings and seeing them as they must have looked and functioned in the hoary past. But this is possible only if the ancient structures have been preserved in all their glory.

It takes concerted effort on the part of government authorities to restore and maintain old palaces, forts and castles that have fallen to ruin over the centuries. Effort not just in allocating funds, but also in researching, scientifically restructuring and authentically rebuilding the ruins, in order to recreate the look and spirit of the original, so that it can live on for posterity.

We recently came upon a centuries-old structure in an East European country that can be described as a marvel in restoration. It is the Trakai Castle in Lithuania, a country that lies just north of Poland. A medieval castle built on Lake Galve, Trakai Island Castle was first built in the late 14th century to serve as the seat of Prince Kestutis. At this point, the castle was of a Romanesque design, featuring stone as the main building material, with very thick walls, semi-circular arches and decorative arcading.

After the castle was burnt down and the prince murdered, his son became the Grand Duke Vytautas and began to rebuild the castle, changing the layout into the quadrangular structure that stands today. More stories were added, as were wooden galleries and cellars, a drawbridge and guard house, a chapel on the fourth floor and defensive structures on the fifth. With the changing styles of architecture in Eastern Europe, it had Gothic features, but the older Romanesque style remained noticeable. The floor was laid with clay tiles and the cellars had a beaten clay floor. The great hall was particularly decorative with stained glass windows and fresco secco wall paintings and polychrome decorations of the type used in pottery at that time. The walls were painted in the Byzantine provincial style, typical of the early 15th century, and the main theme was praise for Grand Duke Vytautas and his courtiers.

It was after the death of the grand duke in 1430 that the castle began to fall into disarray and was rebuilt in the Renaissance style, thus rendering the superstructure with progressive architectural styles over the centuries. Following the war years, in the late 18th century, the castle completely fell into ruin, but it was not until 1822 that a few concerned people began to draw public attention to the importance of restoring its original beauty.

It was in 1888 that the Imperial Archaeological Commission initiated steps to preserve the castle. A team of experts put on the job included a photographer, a sketch master, an engineer and a statistician. Their job was to ensure that the medieval castle was restored with authenticity, its various building styles kept intact  and the materials used for the process be as close to the original as possible.

A major part of the restoration work, including interior brickwork, stained glass, wall frescoes and polychrome decorations was carried out with faithful adherence to authenticity, going to the extent of casting red Gothic bricks and clay tiles in kilns specially constructed like the originals, ribs of vaults edged with narrow filets of pierced stone as in the Romanesque period and the chapel restored with its fine brick arches, multi-coloured stone walls and wall paintings.

In 1962, the palace became home to the Trakai History Museum. After restoration work ended in 1987, the Museum extended its exhibition space, and displayed the famous sketches by artists, which had first excited public interest in restoration work, pieces of art, artefacts, coins and costumes of the bygone era. It also presented an integral picture of the castle’s history.

The Trakai Castle, as it stands today, appears to be a fairytale castle floating in the middle of a lake. It is when you cross the drawbridge and enter the stone courtyard that you get a strong sensation of entering a medieval fortification. You can almost hear the neigh of horses as they prepare for a hunt, the bugles from the ramparts on the roof, the sputter of oxen being roasted on the kitchen spits and the clatter of shoes on the wooden galleries.

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