A medieval fake, majestic Kasteel de Haar

Think ‘class system’, and you’ll likely think of Britain, with its obsessive classifications of social status and increasingly fragile social mobility. Yet, according to a diplomatic corps insider here in The Hague, ‘class’ is very much alive and well in Dutch society. The Netherlands, a country renowned for its Calvinist frugality, is not a place you’d imagine to be stratified along lines of class. Perceptions can be misleading apparently.

A visit to the extraordinary Kasteel de Haar brings you face-to-face with the Dutch aristocracy. As if anticipating that very observation, the castle’s own website states: “You will be amazed at the very un-Dutch luxury in which the Van Zuylen family and their guests lived amidst a wealth of history and art.” It’s certainly a very different Netherlands that you encounter once inside the grounds of this sumptuous place.

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar looks and feels like the perfect medieval castle. There are towers, turrets, drawbridges and a moat, but a little like the deception of a classless society, it too is a fake. There was a castle here in medieval times, and the current castle is built on its foundations, but the building you see so elegantly reflected in the moated waters is almost wholly from the 19th century.

The original castle dates from the late 14th century, when it was in the hands of the De Haar family. In 1440, the De Haar’s ran out of male heirs and it passed to the Van Zuylen family. In the 18th century the castle was only rarely lived in and had little military importance, and it fell into disrepair. In which state it remained until inherited in 1890 by Etienne Gustave Frédéric Baron van Zuylen van Nyevelt van de Haar (try saying after a couple of glasses of Jenever).

Over twenty-years, between 1892 and 1912, the castle was rebuilt. It took no less an architect than Pierre Cuypers (who built Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and Centraal Station) to complete the job. It also took a small fortune to finance the rebuilding. Conveniently, Baron van Zuylen was married to an heir of the Rothschild banking dynasty, Baroness Hélène de Rothschild. Presumably money wasn’t an issue.

Inconveniently, when the castle was in ruins the village of Haarzuilens had grown up in the area surrounding it. Having a village on his doorstep was definitely not in Baron van Zuylen’s plans. Haarzuilens was demolished and rebuilt a kilometre away, making space for Kasteel de Haar’s picturesque formal gardens in its place. The only building that remains is the former village church.

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

The castle has been owned and managed by the Foundation Kasteel de Haar since 2000, but the family still have rooms for when they’re in residence. The interior of the castle, which you can visit independently or on a tour, has an odd collection of genuine medieval tapestries, paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, and all the mod-cons of the early 20th century. They make for strange bedfellows.

Not many rooms in the castle are open to the public, but it still gives you a sense of the lifestyle of the owners. As do the photos of the parties that were held here. Over the years guests have included, rather improbably, a mixture of European aristocracy, American high society and a range of celebrities – Joan Collins, Coco Chanel, Roger Moore and Yves Saint Laurent to name but a few.

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

Kasteel de Haar, Netherlands

The interior doesn’t take long to look around, which leaves more time for wandering the pleasant grounds and drinking in the majestic vistas across the countryside or towards the castle … just try to block out the fact that an entire village was demolished to create those vistas.

Medieval Slot Loevestein

Sitting strategically at the confluence of the Waal and Maas (Meuse) Rivers, the moated medieval castle of Slot Loevestein is a beautiful sight glimpsed between the trees. The first castle to stand here was built between 1357 and 1368; it has been added to over the centuries until the building that you see today emerged in the 16th century. It evokes the era of chivalry like little else I’ve seen in the Netherlands.

Castle Loevestein aerial view, Netherlands (courtesy of dogsfamilypark.blogspot.nl)

Castle Loevestein aerial view, Netherlands (courtesy of dogsfamilypark.blogspot.nl)

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

After a morning in the fortified town of Gorinchem, which sits downstream on the opposite bank of the Waal, I took a boat to reach Slot Loevestein. As we powered out into mid-river, a Dutch man started chatting to me. He told me that my fellow passengers were refugees from Syria, who’d braved the sea crossing to reach Greece before finding safety in the Netherlands.

His wife was teaching them Dutch to help their integration. There were two families, with young children, and this was the first boat they’d been on since they’d risked their lives to escape the brutal war in Syria. They were enjoying themselves enormously, and I couldn’t help but think that for every piece of hateful anti-immigrant, anti-muslim propaganda, there were good people doing good deeds. It was an uplifting encounter.

Woudrichem from the river en route to Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Woudrichem from the river en route to Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Woudrichem from the river en route to Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Woudrichem from the river en route to Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

In the medieval period, whoever controlled Slot Loevestein controlled both the Mass and the Waal Rivers, as well as swathes of the countryside around this area. This allowed the castle’s owners to extract tolls from ships, a very lucrative business. Its early owner, for which it’s still named, was Dirc Loef van Horne, who was granted the castle and lands by Count Willem V of Holland.

In the aristocratic politics of the medieval Europe, the castle saw sieges and battles, and changed hands several times as the fortunes of its owners fluctuated. Things got even more exciting during The Dutch Rebellion in 16th century, when the castle and the nearby fortified towns of Gorinchem and Woudrichem were critical to wrestling control of the Lowlands from the Spanish.

The Dutch Rebellion is also regarded as part of the larger religious wars that erupted across Europe following the Reformation. In 1570, the religious wars came to Slot Loevestein during an extraordinary incident involving eight Calvinists who gained access to the castle dressed as Catholic monks. Once inside they killed the defenders loyal to King Philip II of Spain and waited for reinforcements.

Reinforcements never came and the Spanish retook the castle shortly afterwards. The fate of those Dutch rebels who survived the assault was grim. Many were broken on the rack before being beheaded, while the corpse of the Dutch leader, Herman de Ruijter, was burned and beheaded posthumously. The castle fell to the Dutch once again in 1572 and would never be under Spanish control again.

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Dutch medieval castle, Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

While Slot Loevestein remained an important military outpost with a garrison and a large gunpowder store, it also became a prison in the 17th century and was home to numerous ‘enemies of the state’, particularly religious dissidents. Most famously, it became the prison for Hugo de Groot and his family – famous because Groot escaped the prison by hiding in a book chest and being carried to freedom inside it.

As military technology evolved, Slot Loevestein became obsolete for anything other than storage or as a prison, but it stayed in military hands until 1952. Today it’s in private hands and is a popular destination for tourists. The day I arrived it was hosting an antiques fair which filled the grounds surrounding the castle. One of the stalls was selling old regional maps of Britain, including one of the place I went to school.

Antiques fair at Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Antiques fair at Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Antiques fair at Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Antiques fair at Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Antiques fair at Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Antiques fair at Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Antiques fair at Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

Antiques fair at Slot Loevestein, Netherlands

The castle is part of the excellent Museumkaart scheme, which meant it was free and I was given the ‘Keys to the Kingdom’, an electronic key that gives access to the museum and triggers numerous digital information points around the castle. It’s a great idea, especially if you’re a child … which all adult males become when walking around a medieval castle.